I don’t know which depresses me more: that the only way Methodists make a mention in the Wall Street Journal these days is through an in-house dispute over pastor job security or that we Methodists long ago surrendered our distinctive Christian identity, not to mention our theological imagination, by patterning our governance after the United States’ secular model.
That’s right, for those of you who don’t know- and really, lay people, there’s no reason you would need to know- we’ve got a Supreme Court!
Unlike the actual Supreme Court (or the Star Chamber I bet) ours apparently doesn’t observe the sabbath because on Sunday, the Judicial Council struck down a plan by denominational leadership, passed late this spring, to eliminate ‘guaranteed appointment’ for clergy.
Guaranteed appointment works just like tenure does for public school teachers. Just like public school systems, the United Methodist Church is beset by problems of outdated bureaucratic largesse and ineffective clergy that bishops are powerless to remove from ministry positions.
That’s right, as long as I don’t steal the offering plates or sleep with someone in my congregation, I can be demonstrably ineffective at my job but still be guaranteed an appointment at a church near you.
The motive for eliminating guaranteed appointment was to give bishops the freedom to make appointments based on ministry rather than the minister. One bishop quoted in the WSJ says:
“I’m frustrated, I’m saddened, and I’m disappointed. The church is upside down in that we are so focused on clergy, clergy rights and clergy security that the church can’t be in mission.”
As the WSJ went on to explain:
Bishops argued that the policy hinders their efforts to energize the denomination, which, like most mainline churches, is facing declining membership. The bishops, who make or reaffirm clergy appointments each year, say they must place some ineffective pastors in churches, or go through an administrative process that can take months or years to remove them from ministry.
Obviously this move was not without complaint.
Many laity and clergy pushed back, arguing that it gives greater power to bishops, puts clergy’s lives further in bishops hands, adds more risk and less reward for incoming clergy and makes the appointment of women and minority clergy less secure.
Of these arguments, the only one I found missionally compelling is the one about women and minority appointments.
I think the fear of bishops is largely a misguided scare tactic.
Any honest assessment of how the UMC is structured would point out that one of the reasons for our decline is that we do not empower our leaders- bishops- to lead. And on the denominational level there is no other person or body to do the leading.
Any honest assessment of the UMC would also point out that clergy ineffectiveness is a fact. Just ask the laity.
While it’s true removing guaranteed appointment would have made clergy’s appointments less secure, that reality would make us no different than all the clergy in Baptist, Pentecostal and Non-Denominational traditions (you know the ones who tend to have stronger, growing churches and innovative, entrepreneurial pastors).
Strong leaders, I think, invite the opportunity to demonstrate their effectiveness and grow from not hide from assessment.
Here’s Bishop Will Willimon earlier this year speaking about this issue. He puts it better than me and I agree with him wholeheartedly.