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The photo is from UMNS and is of GC2012’s guaranteed appointment debate, altered by the author.

by Chris Ritter

The United Methodist News Service announced General Conference 2016 will be another round in the fight over guaranteed appointments in the United Methodist Church.  According to the article, the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders will make a repeat attempt to enact the elimination of guaranteed appointment for United Methodist clergy elders. Legislation that passed at GC2012 was struck down on constitution grounds by the Judicial Council who said that it would “destroy our historic plan of itinerant superintendency.”

As our conference lay leaders try again, they are responding to a reality that is widely acknowledged in the UMC.  Our system that provides a guaranteed job for any ordained elder in good standing has fostered the build-up of “dead wood” in our clergy pool.  We have many pastors who are no longer effective and don’t find means or motivation to become effective.  This slow motion leadership crisis is seen as a major contributing factor to our U.S. denominational decline.

The effort to eliminate guaranteed appointments has never faced as high a hurdle as it does today.  Now that Judicial Council has made its sweeping ruling, any change to this system of clergy deployment would require General Conference 2016 to achieve super-majority passage and for annual conferences around the globe to hold ratification votes. This seems unlikely in a system so inclined to protecting clergy entitlements.  The part of the constitution that would need amending is a restrictive rule cited in countless judicial decisions and it would be difficult to quantify the implications of such a change.

I have been a long-time supporter of ending “security of appointment” (as it is called by its supporters).  I agree with voices like Drew McIntyre who says that guarantees of appointment are a relic from a bygone age when our church culture and situation was very different than it is today.  Today, we need to encourage fresh approaches to leadership much more than we need to provide stability to our clergy.  In spite of my general support for making the ranks of the clergy easier to enter and easier to exit, I now think there is a better way to address the issue.

Go ahead and keep guaranteed appointments.  Doing away with them will be a lot of trouble and provide no guarantee of a systemic change in the culture of our annual conferences.  There are already mechanisms in place to exit ineffective clergy.  They are seldom used because they are unpleasant and there is not much motivation on the part of conferences for doing so.  (Using those we already have and know is easier than litigious and divisive supervisory processes.)

However, annual conferences will be forced to reform themselves if we stopped guaranteeing them protected territory.  Annual conferences do not do a better job of policing the effectiveness of their clergy because they don’t have to.  The churches within their territory have nowhere to go.

United Methodist congregations should be free to join any annual conference that they feel can do a better job of equipping them for a fruitful future.  Conference lines should be allowed to overlap in those places where that might be helpful.  Annual conferences should be free to operate anywhere they feel they can be effective.

This “Open Borders” concept is based on Five Rules I wrote to get us toward a “flatter” and more fruitful UMC:

  1. Annual conference lines may overlap.
  2. Local churches may join any annual conference willing to take them (as verified by the cabinet) upon a super-majority vote of the church conference.
  3. U.S. annual conferences may join any jurisdiction they wish and reconsider this decision once every four years.
  4. Jurisdictions may adapt the ministry rules of the Book of Discipline (chargeable offenses, marriage standards, etc) upon a 2/3 majority vote.
  5. Jurisdictions that fall below a certain number would be dissolved and their constituent annual conferences would join other jurisdictions of their choosing.

These five rules were written to solve our homosexuality crisis, and I think they accomplish that.  But I highlight here that they also provide an effective work-around to our guaranteed appointment conundrum.  The pastor is guaranteed an appointment but the conference is not guaranteed a church to which to appoint him/her.

Why would a congregation seek to leave its annual conference?  There are many reasons.  Perhaps they are in a metro area served predominantly by another conference and they would like to better coordinate with neighboring UMC’s.  Maybe the clergy pool of another conference is more effective or better equipped.  Maybe another conference is a better ideological match or better organized to help churches achieve a turnaround.  Or maybe another conference simply does their job more efficiently and offers a bigger bang for a congregation’s apportionment bucks.

If a conference is losing congregations to other UM conferences, it will be forced to take measures to eliminate the surplus clergy that they no longer can place.  If they hope for turnaround, they will need to eliminate the ineffective clergy through the means currently available.  Active clergy would become overt stakeholders in the success of their conference.  Growing conferences could strategically recruit new clergy that will help them maintain a vital leadership pool equipped to grow local churches.

Conference will always have a home field advantage in the territory they have traditionally served.  They have camps, institutions, and resources designed to serve their corner of the world.  But would it not be healthy for conferences to be required to justify their existence to their constituent congregations?  If a conference is not getting done the job of equipping churches to make disciples, shouldn’t another conference have a chance?

We already have overlapping conferences in the UMC in the case of missionary conferences.  We should expand on this.  Otherwise, our only means of addressing the decline of our U.S. annual conferences is to merge them with other failing conferences.  This is a strategy that has been often used but has never yielded a turnaround.  Economist Don House predicts there will only be 17 U.S.annual conferences by 2050 under present polity and demographic trends. Would it not be better for the future of the UMC to allow our healthy systems to gradually overtake our unhealthy ones?  Jurisdictions, which are also no longer bound by their traditional borders under my plan, could adopt or start provisional conferences anywhere in the U.S.

The concept of “Open Borders” is built into a major proposal before General Conference 2016 called The Organic Jurisdictional Solution.  I encourage you to read it over and commend it to the attention of your General Conference delegations.  You will notice that there are rules of fair play included that make transitions orderly for annual conferences.

We say in our Book of Discipline that that the annual conference is the primary unit of our church and that the local church is the primary sphere in which ministry happens.  Any plan that hopes to meaningfully reform our church must touch upon the interplay of these vital structures.  I hope we stop fighting over guaranteed appointments and start advocating for open borders.