Last summer my older son bought a Rubik’s cube. He’d heard me talk about them before and he decided to try one for himself. He opened the package and handed me the instructions to hold onto, and then began to work on the puzzle. In just a few minutes, the cube was all mixed up and impossible to figure out. And then he began to work on it, and work on it some more. He worked a couple hours that day, and then a couple the next day. He said he was beginning to see patterns and could notice progress. It still looked pretty messy to me. The third day he could definitely get all the colors aligned on several sides, and I was impressed. Then on the fourth day, he figured it out and had the Rubik’s cube back to its original form. He then progressed until he could solve it in minutes, and today if you give him an unsolved Rubik’s cube, he’ll hand back the solved puzzle in under five minutes. Wow.
For the past several weeks, I’ve been puzzling and praying over the appointment process, the way by which the cabinet and bishop assign clergy to churches. Trying to figure out how to fulfill the mission of the church through maximizing the use of the gifts of our clergy while also attending to diverse personal and family needs—well, it makes a Rubik’s cube puzzle look pretty simple.
One of the frustrations with the Rubik’s cube is that when you align the colors on one side, by doing so you misalign the colors on another panel, and so every attempt to move toward the objective in one place takes you further from the objective in another. That’s the way it sometimes seems with the appointment process: when we assign a pastor to a church that resolves many complex issues of mission and gifts and potential, then we look at the resulting impact on the community, church, family and network at the place from which we have moved her/him and we wonder if we are really making progress. You get the point.
We spend hundreds of hours focused on making appointments that serve the mission of the church. Superintendents spend time with pastors and Pastor-Parish Relations Committees throughout the fall and winter in consultation, and receive feedback, suggestions, and insights through pastoral evaluations and consultation forms. Then the cabinet spends several days together reviewing in detail the missional needs and personal situations of each church and pastor in a four-day marathon of meetings in February. Then I meet personally with each Superintendent to talk at length specifically about openings, retirements, moves, etc. in his or her own district. At this personal meeting, I press the DS’s for specific recommendations for names for each church and ask for explanations and rationales for each suggestion. I ask for alternatives, and more alternatives. We talk about unmet needs of churches and unseen potential in communities as we focus on the mission of the church. We delve deeply into congregational vision and commitment and into pastoral effectiveness and patterns of service. And we also talk about pastors’ children, health issues, spouse employment and a host of other issues.
After these individual work sessions with DS’s, the cabinet starts meeting together for two days a week for most of the spring. We identify strategic churches and focus on them first. Many people might be surprised to know that most strategic congregations for the appointment process are not our largest churches or highest salaries. Each and every week, we listen over and over again to same information about a particular church’s ministry, needs, styles and opportunities, and we listen again and again about pastors’ gifts and records of service and styles of leadership until we finally discern a probable appointment. And then we let it rest and return to it later to see if the prospective appointment still seems appropriate. Throughout the spring, DS’s continue in active conversation with pastors and congregations, and we all keep abreast of changing circumstances–pastors awaiting news about educational opportunities, pastors desiring to relocate to our conference, churches making decisions about new building programs, etc. Eventually we finalize an appointment, and then we plan out the order of contact with the pastor and church, and we rehearse for ourselves how to keep communication open and positive during transitions, introductory meetings, and announcements. And step by step we move through the churches, praying for the guidance of the spirit, the understanding of the pastors and congregational leaders, and the mission of the church. We do our very best, taking whatever time is required to see that we have offered our utmost and highest to the glory of God, and to respect the ministries of our pastors and the mission of our churches.
And yet we know, every step that resolves one set of issues creates a new and different set of issues somewhere elseÖjust like the Rubik’s cube.
Whenever we welcome new District Superintendents to begin service on the cabinet, they are invited to sit in with us for a day during the spring appointive meetings so that they can see how appointments are made. I always ask them at the end of their first day of observing the appointment process if there are any surprises. Invariably, they express their amazement at the thoroughness of the conversation and the depth of consideration that churches and pastors of all sizes receive, and the deliberate and honest conversation that drives us to our decisions.
But here’s where the Rubik’s cube comparison breaks down. When my son completes his quick handiwork with the cube, he proudly sets the finished and solved puzzle on the table, and everyone can see that it is perfectly done. All the sides line up and all the colors are in their proper place, and there is little room for disagreement about the excellent completion of the task.
With appointments that affect the lives of hundreds of pastors and their families and thousands of church members and thousands more prospective church members, such perfection is far more elusive. We can never claim complete success, but by the grace of God I pray for a continuous perfecting of our motivation, love, and vision so that we may together fulfill the mission of the church we have been given in Christ Jesus.
Yours in Christ,