In his Christian Chaos: Revolutionizing the Congregation Tom Bandy says,
The primary link between congregation and denomination and denomination is pastoral relations, the key membership of the pastor is with the denominational judicatory, and the most powerful positions in congregation or judicatory are related to personnel. The judicatory knows that by controlling the pastor, it can control the congregation. The congregation knows that by controlling the pastor, they can manipulate the denominational system. (p. 159)
As a pastor this looks like I’m put between a rock and a hard place. It’s sometimes difficult (or when I’m feeling differently I use the word “scary”) to be under the authority of someone who has absolute control over my life. Oh,yes, the bishop doesn’t have control over my family, just where we live, but that has significant influence over my family. I’m one of those odd characters (and I’m sure there are many like me) who perceive a calling to pastor in the United Methodist Church. But that’s not the way the church puts it. As I’ve heard it said by the authorities, “You may be called by God to be a pastor, but only the United Methodist Church can say whether you’re called to be a UM pastor.” While I understand that logic, I have trouble saying, “God, you didn’t communicate properly when you called me.”
Now the bishops who have absolute control over us want more leverage over us. Apparently some of us pastors are incompetent, and the disciplinary promise of a guaranteed appointment is making it hard to dump us. I have no doubt that some pastors are incompetent. Some of us have already reached our “level of incompetence” (to use “Peter Principle” terminology) the first time we tried ushering.
“The greatest drain on our time and energy that keeps us from leading proactively in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is dealing with ineffective clergy,” said Bishop Robert Schnase (Missouri Area).
“If we were asked, ‘What are the tools you need to do your task?’ — what would those tools be? Redefining guaranteed appointment.”
Look at those first person plural pronouns. Who is the antecedent – who is the “we” in view? Is he saying that incompetent clergy are the “greatest drain” on the bishop’s “mission of making disciples?” Or is it the denomination’s mission – is the UMC as a whole the “we?” Or is he speaking of local congregations as the “we?”
What’s the big deal about guaranteed appointments? After all, few other jobs (outside of government work, that is) have such job security. One difference is that to even get “in,” a pastor has to submit to years of schooling and acquiring thousands of dollars in debt, many levels of interviews, testing and general hoop jumping. Then (unless they have the right connections) they start off at an appointment where they may or may not make enough to support their family. They may also discover that the seminary recommended by their judicatory propagated a notion and practice of pastoral competence at odds with that held by the current bishop or judicatory. Studies show that pastoring is getting harder – no wonder more of us are showing up as incompetent. We give a decade of our life to prepare to answer the church’s call, then more years doing as we’re told (at least we can point at someone who told us to do what we’re doing) and… oops! we’re incompetent.
But do we have an agreed upon understanding of competence? We have some documents working in that direction, but then we also have long-standing doctrinal statements regarding which we lack agreed understanding. We have a denominational mission statement – “To make disciples of Jesus Christ” – but we lack a shared understanding of what a disciple is (not to mention a shared understanding of who or what Jesus Christ is).
The bishops are looking for leverage. Where are they going to find it? Remember what Bandy says. They certainly won’t find it with the congregations. Their main leverage now is with pastors. And they want more – the whole pie, it looks like.
The bishops have suggestions for themselves also:
- Increase the length of a bishop’s assignment to an episcopal area beyond the current 12 years, saying conferences need longer-term leadership to accomplish goals;
- Raise the retirement age for bishops by two years, to 68, to ease the growth rate in the number of retired bishops by allowing them to serve longer;
- Requiring jurisdictional committees on episcopacy to set up an evaluation process for bishops that would review their commitment to the teaching office, vision for the church, prophetic commitment for the transformation of the church and world, passion for unity of the church, and ministry of administration.
I don’t doubt that the bishops are thinking of the good of the church and the accomplishment of our mission as they make these proposals to add to their power. If Bishops were some sort of superior being, not amenable to the possibility of incompetence or a mismatched conference assignment, these would be more effective ideas. But if guaranteed appointments are a bad thing for regular pastors, why aren’t they a bad thing for bishops as well? What’s a bishop to do if after election and assignment to episcopal duties the bishop comes to conclusion the job is not a fit? That a return to the pastorate of a local church would be more suitable?
I have the same the desire the bishops do – a church more focused on making disciples than taking care of itself. Here are some counter – or complement – suggestions:
1. Find a better way to do consultation and include the results in appointment making. I don’t know about other annual conferences, but our system is very opaque. Consideration of family needs is rare (the bishops want to be able to dump pastors “who do not remain available for itinerant ministry” – often a euphemism for pastors whose family needs don’t match a proposed appointment)
2. Develop a shared understanding not only of competence, but apply it with a sensitivity to the challenging congregations out there. I’ve been an “incompetent pastor” before. I was run off from an appointment. Little note was made (as far as I could tell) that the primary reasons for asking for my removal were that I brought in too many neighborhood kids (unchurched kids who didn’t know how to act like retired people), and over spent the nursery budget by $30 one month, or that that congregation had treated every other pastor the same way for the past thirty years. Such a shared understanding won’t work if it’s simply imposed from above.
3. Get clear on our doctrine. There’s certainly no pain-free way to do this. Confessing Movement people, Soul Force people, Spong-ites and others can all point to good reasons why what they represent is true United Methodism. I just don’t see how it will work – how these contradictory visions of the Christian life and discipleship can co-exist in the same church (or power structure). We’ve tried ignoring doctrine and pushing pragmatics for a couple of generations now. While that may be pat of what is going on with the bishops (“We can’t agree about whether homosexual practice is compatible with Christian discipleship or whether Jesus is truly God incarnate, but we can agree that the UMC needs to do a better job making disciples (whatever that means”), I don’t think the doctrinal disputes will quietly go off into a corner and die, drowned by waves of positivity and competence.
4. Don’t use God as a stick. “The Cabinet prayed and you need to go to ______.” The cabinet needs to pray. Big time. They need God’s wisdom. I want them to hear from God. But with the inequities in the system (I think of the contrast between some pastors whose every move includes a large raise and those who are simply told to “bloom where they’re planted,” and the number of African American pastors who are simply moved from one small, struggling church to another). DSs need to tell a pastor not only that they prayed, but also what went into their thinking when they made a particular appointment (assuming that prayer does not negate the need for thinking). Of course, I’m also assuming that DSs will tell the truth.
5. Instead of seeking more power, the bishops need to give up power. Since people – lay and clergy alike – are accustomed to their wielding great power, this will be very difficult. They need to learn to rely on the power of persuasion instead of the power of their position. Let the rank and file Elders, local pastors and laity see not only their deep spirituality (defined by Christ, not the vague amorphous something currently bandied about in US culture) and their own submission to authority (of the Discipline and General Conference). My take on Bishop Huie is that this is how she is operating, though I also have the perception that a fair amount of people, both in the conference leadership and beyond, simply take her to be a normal power-wielding bishop like they’re used to. Bishops are not judged merely by their press releases, but by how the churches under their leadership do. It’s the same with us pastors. As a pastor I am judged by what WE do. I can’t make my congregation do the right thing. I don’t (at least in my best moments) want the power to make my people do the right thing. I have to not only teach them the right thing but persuade them to do it. It’s hard work. I have no doubt that it’s even harder to be a bishop. But that’s no reason to think more power is the solution.