United Methodists Discuss Clergy Job Guarantees

October 16, 2009

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom 

Should United Methodist pastors have a lifelong job guarantee?
The denomination's Study of Ministry Commission is examining the practice that has survived in The United Methodist Church even as it is disappearing from other U.S. workplaces.
How guaranteed appointments - which require bishops to appoint every elder in good standing to a local church - have an impact on the quality and diversity of clergy and whether the denomination can even continue to pay for such a system is up for debate.
In a report to directors of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry during their Oct. 8-10 meeting in Nashville, commission members said that while no formal recommendations have been proposed, changes in the principle of guaranteed appointment are being studied.
The Rev. Jasmine Smothers of Atlanta, for example, said her small group studying appointments believes a change is needed.
"We believe that going forward, appointments should not be guaranteed but should depend on missional needs, the health of the congregation and clergy effectiveness," Smothers said. "We believe this is essential for the continued health of our church."
Hurdle to church membership
In May 2007, a task force of the United Methodist Council of Bishops identified the system of guaranteed appointment of clergy as one of the biggest hurdles to reviving church membership. Having to deal with ineffective clergy drains time and energy from the denomination's mission to make disciples of Christ, the bishops said.
The Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr., distinguished professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, does not believe the system works well for anyone. "It was done initially as a limitation on the powers of the bishops," he said. "Then, it became a right of clergy."
Weems, co-author of "The Crisis of Younger Clergy," said the concept of guaranteed appointments "sends the wrong signals" to young adults considering the ministry, who tend to view it as a seniority system or a type of exclusive club.
The principle was adopted in 1956 as a way to protect pastors from arbitrary, sexist or racist abuses of authority. While the church would want to retain some protections for women and ethnic minorities, the current system "is having the consequence of supporting mediocrity," said Pacific Northwest Bishop Grant Hagiya, a commission member.
Hagiya added the church cannot continue to afford guaranteed appointments.
Fewer opportunities for some
Fundamental training and a "universal commitment" to open itinerancy regardless of gender or culture would be needed if job guarantees were lost, said M. Garlinda Burton, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women.
"We'd have to redouble our efforts to be sure we are looking equally at the gifts and talents and graces and calling of all people," she pointed out.
Burton said guaranteed appointments can have a dampening effect on the ministries of both second-career pastors and young people, who may have fewer opportunities for a placement where their gifts are needed.
"I think we have a system that has benefited some people just because they've been around for awhile," she said.
As the denomination is seeking to attract younger members, the number of people under 35 ordained or on the track to be ordained dropped from 3,210 in 1985 to 910 in 2008, according to a study by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary.
Young elders as a percentage of all elders dropped from 15.05 percent in 1985 to only 4.69 percent in 2005. The average age of elders is 52; for ordained deacons it is 51.