Many United Methodist clergy are feeling some wonder at how a recent decision by General Conference (the UMC’s decision making body, continuing this week in Tampa, FL) to end the tradition of “guaranteed appointments” for clergy might affect their futures. Some see hope and others don’t. And many see a broken promise.
As one who is in a very early stage of the clergy relationship with the United Methodist Church, I was required to submit written materials showing my understanding of various United Methodist doctrines and traditions. Among them was related to the “itinerant system,” which is the way United Methodist Pastors are assigned to local congregations. In this system, Pastors are assigned to churches and in many cases have limited knowledge of the specifics of a congregation until they arrive. It is very much an act of faith.
So, are Pastors asked to simply make this leap with no reciprocation? With no quid-pro-quo? With no comforting, “Hey, we got your back!” or assurances? To this point, there has been some concession so that Pastors who are willing to give up some autonomy in moving (in most cases, not just the Pastors themselves, but families as well) into areas they would not usually consider. And that is: a job! The agreement looks something like this:
If you agree to move anywhere in our geographic region (most likely, and perhaps a larger area), we agree that we’ll always find a place for you. As long as you behave and follow the rules.
That seems like a pretty solid covenant to me! That seems pretty balanced. But now that has changed, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Here’s how it could be interpreted after the recent change:
If you agree to move anywhere in our geographic region (most likely, and perhaps a larger area), we agree that maybe we’ll find a place for you. As long as you behave and follow the rules. And as long as you’re “effective” in metrics that may or may not encompass your particular gifts and graces.
Because an important part of this itinerant system is the recognition that a Pastor who is less effective in one congregation may not be an indication of a bad Pastor, but simply that the Pastor and the congregation were not a good fit for one another. The itinerant system allows for fairly swift change so that both the congregation and the Pastor may continue to grow in ministry. This is a good thing! But will this change mean that there will be less of a compulsion to find another fit for a Pastor? I don’t know, and I worry about that. Perhaps I’m a little afraid. But I’m not often one for fear. I prefer hope. And I’m trying to find hope in this. I find that hope in the active work of the Holy Spirit and that the Spirit of God calls each person to God’s vision for the world. And I hope that we all – Pastors, Bishops, and members of congregations – can be open to hearing that call and responding in faith, hope, and love.