Monday, March 23, 2009

Guaranteed Pastoral Appointments - A Luxury We Can Afford Anymore?

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.

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).
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.
  • 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.
I don't have a good solution, and I will be praying for Bishop Goodpaster and his cabinet. But I know the problem will be one not just for Western North Carolina, but for many conferences in the Connection.

That is, unless we start to grow the Church again. That would be the best option.
Your ideas?



Anonymous said...

Great post. I had been working on a blog with the same idea but this one based on the same problem in North Georgia. Thanks for posting this.

"CAPTAIN DAVE" said...

"aarontiger" makes a good point in his similar post (mentioned above): are we working as a jurisdiction to address this problem? or even across the entire connection? If South Dakota needs pastors, there's your appointment! 'There's a UM church on Guam with your name on it! God bless you in your ministry!' Yes, UM pastors are guaranteed an appointment, but does it necessarily have to be in their home conference?

David said...

I have struggled with this same issue, and for me it boils down to your first point.
I think we are not taking advantage of the ability to remove ineffective clergy from the "guaranteed appointment" process. You are correct that the terminology of 334.1 remains in 2008. I would point you to the remainder of 334. I suspect a fair number of clergy would be eligible for termination based on the refusal to take an appointment of the Bishop alone (anyone said no to an initial appointment "offer"?) The secondary is that the standards for any clergyperson are almost unattainable, and I expect that no clergyperson is fully without fault, and therefore unassailable on the basis of failure to complete the pastoral duties. The leeway granted for removing clergy is immense. Maybe it is time to start exercising it more freely.

Adam M. Roberts said...

Hey Sky, being in N. GA I can definitely say this is a very real dilemma. Rumor here now is that many FTLP's are going to be pulled because of the number of elders in need of appointment. We just had 65 provisional elder/deacon candidates w approx 45 of them passing the board. That is alot, and about 40% higher than usual. Pair that with 3 retirements this year when we usually have 30 (stock market), and churches that are eliminating associate positions due to budget, and it's the perfect storm of sudden over-supply. We've got to get better at appointing across conferences I think. But, who's volunteering to go?