by Chris Ritter

As the new Global Methodist denomination takes form, it comes as no surprise there are tensions to be managed. How much to keep from legacy Methodisms and how much to change? On one side is the risk of reproducing a slightly more conservative version of a UM institution that enabled fifty years of unbroken decline. The opposite risk is throwing away treasures with the trash. The ultimate shape of the GMC will be in the hands of a future convening conference, but it is worth discussing the reforms on which Global Methodists have already reached consensus.

Shock waves went through United Methodism when General Conference 2012 voted to do away with guaranteed appointments for ordained elders. Clergy delegate Ken Carter made the speech against reconsidering the final 60% approval vote that changed “shall be appointed” to “may.” The four-year Study of Ministry Committee, he said, “has used the language of missional appointment making. We want to place the emphasis on the mission, making disciples of Jesus of Christ for the transformation of the world, rather than to have a mission of providing appointments for elders.”

Security of appointment, the Study of Ministry Report said, “has become a barrier to fulfilling the church’s mission… [it] limits the ability of the church to respond to the primacy of missional needs…, emphasizes the clergyperson’s needs instead of focusing on the church’s mission…, restricts flexibility of appointments…., and is not financially sustainable.”

United Methodist News Service summarized the report in this way: “Guaranteed appointments are a major contributor to mediocrity and ineffectiveness.” But as it did with the 2012 “Call of Action” reforms designed to bring the general agencies to heel, the Judicial Council reversed the removal of appointment guarantees. “Reversed” is actually too mild a word. They issued a death blow. Although the provision was not a feature of Methodist polity until 1956, they said eliminating appointment security was a violation of the 3rd and 4th restrictive rules. Elevated now to the same protected status as our historic doctrinal statements, it seems this feature of United Methodist polity will remain until the big tent folds. Unlike our doctrinal statements, an employment guarantee cannot be ignored.

It takes a good deal of education and hoop-jumping to become an ordained United Methodist elder. The problem is that little of that process predicts how a clergy will perform in the local church over time. Once in the system, it is almost impossible to get someone involuntarily out. As long as a clergy manages to avoid prosecution on chargeable offenses, a full-time position within the bounds of the conference is assured. Minimum salary requirements set by the conference provide regular raises to modest, full-time salaries. Clergy dominance at annual conference help assure that benefits range from adequate to generous. Housing is provided. Over the years, a conference’s stable of clergy builds up various levels of ineffective but tenured leaders. Efforts to steer certain clergy to alternative careers have proven inadequate. Appointment security is only one facet of Methodist decline. And not every declining church is served by an ineffective pastor. A missionally failing church is hard to turn around, even for a diligent leader. But United Methodism has long acknowledged that a broken clergy appointment system is contributing to our downfall.

Whether they admit it or not, every bishop and cabinet knows there are turkeys to be passed around each appointment season. One district superintendent friend told me years ago about a “take-in” experience when a newly appointed pastor was being introduced to the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee. After each committee member had the opportunity to share their hopes and dreams for their church, the new pastor was asked if he had anything to say to the group. The response haunted the D.S.: “Does the cable TV at the parsonage include the FOX channel?” The superintendent scrambled to change the subject. The turkey was passed and the appointment finalized.

Most United Methodist clergy are good people who aim to do great things in the local church. But a spirit of mediocrity in a few drives the conference leadership ethos downward. Would not the interests of the church be served if it were easier to get enthusiastic clergy in and ineffective clergy out? Security of appointment has contributed to careerist attitudes among the clergy. Ministry, it seems difficult to remember, is about service… not privilege.

The Global Methodist Church aims to give local churches a bigger voice in the appointment-making process. The conference’s work of vetting clergy is to be placed in robust dialog with the congregation’s need for effective leadership. Clergy appointments will be open-ended rather than one year at a time (see Par. 513). The caste system of ordained vs. licensed pastors will be eliminated. With no guarantee of appointment provided, all clergy will need to find security in the fire of their call. As the words of our Wesleyan covenant renewal service remind us: “Christ has many services to be done. Some are easy, others are difficult. Some bring honor, others bring reproach. Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests, others are contrary to both… Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.”

We lifelong United Methodist sometimes forget how exotic our expensive* system of clergy deployment really is. If guaranteed appointments worked toward church health, other denominations would be emulating us. They aren’t. Justifications (like opening wider doors for female and minority pastors) do not stand up to statistical comparison across denominations. In some ways, guaranteed appointments have evolved in United Methodism as a check upon the extraordinary authority of elected-for-life bishops. But the Global Methodist Church has a new vision for the episcopacy, too. We’ll talk about that in a future installment.

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*about a fourth of the conference budget goes to pay district superintendents who manage, among other things, the annualized clergy shuffle.