Imagine that you chair the History Department of a university, and three tenured professors announce their retirement. Student enrollment has declined and finances are tight, so you close one position and announce openings for two new people. You forward search criteria to the Human Resources Department, defining what qualities the positions require—educational credentials, professional associations, publishing history, teaching experience, and references. Some weeks later, the Search Committee reports that they’ve had 16 people apply. Five did not have requisite credentials, one had a record of improper conduct, and two did not interview well. Eight persons met every criterion and did fine with interviews. Therefore, the Search Committee has contracted for tenured positions with the eight applicants who met all the requirements and these have all been assigned to your department!
In The United Methodist Church, there is no connection between the missional needs of our churches and the number of people commissioned or ordained.
Or imagine that you supervise a large service company that has 400 employees. You are held accountable for progress, effectiveness, and results. Four employees do not complete tasks, foster conflict with colleagues and customers, miss work, blame others, are unwilling to learn, and undermine supervisors. No department manager wants to work with them. However, you cannot remove them or take disciplinary action without the approval of all 400 employees, which includes their long-time friends and relatives!
In our church, supervisors (bishops, superintendents, or boards of ordained ministry) cannot remove ineffective clergy without calculating the support or resistance they will find at the clergy session of annual conference, which alone determines the status of clergy.
Finally, imagine you are a young person with a calling or curiosity about Christian service. You ask your pastor how someone becomes a pastor, and she pulls out a lengthy, multipage description with numbers of steps, requirements, and educational criteria that take years to complete. When you ask which steps come first, you receive one answer from your pastor, a different answer from a campus minister, and yet another from a district superintendent.
Our systems for recruiting, interviewing, educating, training, and deploying clergy for certified, licensed, commissioned, or ordained ministry; combined with our various relationships to conference (lay members, affiliate members, associate members, provisional members, full members, retired members); and our numerous statuses (lay ministers, local pastors, extension ministers, deacons, and elders) contribute to lengthy and convoluted approval systems, confusing and contradictory interpretations of the sequences and steps, and practices that vary widely from district to district and from conference to conference.
The Call to Action calls the church to dramatically reform the clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation, and accountability systems. A related issue is the guaranteed appointment. While the words “guaranteed appointment” do not appear in the Book of Discipline, the requirement to appoint each credentialed elder began in 1956 when a bishop refused to appoint a female pastor. Before 1956, there was no guaranteed appointment and no covenant linking itineracy to guaranteed appointment.
Every bishop I know wants a system that protects pastors from abuse of authority related to gender, ethnicity, theological bias, and so on. Reasonable checks and balances through boards of ordained ministry or judicial processes protect pastors from arbitrary abuse of authority by bishops and protect bishops from accusations of the same. However, most bishops want procedures that allow for quicker assessment and intervention regarding ineffective clergy.
Would adjusting guaranteed appointment stifle the prophetic voice of pastors? Our prophetic witness is protected not by guaranteed appointment, but by connectional episcopacy; pastoral appointments are the prerogative of bishops rather than of congregations, and this protects pastors from arbitrary removal by local criticism that is inappropriate.
The real issue surrounding guaranteed appointment is not the 3% of ineffective clergy. It’s the disconnection between the numbers of people credentialed and the numbers we need to maximize our mission. It takes an average attendance of 125 or more to support a full-time elder without strangling vital ministry. Each year we have fewer churches that can afford full-time pastors. Some conferences have one elder in a pastoral role per 70 people in attendance. This is unsustainable, and we need mechanisms to regulate the numbers to fit the mission. Frankly, we need to move from credentialing processes with a default of “as long as you complete the assignments and we find nothing egregious, you are approved,” to a default of “you are not likely to be approved unless you’ve demonstrated exemplary fruitfulness in ministry.”
And guaranteed appointment feeds a sense of entitlement and complacency among some clergy rather than motivating them toward learning, growing, and enhancing skills. Systems that foster dependency tend to produce a sense of powerlessness in those who work within them. We’ve underestimated the deleterious effect guaranteed appointment has had on clergy morale and pastoral excellence.
Our lengthy, complex, and arduous process for credentialing pastors derives from the guaranteed appointment. Because our approval obligates the conference for years to come, we insist on greater certainty by adding more steps, more interviews, more sources of approval, and more testing. The system has not created the reliable stream of healthy, gifted, fruitful clergy we would expect; rather, the complexity and length filters out many creative and gifted people, and allows entry to some who merely conform to the modest expectations of meeting the requirements but do not practice fruitful ministry.
Imagine conference leaders looking 15 years into the future, honestly appraising leadership needs for current congregations, focusing on communities that have not been reached or that cannot be reached by current churches, and considering what qualities and preparation most help us to fulfill the mission. Imagine shaping systems that cultivate leadership for the church to come—reaching people outside the faith, engaging alternative communities, and using unconventional means and unexpected settings for mission. Imagine inviting, preparing, and equipping a healthy mix of part-time, full-time, bi-vocational, lay, and ordained pastors that fit the mission field of the future. Imagine entry processes that are elegant in their simplicity, that embed people in the immediate practice of ministry while deepening theological and historical reflection upon the faith. Imagine systems tailored to a new generation, relevant to the changing populations we are called to serve, and effective in identifying and cultivating excellence, fruitfulness, and the spiritual capacity to mobilize people in Christ’s work. Imagine systems that foster creativity, experimentation, and exploration, and recapture the sense of adventure in ministry.
Changing systems will not happen with a single vote. As a consultant said, streamlining processes is like changing the tires on a bicycle while continuing to pedal forward up a steep hill.
How do our current recruitment, training, deployment, and evaluation systems support excellence, faithfulness, and fruitfulness? What aspects are not conducive to excellence and fruitfulness? What would you change?
The post suggests changing the default expectations of our credentialing processes. What’s your response to this idea? What would that mean for district committees and conference boards? What might result?
To delve deeper, reflect on Luke 9:1-6 in The Message. What does “Keep it simple; you are the equipment” mean for us?
For more, check out Lovett Weems’ Focus: The Real Challenges That Face the United Methodist Church, or his study with Ann A. Michel on young people and clergy trends, The Crisis of Younger Clergy .