On the “Guaranteed Appointment”

Image courtesy of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference of the UMC
Image courtesy of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference of the UMC

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.

8 thoughts on “On the “Guaranteed Appointment”

  1. So it sounds like any other job, I’m not seeing the issue. A corporation hires you, you have to work with in their rules, if you performance does not meet expectations your fired. Why would this particular job be different?

  2. Sean, that’s a great question. Jobs that I’ve worked in the past have not required (and yes, it truly is a requirement) me to move into an unknown working environment roughly every 5-7 years. The only job I can think of that might require the same thing might be the military, and there’s something of a guarantee there…

  3. It is a larger leap of faith for sure. I understand your struggle, but here is my take: If I truly am willing to say Yes to God, to the Church, to the UMC and to my calling, I am willing to trust the Holy Spirit is not limited in working thru me within a certain geographic location; be it my district or conference. I said yes to this very particular call knowing full well there are no guarantees (this subject has been on the table over 4 years).
    What frustrates me is two fold: elders who aren’t entirely itinerate because a spouse or children of divorce or what have you requires them to stay within X miles….thus they are placed in only a certain number of churches that frankly may be far from utilizing their particular gifts and graces.
    Second, my fellow pastors who are nearing retirement (or not) who “phone it in” because they can’t afford to retire yet or have lost the passion to really work at building the community of faith they serve. I can think of several examples where a church has suffered because a pastor just didn’t have the drive. Our denomination is dying because we have an ineffective checks and balance system to gage our pastor’s effectiveness.
    My hope here is that we will now have need to retreat, do some continuing education, go to conferences to continue learning. I don’t trust in much. I am a fairly synical person. However, I trust with my whole being the work of the Holy Spirit in the itinerate and appointment process. I grew up in it and live it…and while scary at times- amazing and beautiful.

  4. Now church politics has never been one of my favorite topics however I have been drawn to the discussion on multiple occasions; being somewhat removed from the situation is twofold for me (1) being at a church where the pastor is the pastor was a strange transition for me, as I am now a member at a weaslyn church (2) I long for stability and growth from all of my friends that continue on in the UM church.
    Upon reading multiple updates from GC I ended here and wanted to share my hope that with the change from the “big” church body that along with that will be a better system for developing pastors and finding the right fit. If it takes local pastors being scared for their jobs to speak up and make sure the appointment fits their spiritual gifts then I am hopeful for the future I’d this change makes the senior pastor position a revolving door then I am saddened by what we call progress.
    Saved people save people and served people serve people that not only counts for the volunteers in the church but also those working/staffing churches, it is my hope that the UM “big” church will continue to serve those who serve at the local church level as those are the places where life change happens not at places with Roberts rules of order leading the day!

  5. I am not a Methodist but all my UMC friends coming out of Div school have used this guarenteed appointment as the justification for doing all kinds of stuff they didn”t want to or feel called to. This kind of move seems like it would drive the real good talent, like yourself, away from the denomination.

  6. Tripp, I’m sure this could drive creative folks away, but I don’t think I’ll participate in the Exodus. I’m committed to the UMC and the prophetic possibilities. Wesley had a lot of great ideas, and I think that we can make effective and profound changes that return to some of those great ideas. It is my hope to participate in the ongoing change!

  7. I may be misunderstanding this, but it sounds similar to the arguments over tenure for school teachers. Years of education and training necessary for the position and then minimal security once there.

  8. Mike, I’ve often heard colleagues call the Ordination something akin to tenure! I’ve also heard a few compare it to being “in the union.” I’m not sure I’m quite so cynical!!

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