Another Way Forward: Give Local Churches Power to Interview Potential Pastors

Jason Micheli —  March 21, 2019 — 2 Comments


A couple of years ago I got head-hunted for several senior ministry positions by Vanderbloemen, a private church-staffing company. Just as in many other industries, local churches contract with Vanderbloemen to find, vet, and recommend candidates for open pastorates and staffing vacancies. 

 

“How’d you find me?” I asked the head-hunter. 

 

“You’ve got a large platform— came across you on the internet— you’ve got executive experience in a large church, and,  most importantly, you’re a United Methodist. We need Methodists. These are United Methodist congregations for whom were conducting the search.” 

 

And so went my introduction to the reality across our denomination.

Those who pledge fealty to the itinerant system ignore that there already are and have been for some time multiple parallel appointive systems in the United Methodist Church.

 

Around the same time I got head-hunted, for example, a prominent large church pastor who was considering an episcopal nomination conceded that in the event of his/her election to the episcopacy his/her congregation would employ a private firm like Vanderbloemen to identify a successor. Meanwhile, in every conference in Methodism there are discrete groups of “limited itinerancy” clergy who will not be moved based on a spouse’s career, children’s needs, or other factors. Conservative clergy will never be sent to certain parishes in a given conference. Ditto liberal clergy.

 

I mean— does anyone seriously believe that when Adam Hamilton retires from Church of the Resurrection that the area bishop will simply select another pastor from the annual conference to be appointed in his stead? Why should only the large, leading churches be granted such autonomy over their future?

 

Every competent pastor knows that in a congregation “anyone can serve but leaders are chosen.” Of course, in a United Methodist congregation this maxim may be true for everyone but the pastor, whom no one in the congregation chose.

 

It simply is not true that United Methodism has a single appointive system for clergy called iterancy, and this is a poorly-kept secret for everyone but parishioners in local churches most of whom continue to accept that they have, at best, a limited and passive role in the pastor who will lead them. 

In light of the massive disruption the 2019 General Conference has visited upon local churches, the question of agency in the appointive process is not a minor one. Will Willimon says the governing ethos in the Book of Discipline since our founding in 1968 is “You can’t trust the local church.” Now however— no matter where folks fall on the question of human sexuality— the ham-fisted decision-making process at the 2019 General Conference has made plain that local churches would be foolish to trust the leadership of the larger church much less tie their future to it.

 

Why should local churches, whom the larger UMC does not trust and whom the larger UMC has just done irrevocable damage, rely upon the same institution to send them, unilaterally so, pastoral leaders? 

 

Unmistakably, the fallout from GC2019 has made the local unit of the United Methodist Church more essential than at any time since our founding as a bureaucratic entity. The brand is damaged. For about half the population, we no longer are automatically the people of open hearts, open minds, and open doors. We can’t even claim any more that “Methodist means mediocre” as the UMC has just proven quite adept at harming people. Now more than ever, local churches deserve the opportunity to be empowered to make leadership decisions for their congregations’ next faithful step out of this morass. 

 

As famed Methodist theologian Albert Outler argued back in the 60’s, the Book of Discipline’s appointive process encourages clergy who are concerned more with how they’re perceived by those who fix their appointments (district superintendents and bishops) than with their effectiveness in the local parish. A system, Outler said, where pastors are delivered to local churches by an annual conference produces pastors who think their primary duty is to deliver apportionments to their annual conference. At the same time, the current practice of appointment-making, where a 1/4 to 1/5 of all clergy in a conference are moved annually, requires an inordinate amount of time from cabinent members.

 

A friend who is a DS in another conference confessed to me at General Conference:

“No sooner is the appointment process done for the year than I’m back to talking with clergy about next year’s appointments. It’s a process that justifies the staffing necessary to sustain it.”

 

This same DS observed that as his position— and even the episcopal positions— become less attractive across the connection (because of capped maxium salaries, institutional decline, and barriers to effectiveness) more and more the appointments of pastors to local churches are in the hands of people who have no firsthand experience of having led healthy, growing congregations. 

As Richard Bass, the former editor at the Alban Institute argues: the itinerant, appointive system cannot survive a new iteration of Methodism in a post-Christian culture. Nothing frustrates the missional energy of a congregation like having no agency in who their leader is.”

 

Add to this the reality post-GC2019 that, with salary and seniority still a primary driver of appointment-making decisions, local churches, who now must stake out a position in the culture war over sexuality, must trust the larger church not to send them a pastor whose position is at odds with their own. The passage of the Traditional Plan and its subsequent furor makes it unavoidable that our itinerant system of sending pastors to churches will have yet another permuation to it; General Conference has made it inescapable that every conference will have parallel appointive tracks. Given that United Methodism has always had multiple systems for fixing pastors’ appointments and that General Conference will complicate this reality even more so…

Why would we not empower all local churches with the same agency that the Staff-Parish Relations Committee at Church of the Resurrection will be granted?

