The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church has recently overruled the General Conference legislation that did away with the guaranteed appointment for Elders. I’ve been ambivalent about the provision, seeing good arguments on both sides.
On the one hand, I have never completely trusted the hierarchy that controls appointment making. I’ve heard too many stories of lying and manipulation of pastors to believe everything a DS tells me. My perception is that things are better now than they were when I came into the conference twenty-five years ago; at that time the “good old boy” network still reigned. Now we talk more about evangelism and “mission field appointments.” Now we have metrics that are reported not just once a year but every week. I still see enough incongruities in the process to not be completely trusting. While we have more spiritual talk about what we do, sometimes this looks like a thin veneer of rationalization laid on top of doing what we’ve always done.
Additionally, with the (apparent) increasing use of metrics in the appointment making system, most of the leverage is put on pastors. That only makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, John Maxwell says, “Everything rises and falls with leadership,” and the pastor is THE leader, so if things are not rising (constantly), it must be the pastor’s fault. Sometimes – maybe more often than not – the failure to rise is due to a failure in pastoral leadership. But we forget at this point how much the UMC partakes in the American democratic ethos that mitigates against the power and place of leaders. Seeing these things, I support guaranteed appointments as a defense for pastors against the System.
On the other hand, our guaranteed appointment system functions as part of our larger guaranteed mediocrity system. For a church that began with an emphasis on discipline, we now lack it on almost every level. Where Wesley once held not only preachers but ordinary members accountable for their discipleship, we do almost nothing. We offer opportunities, and a few partake. Are there any consequences for those who just sit in the pew and get fat? Not at all – they are reckoned faithful members as long as they come and sit in our pews!
We also lack doctrinal discipline. Although doctrinal pluralism is no longer our official position, it is still our de facto position. We settle on marketing slogans “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors” in the place of anything with theological substance. We can all agree that we need marketing, given our fear of congregational death and denominational demise.
We still have a number of churches that report no professions of faith in a given year. How can this be? How can a church with the power of the Holy Spirit fail to win a single convert – even a little child – in a whole year? What on earth are we doing? Surely a pastor serving in a place for a year can go out and meet people and win at least one! Or are some of our churches so far out and isolated from not-already-Christian people that there is no one to win? In those cases maybe the best thing is to appoint the equivalent of a hospice chaplain and to let the church die with “dignity,” whatever that might be. If, however, the best I can do is be the equivalent of an ecclesial hospice chaplain, I neither want nor deserve a guaranteed appointment. Like the man with the hammer who thinks everything looks like a nail, a pastor armed only with the soothing skills of gently laying a church to rest will look at all churches as sets of mostly helpless people who need comfort, soothing, and a kind word as they shuffle their way out the door.
In an interview at Wired, Tom Ricks looks at the culture of mediocrity represented in the recent generations of high leadership in the US Army. Maybe we UMs can learn something from this. Here are my suggestions.
Figure out what “winning” looks like. In World War 2 we had a clear definition for winning: unconditional surrender by Germany and Japan. While difficult and costly to achieve, that goal was clear. The US can no longer have such a goal in war, given the gross immoralities required to achieve it. Winning in Iraq or Afghanistan would be relatively easy if we were willing to bomb the civilian population into submission. A nuke here, a week of fire bombings there, pretty soon there’d be few left to resist. But we’ve advanced to the point that we realized that approach has too high a price. Now in Afghanistan, as earlier in Vietnam, we don’t have a clear, shared and realistic understanding of what it means to win.
What does winning look like in the church? Our doctrinal fuzziness has hurt us here. Back in the days before soteriological universalism took hold, we could talk about winning souls – about leading people to faith in Christ and rescuing them from eternal separation from God. But neither our people or our institutions (for the most part) are able to talk that way any more. Sure, it’s sort of good for people to become Christians, but if they’re happy and fulfilled as Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, or Atheists, well, we shouldn’t interfere and show ourselves to be bigots.
Maybe winning means raising attendance. I like that goal. It’s always bothered me to see churches think they’re doing well when their average attendance is only a third of their membership (“We’re doing so much better than all those other churches that have only a quarter of their membership in attendance!”). If only a third of my body were working, yea, only as much as half my body, I’d be in ICU in serious trouble. How can such a body even pretend to be healthy? And yet we take a low attendance to membership ratio as the norm. I remember years ago reading a bio on a conference leader. The piece was framed as saying something great about the pastor. It explained how in one of his pastorates he had added 3000 members to the church and raised the attendance by 800! 3000 members – how awesome! That’s a quarter of the entire population of the entire county I last pastored in. But why did attendance only go up 800? What happened to the other 2200? Where they in the front door and straight out the back? I sure hope no one brags about me that way. Improving attendance needs to be part of our definition of winning.
Attendance isn’t enough, however. We need not only a mechanism (or gimmick) that will bring people in; we need to improve the quality of those we have. We need a shared conception of membership that goes beyond the institutional and sentimental. Perhaps the broader culture is offering us help here. As there is less and less gain in societal status for being a Christian or church member, perhaps more people will become such for more purely Christian reasons. We cannot wait for the culture to do our work for us, however. Holding members to higher standards of accountability in their discipleship will be painful. We will face resistance, “Whatever happened to grace?” is one line we’ll hear over and over. But we don’t have a choice.
Once we bring this dimension to the attendance question, the other elements of what counts as a win become clearer. A win will be measured as “more faithful discipleship.” This won’t be as easy to quantify as we would like, but we will be able to identify some measures.
A second thing we’ll need to do is create a system in which failure is possible but not necessarily terminal. Once we know what constitutes a win, we’ll be able to say what constitutes a “non-win,” i.e., failure. What kind of people fail? Only people who try. I ever never failed to sail a ship – simply because I’ve never even tried to sail a ship. In areas in which I try – teaching, preaching, evangelism, discipleship – failure bothers me. I take it personally. But when I fail, I get up, figure out where I went wrong, and try again. We desperately need a system where failure is possible and permissible, yet also not fatal (We can learn from Tim Harford.) If a general in the Army can be removed from his position for recognized failure, and yet at some point later receive a similar position again, why can this not be a possibility for a pastor?
A third suggestion, and I’ll stop here for today, is that real accountability is needed on all levels but must start at the top. If pastors are the only ones held accountable, we will fail. Church members need to see pastors being held accountable just as pastors need to see those above them being held accountable.
Just this summer Bishop Earl Bledsoe was pushed into retirement – an instance of accountability in action. I know nothing of the details of this event, so I can’t say anything about its appropriateness, but the fact that the church is openly holding a bishop accountable is a good sign for the church as a whole. The weakness, however, is that given our commitment to episcopacy for life rather than a term, retirement is the only option. Why do we assume that once a person reaches the heights of the appointive system that no other options should be allowed? Do we care that little for our people? Do we care little enough for our mission that we don’t re-deploy obviously skilled leaders elsewhere, in positions where they can still make major contributions that might fit their current capacities better?