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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?”
- 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.