In United Methodism, all full-connection elders, provisional elders, and associate clergy members are guaranteed an appointment. While I don't have a 2008 Book of Discipline yet, the 2004 version states it this way: : “Every effective elder in full connection who is in good standing shall be continued under appointment by the bishop...” (¶334.1). The history of the guaranteed appointment goes back to 1956, when there were fears that women clergy would not be treated fairly and that pastors might not be able to freely preach the Gospel for fear of being fired. The Discipline then read, “Every traveling preacher, unless retired, supernumerary, on sabbatical leave, or under arrest of character, must receive an appointment.” (¶149, 1956).
I've always worried a little about what this could mean ever since I became the chair of our conference's commission on equitable compensation. By church law, the cabinet, conference, and commission all bear the responsibility of insuring that all full-connection and provisional elders are compensated at the minimum salary level as set by each annual conference. So, what happens if there are more people than appointments? Who pays the compensation (which each elder has a claim upon) if there is no place to appoint them?
Before you say, "No way this can happen," the Western North Carolina conference is facing this very issue. A portion of Bishop Goodpaster's letter to the WNC Conference reads as follows (emphasis mine):
We entered our work together aware of the anxiety and turmoil that fill our society and many of our churches during this time. We knew there would be challenges. Eighteen of our churches decided to eliminate an Associate Pastor position; others, because of the economy, had notified us that the compensation package of the pastor would be lower in July, many at substantial cuts. We have a dozen of elders who will be returning from either Extension Ministry appointments or various Leaves. With the downturn in the value of the pension funds, fewer of our clergy opted to retire this year. And, in response to the continuing call of God, we have a number of Western North Carolina students graduating from seminary and returning to serve Christ in their home conference.When you have (a) a decrease in the number of pastoral appointments, (b) seminarians who are finishing school ready to serve, and (c) some pastors who have previously served in extension ministries that now are coming back into the pastorate (and guaranteed an appointment), pitted against (1) the situation of churches who have to scale back salaries and drop staff positions, (2) folks who have to work longer and retire at a later age, and (3) a denomination that is losing members... well, the math just doesn't work. Something has got to change.
We are not yet ready to notify any person or church about a projected appointment for the coming year. The reality: after working for more than four days, we arrived at an unprecedented moment. Having tentatively “filled” every open and available charge with a clergyperson, there were still more than two dozen clergy (most either full connected ordained elders or provisional elders) without a placement. That, of course, is unacceptable, and contrary to the principle of the itinerancy system that is part of our Wesleyan heritage.
We have now returned to our homes and offices to continue our work, committed to prayer and fasting, and to consultations with clergy and churches as we seek a way forward together. We will gather again during the week after Easter to continue and complete our work. We anticipate being able to share appointment information with you following that April meeting. We ask for your patience, prayers, and understanding. We are living in extraordinary times with never-before-experienced circumstances. We are absolutely confident that God will continue to bless our conference, and will provide a way. - Bishop Larry Goodpaster, 3/20/09 (the whole letter can be read here).
- Do away with the guaranteed appointment. Bishops and cabinets are often frustrated by having to appoint ineffective clergy year after year. And now, conference budgets can no longer afford to supplement pastor salaries for the sake of making appointments.
- Lower the conference minimum salary. While that's certainly not a popular notion, you could solve some of the problem of trying to appoint pastors who have a claim on minimum salary by lowering it.
- Limit the number of candidates approved by boards of ministry to the number of elders retiring. That's certainly not a popular notion, though, nor good for raising the next generation of clergy.
That is, unless we start to grow the Church again. That would be the best option.