Editor’s Note: Rick Van Giesen recently retired as the Treasurer & Benefits Officer of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the UMC. As a “former insider,” he has a unique perspective into what works and doesn’t work in our present system. I asked Rick for the privilege of posting his ideas. I disagree with a few of his points. I hope, for instance, that we end up with an episcopacy. I have some differing ideas about clergy deployment, but I believe Rick names some important factors. I would also point out that Rick is talking about what is needed for a U.S. context only. What our African brothers and sisters need in their contexts will be different. (The continuation of the General Board of Global Ministries is important for Africa and global connectionism.) These things having been said, consider these new visions for United Methodism with an open heart and mind.

by Rick Van Giesen

In a recent conversation with a retired pastor/friend regarding what might come out of the 2020 General Conference, the conversation turned toward what (as a former insider) I felt were shortcomings in the administrative paradigms of the United Methodist Church – which may have contributed to the failure of the UMC to achieve its missional priorities. He said, “Nobody is talking about this! You should write this stuff down!” And so, I have begun.

Why Administration is Important

From my perspective, it seems like most of the debate thus far has revolved around Theology, Biblical interpretation, sexual practices, societal pressures, and – well – politics. These are all valid topics of discussion. They will build the foundation of what keeps us together or what tears us apart. But the administration of the church provides an expression of the foundational doctrines. Although the Apostle Paul describes “administration” as a Spiritual Gift (I Cor. 12:18), others might describe it as a curse, especially if administration is practiced badly. Sadly, administrators have a bad habit of protecting their jobs, sometimes to the detriment of the Mission. I well remember that whenever legislation was proposed that might eliminate jobs (on the General, Jurisdictional and Annual Conference levels) some administrators would circle the legislative committees with great concern. It seemed to me that the “Prime Directive” became: ‘Keep Your Job.’ The Word of hope is that the Gift of Administration in First Corinthians is mentioned immediately before the ‘Love Chapter.’ Administration can be a powerful tool if it’s practiced with Love and everything that is done is done for the Mission.

What Do You Want to Build? 

I don’t think you can build until you know what you are going to build. It would be foolhardy to assume that everything will come together by accident. What do you want to see emerge from the 2020 General Conference? A new denomination? A new jurisdiction? A conference within a conference? An association of like-minded local churches? Autonomous churches that merely share a common heritage? Whatever administrative paradigms (if any) that are constructed will depend on what the Body wants itself to look like when it reaches maturity

Can the UMC be Reformed? 

I doubt it. Study committees, Episcopal consensus, legislative caucuses, UMC influencers, proposed legislation; all failures. Remember the “Prime Directive” above? A bishop once told me that: “The only people in the church who have the power to change the system are the same ones who benefit from it as it exists today.” Reformation probably won’t happen. A more likely outcome is Revolution (hopefully a peaceful one) or Status Quo.

What needs to go?

The Appointment System

It is a vestige of the past: outdated, ineffective and extremely expensive. I do not have access to a study that I did some years ago, but if you count ALL of the expenses in the Conference budget that support the appointment system, it is well over a quarter of the budget. It seems that we have failed to realize that two trends driving society today are: 1) Consumerism and 2) A distrust of institutions. People today want to make their own choices, they don’t want a distant unaccountable someone to make choices for them. There is no such thing as “Denominational Loyalty” anymore in the Protestant Church. They go where they are fed. And why wouldn’t people loath institutions that have track records of failure and corruption? The appointment system attempts to kick against both of these trends. Today, the appointment system is largely seen as a job guarantee for pastors, but there are also many, many examples of inequity in appointment-making. It has promoted some before their time. It has held others back from fulfilling their true potential. It creates an insane competition among pastors for status and salary. Let’s face it, we have all seen butt-kissing rewarded. How does any of that feed the Mission of the Church?

What Should Replace the Appointment System?  

