In the past few weeks, our bishop and cabinet sent out a letter: "Making the System Work." You can find a copy of the letter here.
The letter has rubbed some clergy the wrong way. Some see it as a threat. Others see it as void of anything pastoral. I see it as a retelling of what is already in the Book of Discipline. The problem is, we really haven't followed the spirit or the letter of the Discipline when it comes to the itinerancy. We are "selectively itinerant" these days, in my opinion, because we have been allowed to be. From the letter:
- The mission of the local church comes first. As ministers, we are called to serve, not to be served. Our primary effort will be to place the best qualified minister, according to the needs of the church. Churches involved in mission and ministry for Jesus Christ and supportive of the connection will be given first consideration.
- The appointment process deserves our honesty, a view for the good of the whole connection. Ministers are members of the Annual Conference and open to appointment in any part of the Conference.
We all know that while this is the theory, it has not been the practice. Some clergy have been truly itinerant, serving in varying appointments (and often across state lines, as our conference includes Western Tennessee and the Purchase Area of Kentucky). Some have requested that they not be appointed outside of a metropolitan area or across a state line. Some have citied educational needs for children, vocational needs for spouses, and consideration for those with aging parents - the list of variables is long and convoluted, and not without merit or concern.
But to complicate matters, we started selling off parsonages a few years ago. When this issue was raised a few years ago, someone found a realtor who spoke on the floor of the annual conference and said that one could "break even" on buying a house and selling it within 6 years (the length of a district superintendent tenure). I suppose that would be possible in a FEW places in the U.S... but nowhere close to where I live! As a result, we have added another variable to the itinerancy: the buying and selling of a house. Of course this is not a new phenomenon to most professions, but in our annual conference, clergy often move at the drop of a hat, and even in a "good" conference year pastoral appointments are rarely close to "done" until a month before a move happens. Four weeks is a very short window to (1) list a house for sale, (2) pack to move, (3) say farewell to a congregation, (4) move into a house that (5) hopefully you've bought (and been able to sell the other one), and (6) begin work at your new church/parish.
I think all of these more recent "convolutions" for the itinerancy makes it very difficult for our bishop and cabinet to try and "Make the System Work," because our ideas and practices about the itinerancy have strayed so far away from the ideal. When bishops and cabinets send us such statements, they sound harsh because we've been casual about being truly itinerant. But all of us who were ordained elders agreed to be appointed "without reservation." If we weren't comfortable with that, we had the option of being a local pastor, appointed year to year, but without a guaranteed appointment.
If we look at all of this from the standpoint of our laity, however, we begin to see another side. They can very easily and accurately say, "We have been faithful to what we've been asked to do." They have provided parsonages (or housing allowances), paid salaries, pensions, and insurance. They want the best pastor for their church, because that is what the church promises to provide for them. It is very hard to defend against the claim of some of our laity that our leadership has failed them. We have. And that's a corporate "we" - that's the nature of the covenant and the Connection.
Problem? The same institution that says: "The mission of the local church comes first. As ministers, we are called to serve, not to be served," also allowed parsonages to be sold off and allowed clergy to be selectively itinerant. Can we blame this bishop and cabinet? Not fully. But we clergy ultimately do have to take responsibility for our failure of leadership. That's the nature of the Order of Elder - we are in COVENANT with each other to serve the church.
Are we thinking ahead? One thing I learned from my mentor Don Saliers many years ago was this: The Holy Spirit rarely rejects good planning. In these difficult times, I think the Spirit demands it. It's our job to lead our congregations - and to serve, not to be served. That requires a lot of prayer, planning, and sacrifice, all with a Gospel bent.