Today the United Methodist Church radically changed how pastors are sent to local congregations. The worldwide church body called General Conference ended the ages long practice of guaranteed appointments in which ordained elders are guaranteed full time employment as long as they go where their bishop sends them. This is, of course, an oversimplification of the process, but that is the basic agreement. Pastors may be sent anywhere within the episcopal area (in my area, that is the state of Washington and parts of Idaho) for one year at a time, although rarely does a pastor remain for only one year. In turn, every ordained elder is guaranteed a place to go. The assumption in recent years is that this guarantee or "entitlement," as some have put it, has become a drive to mediocrity and our clergy are simply underperforming.
Proponents of ending guaranteed appointments have framed the conversation as a choice between "entitlement to full time work" or "effectiveness." We can't, they state, have both. I want to put an end to this fallacy. The guarantee is not an entitlement, a word that I believe has been chosen to elicit negative emotions from people who think ill of social entitlements. Entitlement seems to indicate a gift to which a person has contributed nothing. I know that this is not what the word actually means, but I believe it has been used on purpose for this reason. Yet, this is not the case. Clergy agree to itinerate in return for the appointment. Moreover, clergy also agree to a whole evaluative process that could include involuntary leave should they be found ineffective. The guaranteed appointment is not an entitlement. It is not an unearned gift; it is part of a larger agreement - in church speak, we call it a covenant.
Effectiveness, these same people maintain, has been driven into the ground by the taken for grantedness of our positions. Effectiveness, which can be measured by metrics, must be measured in our pastors with only the effective ones sent to our churches. Like every other United Methodist, I want our congregations served by only the best clergy - smart, outgoing, administratively aware, liturgically proficient, evangelistic, visionary, prayerful, pastoral, prophetic, and connectional. Of course, we thrive in some of these categories more than in others, but we should be able to do all of them with a reasonable degree of skillfulness. Where I begin to have a problem is at the point that we directly correlate church growth with effectiveness and we tie the guarantee to the loss of church growth.
We live in the death throes (some would say after the death throes) of Christendom. If every United Methodist pastor could preach with the fervor of John Wesley, heal with the mastery of Jesus, sing with the voice of Miriam, envision with the eye of Jacob, witness with the power of Mary, evangelize with the commitment of Paul, and organize with the strong hand of Peter, we would never recover our identity in Christendom. And, God bless us for it. Christendom was a horrible pairing of government and religion. It was an imperial manifestation of something wholly anti-imperial - God's kingdom. We must, with clarity and compassion, close churches that need closing, make strategic plans about where new churches need planting, and creatively envision a multitude of ways for us to embody "church." It is time for us to focus on growing a strong, deep, and mature faith in our congregations and let go of reclaiming the hegemony of a time gone by. Mourn it. And, let it go, people.
Next, we live into this newly forming world learning how to be deeply committed to our identity, alive in sharing our gospel, joyful about life in God, and prophetic about a world that is just and compassionate. This will result in some large congregations, many small congregations, and newly emerging communities which may strain the understanding of what "congregation" means.
What do we do with clergy who simply don't perform well? First of all, we shouldn't ordain them. Year after year, I sit in clergy sessions when we pass people through who are clearly lovely and sweet and beautiful but not gifted for ordained ministry. As much as we want a big tent, there are some things a pastor must be able to do - relate with people across difference, preside over a service with grace and gravity, talk to people outside of the church without condemnation and with invitation, and so on. Some of us good book reading pastors are not suited to the relational life of a pastor. Conversely, some of our more extroverted pastors have entered this profession as failed performers rather than as clergy. Don't argue. You know it's true. There are stop gaps at the front end of ordination that we could and should employ to keep us true to the sacred act of ordaining people who will care for our congregations, mediate the sacraments, and tend to our communities. For those times that we wind up ordaining people who seemed competent at their ordination but who haven't proven this promise true, we have processes for helping them exit ministry.
In Para 350 of the Book of Discipline, it maintains that "Evaluation is a continuous process for formation in servant ministry and servant leadership that must take place in a spirit of understanding and acceptance. Evaluation serves as a process for pastors to assess their effectiveness in ministry and to discern God's call to continue in ordained ministry." Right there, annual evaluations should help local pastors discern effectiveness and determine whether God still calls them to continue in ordained ministry. For those in need, further education may be required. For those in need, they can take a "leave of absence," whether that be voluntary of involuntary. Involuntary leaves may be the result of a complaint process. The complaint process, while it includes all of the things most people assume (theft, sexual abuse, etc), can also include an "administrative complaint" - "If the bishop determines that the complaint is based on allegations of incompetence, ineffectiveness, or unwillingness or inability to perform ministerial duties, he or she shall refer the complaint as an administrative complaint to the board of ordained ministry for its consideration of remedial or other action" (Para 362.2).
So, we have processes already in our system for dealing with ineffectiveness, why end the guaranteed appointment? Because we don't avail ourselves of these processes. We have fostered an avoidant culture. Rather than dealing with this avoidant culture, we create another process, which will not work either unless we are willing to take a look at who, why, and how we ordain in the first place.
It may surprise many that I am not opposed to ending guaranteed appointments. I contend, however, that in getting rid of the guarantee, we should also get rid of the appointment system. There is nothing wrong with a call system, especially one with episcopal input like the one used by Lutherans. The bishop supplies the congregation with a short list of names of clergy who might fit their missional profile. They interview and select from that list. It's a collaborative process that would fit our connectional system nicely. However, doing away with the guarantee and keeping the appointment process strains an already strained process and attempts to 'fix' something not fixable. The guarantee is not the reason for our shrinking membership roles, although mediocre pastors may play a part. Mediocrity and guaranteed appointments do not go hand in hand, and, thus, comes the lie of the choice made at General Conference: Effectiveness or Entitlement.
*Others have raised the alarm on things like congregational resistance to minority clergy, the prophetic voice, and so on. I chose not to deal with these because I think my argument is even more foundational. The choice needn't have been made at all.
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