 

I say all of this too not as a gripe or with any grievance about how the present process has served me. I’m a reasonably competent, good-looking white guy. The process has served me quite well and, despite all of the above, I’m grateful for it.

 

Still…

The United Methodist Church’s present system of appointment-making is now incompatible with the mission of the local church. 

Here’s another way forward in light of GC2019–

 

Free local churches to interview candidates (from a slate approved by the DS and Bishop) as well as candidates the local church solicits as well and make a selection in consultation with their DS and pending the final approval by the Bishop. 

 

Such a process would retain our Discipline’s tradition of appointment-making being by the authority of the bishop, yet it would also return us to the true, original spirit of itinernancy. Our vows, after all, frame itinerancy not in terms of fealty to the larger organization but to the spreading of the Gospel. The form is meant to follow the function not vice versa. Itinerancy is meant to guarantee adaptable clergy so that the Gospel may be served best in each local congregation; it’s not meant to serve the career interests of clergy or the current bureaucratic arrangement. 

 

As I see it, giving local churches more agency in the appointment process would require SPRC leaders to be more accountable to their congregations for their role in the church’s pastoral leadership no longer will be passive. It’s more likely the pastor and parish will be able to build an effective partnership for ministry since the latter will have invested time and effort to find the former. Thus it would force local churches to be intentional about their vision and missional needs and it would share more ownership of staffing those needs with the people who know them best. In addition, it would link salary increases and effectiveness measurements more closely to performance in the local congregation than with pleasing the hierarchy.

 

It would make the connection less dependent upon layers of apportionment-funded bureucracy, and it would force clergy out of our comfortable guild of guarranteed appointments (which is not sustainable anyways) and push clergy to be more entreneurial in our ministry, an attribute that will only benefit the church. Finally, in light of General Conference, such a process will require transparency on the issue of sexuality on the part of both pastor and parish. 

 

I went through Vanderbloemen’s interview process. Mostly, I wanted to learn their methodology. 

 

The staff person in charge of the search had first spent a month at the church in question, interviewing staff people, church leaders, former employees, and random people in the community. The questions I was asked to answer totaled over a dozen pages. I eventually demurred and removed my name from consideration, but had I not I would’ve been sifted through four layers of interviews before being interviewed by anyone from the congregation itself. This compared to the single form used in my annual conference consisting of a few boxes from which SPRC members are asked to check just before Christmastime.

 

I also learned the church paid the search company a fraction of what it normally sends in apportionments to its district office.

Jason Micheli

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2 responses to Another Way Forward: Give Local Churches Power to Interview Potential Pastors

  1. On much I don’t agree with you, doctrinally speaking, Jason. (And on much I do.)

    But, man oh man, are you ever brilliant in your analysis of the problems in UMC governance and polity!

    We just completed a pastoral change cycle. The board turned the cotton-candy meet-‘n-greet the DS was expecting into a fairly hard-boiled interview. The DS didn’t like that much, but too bad — after being burned once by this bishop, we’re not settling for business as usual. We were fully prepared, if necessary, not to sign the compensation agreement, let the chips fall where they may.

    This post of yours ought to be required reading for every DS and bishop in North America; isolated in their administrative fiefdoms, they are totally clueless regarding the revolution brewing at the board-and-pew level.

    Blessings!

  2. This is a conversation I have had in my head for a long time. The appointment process is broken and we need to learn something soon to fix it. Bishop’s and District Superintendents can’t possibly know the pastors and the local church well enough to make good decisions about who to send where. I’ve served for 45 years under appointment and some have been good ones and some not so good. Most of the not so good could have been prevented with just a little knowledge about me and about my style of ministry and some depth of knowledge about the local church to which the appointment was made. 20 minutes of conversation and then a phone call to request acceptance doesn’t seem like the best way to go.

    I’ve offered support help for the process as an extra staff person for the conference related to gathering data on the pastor and the church. We have more information available than the Cabinet uses to make a decision. Even a brief look at the demographics of a congregation and their track record could help. And even a brief look at pastoral effectiveness could be useful too. The UMC Data Center could line up retrieval of data to correspond to the pastor as easily as it does for a congregation. Measuring attendance and finances is not enough. A better job of interviewing would help. Every Cabinet should see the movie Money Ball and think about what it can do to figure out who would work better in certain situations.

    My Dad was a DS and he said, that the first ten percent of the appointments were good ones. The next ten were okay and the rest were just moving chairs on the titanic.

    SPRC’s would have to have a great deal of training to be able to put together a profile of a pastor for their congregation before this would work, but it’s work a shot.

    That’s my 2 cents worth.

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