Wesley’s Covenant Prayer – Several people in their tweets and blog posts referenced Wesley’s Covenant Prayer when discussing the end of Guaranteed Appointments. The line that was continually used was “let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee.” What I find weird is that people are using a prayer to God to talk about Guaranteed Appointments. Most pastors I know would buy whole heartily into the Covenant Prayer. We want to be employed by God or laid aside if that is God’s preferred will.
It seems painfully obvious, but it needs to be said: bishops and district superintendents are not God. I have no doubt that in the appointment process the bishop and the cabinet are trying hard to discern God’s will. Sometimes though, I imagine, they make mistakes. As United Methodists, we are not Calvinists. We believe we can make decisions against God’s preferred will. It is the downside of free will. It is possible that some appointments are not God’s will. Some decisions by the bishop and the cabinet are possibly not God’s preferred will. Using the Covenant Prayer when talking about appointments blurs the two.
Itinerancy – One thing peculiar about the United Methodist system is itinerancy. Pastors are appointed to a church on a yearly basis. Each year, a pastor could be appointed to a new church. The bishop and the cabinet can send the pastor, at least theoretically, to any place in the conference based on their discernment. A pastor could be sent to a healthy congregation, a struggling congregation, a dead an decaying congregation, a “clergy killer” congregation, and the pastor often only has limited say in the situation. Too often, the bishop and the district superintendent only have a vague understanding of what is really going on in the life of the church. Pastors are often sent into contexts that are not going to produce immediate fruit.
When we had guaranteed appointments, this arrangement seemed fair. We can send you anywhere, but we will have your back. You might be sent into a difficult situation, but that will not hurt your future employability. Now it seems less fair. We can send you anywhere, even a context that does not match your gifts and graces. After a period of time, we might decide that you are ineffective and not give you an appointment. Or we see that you are not producing fruit. We then realize we have too many elders. So for missional reasons we will not appoint you. Yes, there are checks and balances. Still, will someone stand up for you if you appeal? Will people be afraid to stand up and risk that they might be the next person not to be appointed for missional reasons? Who wants to appoint a gad fly?
Theology – I have been reading the book Bad Religion and was surprised to read that the Roman Catholic church came to a point in the 20th century when they would not release priests from their ordination vows. It seemed interesting that once a person was ordained, they were expected to keep the gift of ordination their whole lives. The gift could not be returned. It raises the question what does it mean to be ordained? Does ordination require mutual responsibility?
Now I realize that ordination is a sacrament in the Roman Catholic church, but is not one in the United Methodist Church. I also realize that we are really bad at theology in the United Methodist Church. I believe we do not articulate our theology a whole lot any more in the life of the church. Too often we let competing theologies into our hymnal, our worship supplements (I am looking at you Worship and Song), our Sunday school lessons, and small groups. I cannot tell you how many times I saw people get United Methodist theology wrong on Twitter (I realize Twitter might not be the church at its best). One person said something like “I did not realize that prevenient grace has become preventing grace.” It was in the context of a debate where the person thought grace was being lost. I wanted to ask the person on Twitter, have you read Wesley? He did not use the term prevenient grace, it was preventing grace. I know what the person meant, but it was painful to read. People talked about social holiness as if it was social justice. For the record it is not. Wesley’s understanding of social holiness is different than our modern understanding of social justice.
As a church we need a better theology about ordination. What does it mean to get ordained? How does it relate to the larger church? Why can a non-ordianed person preside over the sacraments? If deacons are ordained, why are they excluded from presiding over the sacraments? If the church affirms that a person is set apart for ordained ministry, what does it mean that we can exit them from the ministry for reasons beyond ineffectiveness (if we believe there is some mutual responsibility in ordination)?
Recruiting – Eliminating Guaranteed Appointments may have unintended consequences. We say we want young clergy. One way we get young clergy is for pastors to be prayerfully looking out for children and youth with the gifts and graces for ministry. I have heard many call stories of pastors. Most of them involve a pastor inviting a person to think about how God might be calling the person into ordained ministry. As pastors lose job security by the loss of guaranteed appointments, I know I will have second thoughts about inviting children and youth to think about ministry in the United Methodist system. A life of itinerancy seems fair when coupled with guaranteed appointments. If you give the system your best, the system will not abandon you. The BOD had a way to deal with ineffective pastors. A system where people communicated well and resolved conflicts would not have ineffective pastors. How can I ask in good conscious a person to devote their life to a system that might chew them up and then spit them out when that is what is expedient? How we live into this new reality of life without guaranteed appointments might have unintended consequences in terms of pastors recruiting the next generation of pastors.
When do we hit rock bottom? – Every time we cut the pastors compensation, I wonder where is rock bottom? Since I have started ministry (it has only been five years), we have increased the pastors contributions to our health insurance plan twice. Our conference has downgraded the quality of our health insurance plan. General Conference just decreased our future pension benefits (and to be fair they could have voted for more of a decrease).
Now I realize churches are struggling. The charge I serve is severely struggling. I realize that most employees are being asked to sacrifice more and more. We all do what we have to do. Yet, with the loss of job security, on top of the trend of ever declining overall compensation, at what point does it no longer make sense to be involved in ordained ministry in the UMC? Each pastor will have a different answer. Ordained ministry in the UMC is not the only way to live out one’s call to ministry in the world.
How disposable are pastors? – One trend in the business world that really bothers me is how disposable employees are. If a business wants to sure up profits in the short-term, employees are often seen as disposable. I remember reading in my senior year of high school Rethinking America. Part of the author’s premise was that we should think about our employees differently in America. We should invest in them in the long term and stand by them in difficult times. The author lifted up Geremany and Japan as models. Now no one is currently lifting up Japan as a model for anything, but I think he was right about employees.
Here in the United States we are ever increasingly externalizing the costs of everything by making employees pick up the extra burden so that consumers do not have to. It seems like we are doing that in the church as we race to the bottom in terms of compensation. Now with the loss of guaranteed appointments, we are externalizing the problems and responsibilities of ministry onto the pastors. What I mean is that if there are too many elders and not enough appointments, we will now withhold appointment for missional reasons. Does it matter what the pastor has done for us in the past? Not inherently. Does it matter that the person has sacrificed to serve the church? Not really. Does it matter that God has called them into ministry and the church has affirmed that call by ordaining them? Apparently not.
There are always multiple ways to deal with problems. By making pastors bear the full brunt of these problems, we are treating pastors like they are disposable. We are adopting the worst practices of the business world. Pastors are becoming just one more cog in a machine bent on the perpetuation of the status quo. If the cog no longer is needed, we dispose of it.
Some are talking about all of this in terms of the church’s needs versus pastors needs. As if pastors are just parasites and that the whole system is designed around the needs of the pastors. Hence all this talk about missional appointments. We are framing it so that if you argue for guaranteed appointments you are putting the needs of the pastor above the congregations. It is all more complicated than that. Arguing for a fair system that treats pastors like they have some value and are not disposable, is not saying that the needs of the pastor come above the church. Our system of appointments is not perfect. As a church we have not arrived at perfection. There is a strong possibility that for a variety of reasons beyond ineffectiveness, pastors who could be effective in the right context, will be exited from ministry. I just pray that we are not treated like we are disposable. I hope we are treated as children of God who have felt God’s call on their lives and are trying, by the grace of God, to live out that call.
In the public domain.