What to Do Now That Security of Appointment Is Back

Ever since it passed on a consent calendar vote, without being debated on the floor of General Conference, it seemed odd. If not that, at least unsatsifying. One of the hallmarks of who we are as United Methodists went away without even a dissenting vote. No one “on the floor” (read: a voting delegate) realized what had happened until their smartphone erupted with text messages reminding them that they just consented to do away with the concept of security of appointment.

Two different attempts were made to use parliamentary procedures to ask for a debate and reconsideration. But the body had moved on.

In the midst of all the maneuvering, a question was asked to the Judicial Council, does the end Security of Appointment violate the restrictive rules regarding the general superintending roles of our bishops as well as a clergy person’s right to an appeal? And now we know the answer: Yes it does.

There was much I found troubling about the doing away with security of appointment language. I was concerned for women and ethnic minorities in the appointment process. Though there was a path proposed to bring a complaint against a bishop, who would risk such actions and how many lives would have been tragically altered through unwise or not completely informed decisions. Additionally, itineracy is a covenant. The basics of the covenant have been long honored: United Methodist Churches receive a pastor. Congregations will love, support, and follow their pastor’s leadership. Likewise, clergy agree to go where sent. Unless we choose to seek appointment outside the local church, we do not get to submit resumes (at least theoretically); we do not get to choose. But we promise to go trusting God’s wisdom and once in place that we’ll do the best job we can as long as we are there.

All the conversation about “guaranteed appointment” (a misnomer) is what to do about people who do not go where they are sent (or leave when they are sent someplace new) and what to do about people who do not do the best job they can where they go. But there’s another side. The proposal was that effectiveness in current appointment would having bearing on future appointments. This is true now. Have a record of churches not paying apportionments? Then you are not as likely to get a pay raise when you move. Now a lot of this is motivated by the United Methodist Church having a glut of clergy. Furthermore, there’s a projected bubble when our recruitment efforts to replace the retiring baby-boomers are coming online while our baby-boomers are hanging around longer than excepted, thanks in part to the Great Recession.

Medium term, that bubble will go away and decisions based upon a consistent supply-side surplus will be seen as having been short-sighted. Because the covenant remains intact, there will not be a wave of younger clergy (younger in age or younger in years of service) unwilling to go where sent because of anxieties over potential for being effective in a context. Security of appointment goes away and I imagine many aspiring young clergy might choose another path until something more to their liking becomes available. Indeed, I’ve know several young clergy who possessed gifts and grace for the office of elder but sought deacons orders, not because of nature of calling but in order to maintain control over work and living circumstances.

I believe that security of appointment abiding will also continue to serve as a tool for recruiting younger clergy. Some of my younger clergy friends feel such a zest for ministry. They feel that since they are not given appointments they think they “deserve”, older clergy are some how blocking them from where they should be in their own 20 year plan. But this serves as a reminder about collective wisdom. Contrary to what we want to believe, we do not always know what is best (I can say that with some since of integrity now that I’m 40). But to continue to say, “give your life to God and the United Methodist Church” and to be able to respond “you’ll have a place to serve” is important. Very important.

In an age where more and more churches are station appointments and not circuits, where  the main articulations of  connectionalism to the local congregation are apportionments and itineracy, to do away with one moves us closer and closer to a congregational polity. And with that congregational polity, is a call system where churches vet clergy. It also says yes to individual wisdom over collective wisdom, to say, implicitly, that we do not trust that God moves in an appointive process.

In an age that values youth and outside the box thinking, we need to affirm that with experience comes wisdom. That what is sometimes perceived as inaction is actually impatience on the part of the observer.

But that’s not to say there doesn’t need to be change.