What would make more sense is a Call System with some sort of organizational support. In it, there should also be some safeguards for pastors so an angry church can’t just kick the pastor and family to the curb. What I can envision is that the “organization” can maintain lists of vacancies and pastors who are seeking a new parish. I know our conference at one time tried to build a database of local church profiles and pastor profiles – and come up with matches. Kind-of like eHarmony on an ecclesiastical platform. I don’t think it was ever very successful, but on the other hand, technology (and the people who know how to use it) has advanced greatly since then. I can see the organization embarking on creating a program with algorithms that would at least lead churches and pastors in the right direction. And why would the search need to be limited to a single conference? Why couldn’t the search be nationwide, or even worldwide? I mentioned protection for pastors: It’s debatable, but I could see a 90-day written notice requirement before a pastor would be required to leave the parish. During that time, the pastor would continue to be paid and allowed residency in the parsonage (if there is one). The pastor could continue to provide services, or not, depending on the circumstances. I can envision the organization providing individuals or a team of specialists to mediate crisis situations. This would be their sole occupation, not pastors who are borrowed from other churches. Further a team of pastors who specialize in interim ministries would be assembled. Now, I know that what

I am about to say will bring down a storm of criticism, but I can take it. The first objection to a Call System is usually, “What about minority and female pastors?” First, let’s be honest about what the objective of any local church is – to succeed in the mission that God puts before it. If the God-given mission of a church is to open the members’ hearts to oppose racism and gender discrimination, they will have no problem accepting a cross-racial pastor or a female (if they are used to male pastors.) To some of us, it has seemed like some appointments have been made in an attempt to force attitudinal changes. I am sure that has worked in some instances. In others, it has been destructive to both church and pastor. What can be gained in giving a church a pastor that it doesn’t want? In the end, if a church is racist and misogynistic, why would anybody want to serve them?

Another major objection will be from small churches who will complain that the big churches will gobble up all the “good” pastors and the small church might not be able to attract ANY pastor to come serve it. Of course, some of this happens already. The truth is that the appointment system and other facets of conference administration actually subsidize small churches. While I know that there are many small churches that are doing great ministries, it is also true that in some situations 100% of the effort is devoted to just keeping the doors open. More and more, I see that modern ministry is a matter of scale. The big churches are where innovative ministries and growth occurs. It’s similar to how our society has developed. No longer is there a general store at every country intersection. People and businesses have moved into the cities and towns. Little churches used to be surrounded by little communities. The people are gone, but the church remains. Some of those churches will perish. Others will find that they become stronger when they are able to choose their own leadership and stand on their own.

And finally, we solve that issue which comes up in every legal and benefits meeting: “Who is the pastor’s employer?” We know now in this scenario, it’s the local church.

Do we really need Bishops? 

You might ask yourself, ‘If there’s no appointment system, would we miss having a bishop if he/she were gone?’ Yes, bishops are also elected to defend the church from heresies (how’s that working out for you?), provide order to the church (see previous comment), serve as Spiritual guides, create direction for the Conference and the General Church, and inspire missional initiatives that everyone can get behind. I don’t know if a lot of that stuff actually happens. I do know that bishops go to a lot of meetings – at tremendous expense to the church. One of my favorite sayings is: “Nobody ever got saved at a committee meeting.” What is the Mission, after all, and how are bishop’s fulfilling it?

Do we really need District Superintendents? 

While the Bishop is ultimately responsible for the appointments of pastors and oversight of local churches, most of that gets delegated to the District Superintendents. The Superintendents all would like to provide leadership in developing innovative ministries in their local churches, but I rarely see any of that getting done. Most of their time is taken up with meetings, trying to stomp out fires, taking personal time off, and making appointments. Again, if you don’t have appointments, you take away at least half of their work. In terms of crisis control, when I served on the extended cabinet, it seemed to me that a lot of the crises were fomented by bad appointments (or churches that had a long history of grumpiness). I often observed that 10% of the churches required 90% of Superintendent time. As mentioned above, a team of highly-skilled professional crisis interventionalists could probably fulfill the fire-stomping functions – and might be able to do it better. On the other hand, if churches didn’t have a safety net or a complaint department, maybe they would learn to work out their problems on their own.

