Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Future of Episcopacy in the UMC – Part 4

Subtitle: The Future of the Itinerancy?

As I have heard stories across our jurisdiction about pastoral appointment-making woes, I remembered an old book I read right out of seminary: Send Me? The Itineracy In Crisis (before any of you say it’s not that old of a book, I looked in the front and it was published 16 years ago).

One fact that the editor, Donald Messer, lifted up was this: “The Commission for the Study of Ministry noted that ‘if itinerancy is to remain a viable option for the church, issues of injustice and inequity, as well as accountability, availability, and authority must be addressed,’” a quotation from the 1988 General Conference’s advance edition of Daily Christian Advocate.

It’s nineteen years later. It was not addressed. As a result, we have mediocrity and poor clergy morale. Clergy will tell their superintendent that they can’t move because of family and personal needs. Being compassionate has been a plus to clergy compared to the previous manner of itineration, but are congregations being served well by it? Now, two classes of clergy exist: itinerant and non-itinerant. This has lead to a situation that was called in the 1988 Episcopal Address as “separate and unequal, with all of the advantages going to the non-itinerant.” Has anyone asked what this has done to the churches that the church is supposed to serve?

Housing allowances in lieu of parsonages have been good for clergy finances and assets. But has it served an itinerant church well?

And what happened to the vow UM clergy made, to be appointed “without reserve?” Do we just wink at that and cross our fingers when asked that?

Korea abolished guaranteed appointments in 1978. They had lost trust with the episcopacy and the appointive system. Local congregations chose their pastors and governed their own structure. As a result, the membership went from 597,691 in 1978 to 1,125,667 in 1990. Observations? The Rev. Joon Kwan Un noted that ministerial concern went from “politicking” to “ministerial competency.” “Pastors had to become more sensitive to the needs of the congregation and of the possibility of upbuilding the community of faith…” Longer pastorates emerged, which strengthened church growth. The negative? A phenomenon called “local churchism” took place, and connectionalism became questioned even more.

It may be that the bishops need to lead us through some rough waters: do we need to abolish the guaranteed appointment in order to remain connectional? United Methodism has always maintained that a bishop’s “power” comes from the ability to make pastoral appointments. Does the guaranteed appointment tie the hands of the bishop?

If bishops and other leaders don’t step up and address these concerns in a denomination that is losing membership rapidly, the laity may do as Korea and vote to get rid of the guaranteed appointment and bishops’ appointive power. The next logical step would be to say, “Do we really need bishops?”

It’s been nineteen years since the bishops identified the problem. Are they, are we, ever going to address it?


To read other entries on the Future of the Episcopacy, click "Bishops" immediately below.


lcreekmo said...

Sky, I agree, this is a real challenge for our church. I've been a member of a UM church whose pastors only leave upon making bishop, and I've been a member of local churches where pastors rotate on somewhere between a 3-10 year cycle. Emphasis on the mid-range of that spread.

Those numbers fr Korea are astounding. Are there other factors at work there as well??

What I disliked most about the church where the pastors rarely rotated was that a bit of a cult of personality developed. While the "priesthood of all believers" was still celebrated, in a congregation with one leader year in and out, dependence on the minister is understandable. And frankly, in some large [or even midsize] congregations, a talented minister's skills may lead to two levels of dependence: spiritual and administrative.

I think it's interesting to consider [which you undoubtedly have already], what of what we do is habit, and what is core to being Methodist? What is necessary to call ourselves Methodist, and what new might we add to benefit that? What that is old is hindering us?

Anonymous said...

cfI appreciate Sky's analysis. I would also add that you cannot change the nature of the episcopacy in United Methodism without major changes in the nature of the itinerancy.

If we are going to maintain itinerancy as it is presently constituted then we will need to go to smaller annual conferences and give the power of the appointment to our superintendents. We could give them the title "bishop". I think this would be more efficient because our bishops are only in an episcopal area for eight years and it probably takes at least six years for them to know the clergy well enough to make appointments without major input from the district superintendents.

Another option would be to use a modified call system like the ECUSA. Bishops "nominate" several pastors (often three) to a vacant pulpit and the vestry either selects one of them or asks the bishop to nominate three more. I like this option the best. Also, in the ECUSA the bishop selects the candidates for ordained ministry -- a role in the UMC that is provided by the district committee on ordained ministry. I think this would work well. The bishop selects the candidates before they shell out 50 grand for seminary. The Board of Ordained Ministry, however, could have the final say as to whether or not these candidates qualify for ordination.

My personal option would be the ECUSA model of smaller conferences, longer episcopal tenures, a modified "call" system and the bishop selecting postulants. And I'm not even, nor have I ever been, an Episcopalean!