Ministry Study Commission Considers Changes in Guaranteed Appointment, Ordination Process

October 23, 2009

By Vicki Brown*

The Study of Ministry Commission is considering changes in the principle of guaranteed appointment and the ordination process, as well as clarification of the orders of elders and deacons, commission members reported to the directors of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry at their fall meeting in Nashville.
Bishop Grant Hagiya, episcopal leader of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference and the Alaska Conference, said the goal of the commission, created by the 2008 General Conference, is to remove obstacles and rules to allow "creative ministry to thrive." The commission, chaired by Bishop Al Gwinn, episcopal leader of the North Carolina Annual Conference, met Oct. 5-7 in Nashville.
Gwinn expressed excitement about the work the commission did during that meeting.
"It is exciting to see how persons from all over the church with so many varied backgrounds and callings are finding energy and consensus around these important issues facing our church as we seek to be an effective partner with God in our day," Gwinn said.
Hagiya stressed that while the commission wanted to give the Board members an idea of what is being considered, no formal recommendations have been proposed yet.
Several members of the commission, including two young clergy who communicated through video conferencing, reported on various aspects of ministry that may be changed.
The Rev. Jasmine Smothers, a clergywoman in Atlanta, Ga., said her small group has been looking at appointments and itinerancy.
"We believe that going forward, appointments should not be guaranteed, but should depend on missional needs, the health of the congregation, and clergy effectiveness. We believe this is essential for the continued health of our church," Smothers said.  
Smothers said her group does believe that itinerancy is a response to a particular call of God. "What we will recommend is an examination of itinerancy and how the process can work better across annual conference lines."
She said there must also be an educational process about why The United Methodist Church has itinerancy and how it is integral to the mission of the church.
Several Board members expressed concern about the downside of removing the principal of guaranteed appointment, particularly the effect that would have on the appointment of women and racial-ethnic clergy.
Hagiya said the principal of guaranteed appointment began with the ordination of women because women who were being ordained were not always receiving appointments.
"What we want to do is retain protections for women and minorities. But guaranteed appointment is having the consequence of supporting mediocrity," he said. And, he added, the reality is that the church cannot continue to afford guaranteed appointment.
Smothers said the members of the commission have been in touch with staff at the Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the General Commission on Religion and Race about how those groups have been marginalized in the past and how to work to keep what is good about guaranteed appointment.
The Rev. Kim Cape, executive director of New Church Growth and Transformation in the Southwest Texas Conference, said she was someone who had benefited from guaranteed appointment.
She suggested that one option would be for an ordained elder to have the first two appointments guaranteed, then have subsequent appointments based on effectiveness.
Smothers said a trial period with security of appointment has been discussed.
The Rev. Meg Lassiat, director of Student Ministries, Vocation, and Enlistment for GBHEM, reported that another small group is examining issues related to candidacy, mentoring, licensing, provisional membership, and the steps related to each of those processes.
Lassiat said actions of the 2008 General Conference in decreasing the membership requirement from two years to one, decreasing years of certified candidacy from two years to one, and decreasing the provisional period from three to two years had effectively taken three years off the old process for ordination.
Lassiat said other parts of the process that could be eliminated or condensed have been identified. She said the commission is considering the effect of these recommendations and seeking feedback from the church before final decisions are made.
"We are also wrestling with the reality that the process is implemented by and participated in by a wide variety of people with varying degrees of effectiveness…  Most of the roadblocks are created by either the candidates themselves or those implementing the process who are ineffective in their assigned task," Lassiat said. 
Examples of that include district superintendents who do not respond to inquiring candidates or don't respond in a timely manner; inadequately trained mentors who do not understand the online candidacy system; bad pairings between candidates and mentors, and redundancy in the work students complete in seminary and with their district committees and annual conference boards of ordained ministry.
She said the group is proposing radical changes in mentoring, moving from individual mentoring to group discernment appropriate to the candidate's context and location. She said annual conferences would have flexibility in how they did that and gave the example of Texas, which now has a candidacy summit each year.
The Rev. Taylor Fuerst of Houston, Tex., said her group was looking at sacramental authority, and she expects them to recommend little change. "We believe sacramental authority still resides in and is rooted in the elder."
The Rev. Ianther Mills, superintendent of the Washington-East District in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, reported on the need to clarify the orders. "We affirm the distinctiveness of the role of elders and the role of deacons. That is to say, elders are called to Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service, and deacons are called to Word and Service."
But Mills said the commission believes confusion exists about the purpose of an order, so that will be examined further.
*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.