Changing the Covenant

Some of the latest big news in the UMC is from the study committee that is suggesting that we do away with the “guaranteed appointment” for ordained Elders. It is “a promise the church can no longer keep.” For those who are not familiar with the current system, here’s how things are now (very much abbreviated).  First, you spend tens of thousands of dollars and at least seven years getting college and seminary degrees. Second, you go through rounds of paper work, interviews, and psychological tests to be approved for ordination. Third, when you are ordained you agree to go anywhere within the conference that the bishop might send you. There are no promises regarding housing (in many places you’ll likely have a parsonage, that may or may not be up to official standards) or location. Currently each conference sets a minimum salary for pastors, so you’ll be paid at least that much.  There is no guarantee that you’ll fit the place, that your family needs will be met (you’re better off not having a family if all you consider is the appointment system – just ask JW or FA). There’s no guarantee how long you’ll be there, though the standard appointment is for a year, and the trend is toward longer appointments. So as the “covenant” now stands, it’s something like, “Do what we tell you, and you’ll be guaranteed a job.” The alternative is something like, “Do what we tell you, and you might have a job.”

The commission has observed that some pastors are ineffective and mediocre. This is an accurate perception. (Of course, whether my definition and application of “ineffective” and “mediocre” matches any one else’s is where things start getting dicey.)

Some things that would clear the air before the “covenant” is changed:

  1. Increase trust in the church. As it is, there is deep distrust between pastors and the church hierarchy, congregations and the hierarchy, and pastors and churches. This fundamental pathology is part of what is dragging us down. As long as we are fundamentally a top-down authoritarian system – which the current proposal regarding elders exacerbates – trust will continue to be lacking.
  2. Find a shared vision for ministry and a shared theological vision. We have the Book of Discipline with our “official doctrine,” but this is “official” more than it is operational (to use George Lindbeck’s helpful terms), or “not to be taken literally and juridically” (in the Discipline’s language). We have Bishop Schnase’s 5 practices, but these are flexible and institutional enough that they can be interpreted so many ways that they allow too much wiggle room. We have our mission statement – “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” but lacking a shared understanding of who Jesus is and what transformation he seeks, “disciple” remains a fuzzy, feel-good term for many. We have our marketing mantra, “Open hearts, Open minds, Open doors,” but that is the gospel of inclusivism, not the gospel of Jesus.
  3. We need to address the theological and ecclesial vision being inculcated in our seminaries. Is what they teach our future elders compatible with our vision for reaching people? If not, are we willing to hold them accountable, or do we bow before the gods of “academic freedom,” “theological pluralism,” and “we’ve always done it this way?”
  4. Be open and honest about incentives and God-talk. When most pastors are responsible for raising families, they find themselves in a situation where it can be useful to have (a) salaries that enable them to care for their families, and (b) housing that fits their families. This sometimes happens. But sometimes it doesn’t. At least in some conferences there are some churches that pay larger salaries than others, and some that have different configurations of housing. Being appointed to a church with a larger salary (or a larger house) looks like an incentive to some people. Some people internalize the notion, “I have an incentive to do well in this appointment. If I do well (i.e., if I am effective) in this appointment this incentive will work for me.” Boy, that sounds pretty crass and materialistic, doesn’t it? That’s why we prefer to only talk about “God” and “calling” in this regard. Those things that look like incentives, really aren’t. In each and every case, whether you get huge raises with every move or move from small church to small church, you are pursuing the call of God. Doubtless. But the appearance of these “incentives” sure does skew perception and morale. Especially when the folks who run the system tend to consistently receive so many more “incentives” than those who don’t. If we could talk about these things openly, I think it’d help.
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4 Responses to Changing the Covenant

  1. Excellent approach to the topic. I’ll share this!

  2. Tracy Wiley says:

    Wow. That is interesting news. As you know I spent 10 yrs in the UMC. I came from a Baptist background and seminary training, came into the UMC as an outsider to everything the was UM. Even then as I was learning how the UMC worked, I knew something was “wrong” with the way leadership was/is trained and the complete lack of consistancy from one church to the next. In the 10 yrs I spent w/in the UMC, I saw very little Jesus, very few, if any Biblical principles being taught, and few if any true followers of Jesus being made. I saw lots of politics, lobbyism, power struggles and political correctness. This new idea toward appointments, is just another example of the “easy fix” and trying to bandaid the symptoms w/out ever tryin to heal the root problem(s).

    I am no longer in ministry (youth ministry) because of these political systems and prejudices. I am, however, now apart of a church that has grown from just a handful of folks in early 2008, to about 75-100 at its first official worship services (Jan. 09) to somewhere in the midst of 650 to 750 people calling Genesis Church of West Plains, MO, their home church. And WP is just a town of about 10,000. I have seen more Jesus in the 10 months I have been a part of Genesis than I saw in 10 yrs working in the UMC (not counting the youth ministries of the CTC and CTCYM).

    When it takes 10’s of 1000’s of dollars, more than 7 to 8 yrs of your life to be ordained and then finally “maybe” getting a church. There is something wrong with that. Why doesn’t the UMC go back to the Bible, back to Jesus, and learn something. Human institutions, traditions and continual “that’s the way we have always done it” will get you exactly what you are getting: a dying church, people leaving in droves and the continued mistrust of everyone involved.

    I in no way made my heart known here. Don’t get me wrong. I miss the students and adult youth workers of the CTC and the CTCYM gang everyday. My heart aches for the UMC to be what Jesus intends for it to be. All I knew is that if a return to Jesus and His ways are not made within the next few yrs, the UMC will fall by the wayside, as the newest generations of students will leave and find their place amongst churches and faith groups that are more concerned about people and making a difference than about politics and talk. They will not tolerate a faith w/o action, w/o love.

  3. rheyduck says:

    Thanks for sharing, Tracy. I want to pastor churches that will keep (and reproduce!) Jesus people like you.

  4. Tom Faggart says:

    Good thoughts, and apply presented.

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