It’s Annual Conference time for most of us. Ministers are moving and churches are receiving new clergypersons. It’s a time fraught with anxiety. Clergy ask, “Will my children like the new place? Will my spouse find a good job? Will my call be fulfilled here or squelched?” Churches wonder such things, too. Will they like their new pastor, how many changes will there be in the order of service, and will the sermons and pastoral care be good? It’s a scary time in an itinerant system. However, John Wesley said, “Itinerancy was the apostolic plan for evangelization.” He thought literal movement of preachers helped Methodism stay a vital spiritual movement. Here’s the current rub: We expect elders to itinerate and whole families to pick up and move, but now we’re not going to promise a place to serve. At first glance this doesn’t seem fair, but we are all concerned about denominational decline and wonder if higher accountability will increase clergy and church fruitfulness. Tongue-in-cheek, it has struck me that we might have a better chance at revival if we left the preachers where they are and moved all the people. Just a thought, ha!
Regardless, General Conference 2012’s action to delete “guaranteed appointments” has made our whole system more anxious. My prediction is that the Judicial Council will rule the legislation unconstitutional because it allows each Annual Conference to be the arbiter of what the word “Ineffective” or “Effective” means. That strikes me as an abrogation of the GC’s authority “over all matters distinctively connectional… and to define the powers and duties of elders” (Par. 16, 2008 BOD). Sure, the Annual Conference is constitutionally the “fundamental” (Par. 11) and “basic” (Par. 33) body of the United Methodist Church, but the Annual Conference cannot subtract from the basic ministerial credentialing standards of the Book of Discipline: BOD Par. 304.5 and Judicial Decision 536 (www.umc.org). It seems to me that each Annual Conference’s interpretation and definition of “Ineffectiveness” or “Effectiveness” allows the Annual Conference to trump the powers reserved to the General Conference and lessen common standards of effectiveness.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for clergy excellence and an easier way to deal with clergy deemed unappointable, but I also remember being on the sexuality subcommittee at the 1996 General Conference where we had to define what “self-avowed practicing homosexual” meant. Committees on Investigation in Annual Conferences could not make their own interpretation or verify complaints until the GC defined the actual meaning of the phrase. We’re in a similar situation here. In a connectional church with transfers of clergy from here to yon, there needs be one definition of “Ineffectiveness” or “Effectiveness.” I wonder if that’s even possible given the subjectivity involved. As a District Superintendent I have to ponder the objectivity or subjectivity of negative letters and phone calls on a daily basis and respond accordingly. It’s no small task!
Ministry is no small task! It’s a high calling to be in ministry. We have the extraordinary blessing of being incarnational with people in their most significant life events. Of course there’s the challenge of being on call 24/7, but I have heard very few complaints from clergy who are sincerely answering God’s call. One issue, however, that I have heard about is housing. Most of our clergy still live in church-provided parsonages. The parsonage system for United Methodist clergy is intended to facilitate the movement of ministers from church to church without being encumbered by the distractions of buying, selling, or owning a house. It’s a fine system unless you have no clue where you’re going to live when you retire.
I’ve been thinking about ministry a lot lately. Only the Good Lord knows what will happen to us in the Bishop Election Process in July. Then there’s our daughter Narcie who is about to start her next appointment as a United Methodist elder in the Wesley Foundation Director position at the University of Florida in Gainesville. On top of that, Josh, our middle child, is about to receive his second appointment as an elder. He’s projected to be a new Associate Pastor at Shandon UMC. For the last 5 years he’s been the pastor of a two-point charge. He graduated from Clemson in engineering, and I was selfishly hoping his success in that field would help finance our retirement home. Now he and his family are trying to figure out where they will live because Shandon provides a housing allowance. It appears that itinerancy and a whole lot of moving may be in our personal forecast in the next several months. The operative word for all UM clergy is “may.”
Ministry is a strange life. It’s a wonderful life. After living in parsonages for 32 years, teaching United Methodist polity for a decade at Candler, and a DS for the last 6, I have found myself evaluating our way of being church. We are an Episcopal (Episkopos is Greek for “Bishop”) system of government tempered by conferences. In other words, we have Bishops that appoint ministers to their various fields of service, yet it is General Conference that authorizes Bishops for the task. Annual Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry recommend persons to be licensed, commissioned, or ordained and the Clergy Session votes approval or not, then the Bishop acts. Both have to be in concert with one another. We conference all the way up from the local Charge Conference, District Conference, Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, to global church at General Conference. Then we receive and accept the clergy appointments made by the episcopacy. At the most local level, the 11-person Staff-Parish Relations Committee, once a year, advises the Bishop as to whether or not they think it’s time for a new clergyperson to come to their church, and once a year, pastors state whether or not they want to move.
Notice this is all advisory. The church may have its desires and agenda, but it’s also only advisory. Also note that clergy don’t get to say whether or not they’re willing to move. Willingness to move was assumed for me when I was ordained elder 32 years ago. I dare say that the same is pretty much true for anyone called to be a deacon or a local pastor. It’s part and parcel of being in ministry. Therefore, we take our appointments, yours and mine, “without reserve,” as our Book of Discipline puts it (Par. 333.1). We are a “sent” system, not a “call” system. Our system offers a means by which clergy and churches are matched and ministry is enhanced. If either the clergy or the congregation has any reservations or veto power then the whole system breaks down. So a lot of faith is necessary in this enterprise, not to mention, a lot of leadership and discipleship.
It’s a mark of our discipleship, whether we’re clergy or not, to go where we’re sent for Jesus everyday. By the way, if you ever wondered why some ministers wear a stole and others don’t, it’s all about whether they have been ordained. Ordination places one under the orders of God and the Bishop to go where they’re sent, like the reins on a horse. This whole discussion begs the question, “What would our discipleship look like if we all took our orders seriously, if God held the reins of our entire lives?” Brendan Manning gets at a good answer in his book, The Signature of Jesus, “Discipleship means living one day at a time as though Jesus were near: near in time, near in place, the witness of our motives, our speech, our behavior. As indeed he is.”
My prayer is that we will do everything possible to live into God’s preferred direction today – whether as clergy or laity. This will yield fruit for the Kingdom and give evidence of our faithful discipleship. In my mind, that’s effective itinerancy and might just enhance this “apostolic plan of evangelization!”