Saturday, November 14, 2009

Response to Tennessean Article

In today (Saturday)'s issue of the Tennessean, there is an article that suggests that United Methodist pastors may no longer have guaranteed jobs.

While the article is correct on all of its basic facts, I can see Methodist lay persons (especially those currently attending Exploration 2009) and others reading it and getting the wrong idea. So I offer the following clarifications and responses:

First of all, not all United Methodist ministers have guaranteed jobs. Ordained Elders in Full Connection are the only clergy who itenerate, going where they are sent in exchange for a guaranteed appointment that includes a minimum salary and benefits. Ordained Deacons, Provisional Elders and Deacons, and Licensed Local Pastors do not itenerate are not guaranteed a job.

The first sentence in the article is just plain wrong: "too many ministers, not enough jobs". The UMC, like most other mainline denominations, has a tremendous shortage of ordained clergy. So we make up for the shortage of elders by appointing licensed local pastors to serve in the place of an elder. In the Tennessee Conference, licensed local pastors outnumber ordained clergy in every district except one: Nashville. This is not to demean the service of our local pastors, who serve faithfully and selflessly. It is simply to say that this is what is laid out in our Book of Discipline.

The conversations being referenced by the Tennessean article are part of the Study of Ministry Commission, which was created by the 2004 General Conference and extended for another four years by the 2008 General Conference (I published my thoughts on these least year, which you can read here and here). This Commission does not have authority to make any changes. It only makes recommendations to the General Conference, which is the only body that can change the Book of Discipline and does not meet again until 2012.

The article rightly points this fact out, but they bury it in the very last paragraph where, according to the "inverted triangle" theory I learned in Journalism 101, most people have stopped reading. This may not be "burying the lead" but it's buries the most important fact in the story (this would kill the hype, however, which seems to be the whole point)!

Barring some massive financial shortfalls in the next two years or some other large event that forces a massive change of opinion across our connection, the 2012 General Conference is unlikely to end the practice of guaranteed appointments for Elders. It will end up being disadvantageous to women and minorities in many parts of the USA (as the Tennessean rightly points out), and the denomination is unlikely to change this traditional practice that has so long been at the core of our Methodist identity.

Should the practice of guaranteed appointments for Ordained Elders (which I am in the process of becoming) end? Maybe, maybe not. I can see both sides of the issue.

Guaranteed appointments are good for inclusivity, but only if a Bishop is willing to take risks and appoint people who might not otherwise be accepted because of their gender or race. And it ensures that churches that might otherwise go for long stretches without a pastor are served.

On the other hand, ineffective clergy can keep getting moved around with little accountability once they are fully ordained. This fact has made our ordination process long and drawn out, overly burdensome, and often adversarial and graceless in the way it is practiced.

The Tennessean article is right about one thing. Our system as it is currently constructed is probably unsustainable and some changes need to be made before it collapses under its own weight. Exactly what those changes are should be decided on by smarter and more experienced people than I.

8 comments:

Craig L. Adams said...

Thanks, Matt. this is an excellent correction to the article. I was attracted to the article because of (what I perceive to be) the abusive behavior of our current bishop in relation to the clergy under appointment. One theoretical expanation would be: maybe there are too many clergy, the denomination is declining too quickly in this state, and he needs to get rid of a few.

So my initial response was to give the "too many clergy, too few jobs"concept more credence than it deserved.

Thanks for setting the record straight.

johnmeunier said...

I'd like a little more analysis on the issue of clergy v. jobs.

Local pastors do not take spots that elders could serve - at least not in Indiana. Local pastors take pulpits that could not support an elder in terms of minimum salary and benefits.

The reason local pastors outnumber elders in many places is because we have so many small churches.

To decide where the jobs/clergy fault line is, you have to start by looking at how many charges there are in an annual conference that can support an elder. That will be the starting point.

Pastor Gary Taylor said...

There is one other category of clergy in the United Methodist system that you inadvertently left out, probably because we are so few in number, Associate Members of Annual Conferences. We are local pastors who have completed additional work required by the Disciple, plus work required by the Board of Ordained Ministry, and agreed to be itinerant. We also have guaranteed appointments, like elders.

Matt Kelley said...

Yes, thanks for that addition, Gary. I apologize that I left out Associate Members. They are also valued and serve faithfully.

Craig, I can't really comment on Bishop Wills other than to say that he's been very supportive of my congregation during the past few difficult months since the fire.

Craig L. Adams said...

Just to let you know: I live & serve in Michigan.

It's nice to have a supportive leader.

Craig L. Adams said...

Oh, and one more thought: John's rebuttal gives food for thought. Maybe it's just the elders' appointments that are drying up. That is possible isn't it?

ajscom said...

As I have stated on my blog, multiple annual conferences are having a hard time finding appointments for pastors. While not all pastors fall under the perceived sense of guarantee, the reluctance of bishops and cabinets to decline appointments (and of board of ordained ministries to remove clergy from good standing)leads to the too-many-pastors-for-too-few-churches dynamic. Other factors I mention include the movement of elders out of extension ministries and back into the appointment system and the lack of other out-side-the-box thinking in appointment making.

Anonymous said...

Something sesperately needs to be done in Tennessee. The present system is corrupt (thank you Bishop W.). All the current system is doing is "passing the trash!"