Do we really need Conference (or Organization) Staff? 

Probably some. It depends on what you want to build. Any organization will probably need a few staff: to handle money, maintain the databases, and provide resource information. But I also think that some of the functions that conferences attempt to provide could be better handled with less expense by contracting with ministry specialists. 

Do we need General Agencies? 

No. Oh, I know there has been talk of sharing UMCOR, but as one who has dealt with UMCOR I have been both blessed by it and really frustrated with it. If there was no UMCOR, our churches would find other mission outlets. When I was a pastor, I tried to shield my members from the news of the General Agencies. The staff turnover at the ones I dealt with was shocking. It seemed to me that anybody who did their job well didn’t last very long.

What about Pensions? 

Wespath has positioned itself to serve more than just the UMC. They want to go to a 100% ‘defined contribution’ (401k style) type of pension, anyway, so it’s not hard to imagine that active ministers in any new expression of the UMC will just keep their individual accounts earned thus far and those accounts will continue to receive employee and employer contributions. Of course, the problem with defined contribution accounts is that retired pastors can and will run out of money. How the Church responds to that reality is anybody’s guess.

What about Health Insurance? 

Clergy members of the IGRC are already used to finding their own health insurance, but clergy from nearly all other conferences will expect some kind of plan to be provided. Wespath insurance may be available to whatever organization emerges, but it’s currently really expensive. Health Insurance is such a volatile market now; who knows what will emerge? But there could be opportunities to join plans that serve more than one denomination, like Guidestone. The new availability of Association Plans also holds some promise. That issue is currently tied up in the courts and probably won’t be resolved until it reaches the Supreme Court, but if the Association Plan idea emerges as legal, it will be a lot easier to form group plans at reasonable costs. 

So what kind of “organization” makes sense? 

Who knows? I would probably lean toward some kind of association of semi-autonomous churches. And when I use the word “association” the similarity to the “Wesleyan Covenant Association” is merely a coincidence. Associations are easy to form. In most states, you don’t even need a legal framework. At the point where you begin to take donations, however, you need to incorporate, register as a charitable organization, apply for your 501(c)(3) and all that jazz. I could see a framework where the association takes nominal dues from its member churches to fund the services that the association provides. The basis for collecting dues could be worked out according to church size or strength, they could be voluntary, or they could be fee-for-service; or a combination. The association provides access to services to member churches – like providing pastor search resources. It could be that a trademark or a brand would be established that only member churches could use. Finally, an association is also a lot harder to sue. 

Who ordains pastors for ministry? 

I think it’s possible that the association could establish minimum standards for active service, conduct interviews and certify applicants as eligible for service in local churches. I’m a little uncomfortable with the association “ordaining” pastors unless it becomes a denomination – or an association within the UMC. However, there is also a scenario where a local church could ordain its own pastor. That pastor is no less ordained in the eyes of the law than one who goes through the ridiculously long and arduous process of becoming an Elder in the UMC. We say that we have made this process so difficult in order to weed out candidates with serious insufficiencies in various areas, but I can’t tell that it’s working.

Who maintains order? 

I envision something like a Council on Theological Integrity. The Council is made up of highly respected individuals within the association who are appointed with term limits. They receive complaints regarding pastors and local churches. The Council has the final authority to decertify local pastors and to terminate the membership of local churches from the association. That doesn’t mean that pastors are no longer pastors and churches are no longer churches, but they are not members of the association and they no longer receive the services thereof.

How are local churches structured? 

As semi-autonomous churches, each one has the freedom to create internal structures that fulfil its own needs. They all do already, anyway.

Your Thoughts?

This is just a FIRST DRAFT – your kind comments, suggestions, additions and questions are welcome. Soreheads are invited to keep their thoughts to themselves.