We (pastors and lay leaders from across the North District) met with Bishop Huie and a couple of cabinet members this morning in Ore City to hear about the new philosophy of appointing pastors to churches. They had intended to share the information in the Fall, but Ike ruined those plans.
My overall take is that if they do what they said they’re going to do, the new method will be much better than the old method.
The transparency of the process today was refreshing. They admitted that in the past appointments were based mostly on compensation and were largely determined by “relationships,” i.e., the Good Old Boy network. Euphemistically they explained that in the old way, “The superintendent represents his/her district preachers and churches, and expedites moves for preachers by ‘accentuating the positive.'” That’s a euphemism for “lying.”
Because DSes (as class) have a reputation for lying, there is still much to be done in the area of rebuilding trust. This trust must be built between pastors and the hierarchy, the hierarchy and the congregations, and between congregations and the pastors. While today’s meeting was an important step toward building trust, it would have helped if the lack of trust in the past (which I know lingers into the present) was openly acknowledged as a barrier to overcome.
A few questions remain:
At the beginning of the session they mentioned the vitality of early Methodism. In the days of Bishops Asbury & McKendree, circuit riders were appointed to mission fields, not to settled churches. As a results, the church grew tremendously as people came to faith in Christ. If we are going to look wistfully at this part of our past (and I think there is value in doing so), we will need to acknowledge a few barriers. First, those early circuit riders were mostly young single men. They rode hard and preached hard. They burned out fast, either locating (retiring from ministry) or dying. Their style of ministry was mostly imcompatible with healthy family life. (My own great-great-grandfather had to quit the ministry so he could support his ten children via farming. His father in law lasted longer in the ministry, even serving as a Presiding Elder at one time, but still physically crashed and burned.) Robert Wuthnow writes that one of the defining characteristics of the rising generation is a trend toward marrying later in life and waiting even longer to have children. While this might lead to fewer children for our children’s ministries, it could point to a source of new circuit riders. But this faces the second barrier – a long and difficult road to enter ministry. If a circuit rider style ministry, with its hard charging lifestyle is what we want, how long can we expect that life-style to be maintained? Do we need to require as many educational and institutional hoops to jump through? Third, I don’t see our current approach to faith inspiring the firey devotion I see in the early circuit riders. UMs are taught to be open, tolerant and questioning. We’re to eschew fanaticism. The early circuit riders were fanatical – just read their journals or biographies. When we are fired up, it tends to be more for social amelioration that fits with a settled ministry than for snatching brands from the burning. Sure, some young folks come out of seminary or college all fired up. But soon they’re taught by their older peers that all that doesn’t work anymore. It’s just not the way to get a head – or to get along with your DS.
The new system is based, we were told repeatedly, on data, not merely relationships (being a Good Old Boy) and salary sheets. Data are good. They’re objective. They’re ready to hand. But they’re also infinite. Which data are we going to count? Well, we can easily track worship attendance, professions of faith, people in “hands on mission,” and payment of apportionments. But I have a couple of questions. First, how can these data sets for churches (and for pastors?) be compared from church to church and region to region? Do we assume that the graphs we get from plotting the data tell the whole story? Which story? Do they take into account the uniquenesses of each congregational setting? Data alone are not enough. Second, I fear that the emphasis on data lends an aura of objectivity that is not warranted by reality. Recent philosophy of science tells us that data are theory laden. No data sets are purely objective. Our theories tell us what data are relevant, how to order them, how to interpret them, and what to do with them. Because our cabinet knows this – and knows the challenges of my first data point, the personal element, the reality of actual relationships will never be superseded. While we can strive to work from data and to avoid going on relationships only, a transparency about the role of relationships and a commitment to love pastors and churches will help.
Finally – since I can’t go on all night – a comment about another image used in the presentation. They said they asked themselves, “Who is our client? Is it the pastors? The churches? The cabinet (trying to keep their cushy jobs)?” They decided that instead of any of these their client as the mission field. It is a great improvement to ask the question, “What is our mission field, what are its characteristics, what will it take to reach the people in this locale for Christ, and who is the best person to fulfill this mission?” We need to relearn thinking in missional terms.
Maybe I’ve read too much on Greco-Roman culture, but I have become uncomfortable with “client” language. When we speak of clients in that setting, talk of “patrons” is not far behind. If the mission field is the client, who is the patron, the one who has the power and resources before whom the client must bow and offer services? A key difference between current United Methodism and old time Methodism is the high level of education and experience among the vast majority of pastors. Many have earned doctorates – some professional degrees, some more academic. While power resides in the bishop and cabinet, it is not the case (as it may have been at times past) that expertise, information and knowledge resides there only.
A word that has been featured in United Methodist talk on appointment making was not much in evidence today. The Disicipline speaks of consultation as a key element of the appointment process. While we have an insitution now of regular meetings of pastors and superintendents (district, not general), we seem farther away from regular dialogical meetings between superintendents and congregations. The reduction of the number of districts in the Texas Conference, which was supposed to result in more time for superintendents to spend with pastors and churches has not come about. At least in this part of the world, that is partly due to the large number of churches a superintendent is responsible for. We have cluster charge conferences now (three years running). Few laity attend, and they are intended to be mostly inspirational. While inspiration has its place, there is no space for real dialogical consultation, real mutual assessment of the mission fields (and the data!). This is a round-about way of asking about power distribution in the conference. I fully believe our recent changes are in the right direction. I’m not so convinced that they go far enough. If all we end up with is a benevolent patron who, out of the kindness of her (or his heart) looks out for our good, that is better than a misanthropic patron. But do we need a patron? Are there any alternatives?
I recognize that at least three barriers stand in the way of considering alternatives (not counting the old stand by, “We’ve never done it that way!”). First, there is the reality of money. When there are large sums of money involved (and pastors tend to be the largest single line-item in most church’s budgets) there is a need for controls. Second, there is the broader issue of accountability. We want to make sure, as we pursue effectiveness/fruitfulness that that is always defined in terms of the Christian faith and our Methodist tradition. We’re not after, “And Everyone did what was right in his own eyes, because there was no king in Israel.” Third, there is the institutional complexity of a connectional church with congregations, agencies, missions, etc. None can be easily detached from the others.
One model that might be fruitful is the Open Source software model. In this model a programmer (or team of programmers) creates a s0ftware package (think Linux, Firefox, Open Office). The package is then released into the cyber-ecosystem where people use it. But they don’t just use it, they are free to adapt it and tinker with the programming. The community of programmers and the community of users (in theory) becomes co-extensive.
I minored in computer science – back in the old days. Most of what I learned is irrelevant now. I regularly use open source software, but contributing to the actual programing is beyond my skills. I can, however, report bugs. I can suggest improvements, tweaks and new features. I can do so without submitting a resume or cv. What might it take to start developing some institutions within the annual conference where real consultation on all areas of ministry – even appointment making! – could happen, not just with the cabinet, not just with pastors, but with all who are committed followers of Jesus and stake holders in our churches?