General Church Tackles Guaranteed Appointments

March 24, 2010

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

A United Methodist commission charged with developing ways to improve clergy effectiveness is considering recommending the elimination of guaranteed appointments.
In a joint meeting with the Committee on Faith and Order this week, members of the Ministry Study Commission raised concerns about the practice of promising some clergy lifetime jobs.
"We decided that the system of guaranteed appointments has created mediocrity, an expectation that clergy will have a job no matter how effective they are and that churches will get a pastor even if they are not functioning in a healthy way or participating in living missionally," said the Rev. Amy Gearhart, an elder in the Missouri Annual (regional) Conference and a commission member.
The ministry commission and the Committee on Faith and Order met and shared their work March 16 as both prepare reports for the 2012 General Conference, the top legislative body of the denomination.
The joint meeting was to share and get "push back" on some of the issues both groups are grappling with, said Bishop Alfred Gwinn, chair of the ministry study group.
The Committee on Faith and Order was given leadership in reflecting on matters of faith, doctrinal teaching, order and discipline in the church.
The ministry commission has named the major issues they are working on "big rocks." The team is focusing on recruitment, discernment and formation for professional ministry; ordination and sacramental authority; and clergy appointments.
"We want to concentrate on the big rocks in the jar and not get overloaded with the sand and small rocks," Gwinn said.
Deploying clergy
Historically, biblically and theologically, The United Methodist Church has practiced itineration, Gearhart said. Having bishops assign clergy to churches has been a tradition in United Methodism dating back to John Wesley.
However, clergy need to understand itinerancy is not something they do in exchange for a guaranteed appointment to a church, she said.
"We have heard pastors say, 'I will give you the practice of itinerating my family and my life and my household if you give me a guaranteed appointment.'"
The two are not meant to be used against each other, she said.
"Itinerancy is effective and a response to covenantal obedience to a particular call from God," she said. "Itinerancy is not just about moving."
Difficult path to ordination
The Rev. Jay Williams of the New York Annual (regional) Conference said the church's fear of not having enough young clergy and the assumption of guaranteed appointments also has resulted in a cumbersome and often lengthy process to entering ministry.
"The 2004 and 2008 General Conferences have done strong work in streamlining the process so we are already under way," he said. "I personally have experienced that the process is extraordinarily difficult to navigate. Even with my extensive and intimate knowledge, it is still too difficult."
There needs to be a paradigm shift to a "culture of call" during the candidacy stage, he added. "We need to deploy those who are called into ordination quickly."
Shared mission
"This has been a productive conversation," said Bishop David Yemba, chair of the Faith and Order Committee. "It is good to hear what is going on in the ministry study group. It's a starting point, but we still have some issues."
Gwinn agreed the task was large.
"I invite you to be honorary members of the ministry study commission," he said. "God is up to something with The United Methodist Church. If the church is to catch a new vision, it will take broad ownership."
*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tennessee.