  • We need to help well-intentioned people who do not possess the graces for ministry exit the process before they have $100k in debt.
  • We need to help people who feel trapped in their jobs. 20 year old seminary debt, a degree that serves no purpose other than working in the church, and a system that necessitates not having the “nest egg” of equity built up in owning a home are all tough circumstances. We called these people into such circumstances. We have some responsibility for helping people transition into a sustainable post-ministry life.
  • We need to answer ontological questions of ordination: is it just access to the pulpit or does some kind of change happen? I think we might have a clue on this one as it seems Judicial Council has not affirmed pragmatism at any cost.
  • We need to give well-meaning servants who have never had the chance to shine access to a paid sabbatical that large-church pastors often receive so that they, too, can continue as faithful servants.
  • We need to find ways to bring our younger clergy along… traditioning them, having their voice heard and validated as we move forward together. I’m not certain this means appointing young people to places of high stress. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the concept of 10,000 hours comes to mind here.
  • We need to continue to move towards a concept of adaptability being a primary skill in an appointive system where a clergy person has all the tools to develop new skills based upon the needs of the appointment.
  • We need to think through remuneration. If we are moving back towards parsonages, do we need to reconsider superannuate homes? Should there be a cap on compensation? Should the floor be higher than it currently is, especially considering student loan debt levels for seminary.
  • Do we need to re-embrace the notion of cooperative parishes and multiple clergy on circuits, tangibly affirming that we are stronger together than we are apart?

There is plenty of time to prayerfully consider these questions, assessing both our needs as a denomination short and long term as well as discerning how God would have us move and be.

Do Nothing General Conference?

Once the Judicial Council ruling about Plan UMC came down on the last day of General Conference, it began. People were saying that millions of apportionment dollars were spent and nothing got accomplished. And now that Judicial Council has overturned the General Conference’s action on doing away with Security of Appointment (Guaranteed Appointment is a misnomer), the accusation has only amplified.

But it’s simply not true.

While I understand frustration, General Conference ultimately did what it was supposed to. Folk came together to perfect our Book of Discipline. They passed a budget. They listened to our episcopal leaders as they guided and lead. They worshipped. Somewhere in the midst of committee meetings, plenaries, sidebars, caucusing, meals, and cups of coffee God was experienced. Sometimes it was powerful and sometimes the still, small voice.

Just because the ultimate result of all the intense holy conferencing was, ultimately “No”, it does not mean General Conference failed. It does not matter whether the issue at stake was issues of human sexuality, security of appointment, or the structure of our general church the people of the United Methodist Church gathered for Holy Conferencing and came to group of decisions that are now reflected in our polity. Am I happy with all those decisions? No. And I think that anyone who said they were perfectly happy with all that went on in Tampa would not be telling the whole truth, much like those who would claim nothing happened are not being entirely truthful.

The words enshrined in what will be the 2012 Book of Discipline do not represent the final word on who we are, just who we are right now. And it is an imperfect volume–it represents conciliar statements that seem to sometimes contradict each other. But that somewhat misses the point: in our ordination vows we are asked “will we uphold” our polity, not “do we agree with”. A small but important distinction that belies the call to respect collective wisdom over individual wisdom and group process over isolated decision-making.

In that collective wisdom the United Methodist Church did the following in Tampa:

  • Affirmed our ecumenical ties
  • Began the process of healing wounds caused by the United Methodist Church’s involvement in the removal of Native American People from their lands
  • Approved a “leaner, meaner” budget
  • Shrunk the size of many of our boards. Hopefully this move will mean greater oversight–which implies more meetings (not less, and thus not necessarily a money-saving measure).
  • Developed a fund for training of young clergy
  • Made the beginning steps for recognizing that we are a national church structure trying to live into the reality that we are a global church… without trying to duplicate the role of the World Methodist Council
  • and much… much… more…

And that makes sense because the People called United Methodist are a People on a journey. We haven’t arrived at the perfect life of holiness but that doesn’t mean we stop trying, either in our spiritual lives, our communities of faith, or our denomination.

In 3 and 1/2 years, the People of the United Methodist Church will gather in Portland, Oregon for two weeks. There will be powerful worship, many committee meetings, plenaries, sidebars, meals, coffees and even caucuses. Maybe we’ll learn to behave better, listen more, trust more by then. Maybe we’ll even remember that the Book of Discipline allows for the Council of Bishops or the General Conference to ask Judicial Council to rule on the constitutionality of proposed legislation. This would save everyone time and anxiety.

I’d be willing to guess right now that we will not all agree with everything that comes out of GC2016. But we’ll uphold it, try our best to perfect it, and all the while loving God and each other in the journey.