Molly Fraser, Pacific Northwest Annual Conference
Guaranteed full-time appointment is concurrently entering my reality, as it is on the table to be voted out. I write from the perspective of a white, thirty-five-year-old, first-year provisional member of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference. When I was commissioned last year, our conference made it clear that they did not have full-time appointments available to newly commissioned members. The tide has changed. Thus, I am grateful that upon graduation (June 2011), I look forward to a full-time appointment.
If we vote out guaranteed appointment at General Conference, I will be affected in many ways. As metrics become more visible, I worry that my effectiveness will be questioned on paper and assumptions will be made about my ministry without proper time to delve into the story behind the numbers. Case in point: In my first five months of pastoring my small church, our worship attendance has grown from an average of 15 to 27.8. When we have 40 people in attendance, it includes people who would be labeled “unchurched.” Fourteen of those 40 are children under nine years old. As of now, this new group is not a large income generator, but is adding significantly to the energy and vitality of the ministry. Regardless, this church will likely remain at quarter-time status.
If one looks at statistics only, one would think it would be smart and right to keep me here for another four years to grow this church. Unfortunately, my seminary loans generated a hefty sum, so even though my heart has found a home here and I am challenged by the ministry and vision that I see God planting in this restart of sorts, I cannot stay. Certainly, I am helping this church grow, but I have not been able to grow it to the point that it is a solid halftime position for a two-point charge. The town demographics make it difficult for someone to travel to for only quarter-time status. I suspect I have not lived up to the desires of the cabinet. And so that not-so-still voice rears its ugly head and whispers, Ineffective. Thus, I am grateful for the current system (and a very good district superintendent who listens) that will allow me to try ministry at one church, full-time, as I learn to pastor well. If they could not do this, I would have to consider seeking employment elsewhere.
Is this guaranteed appointment? Sounds like it.
Is this a good way to ensure that I stay in the denomination that has invested in me? Yes.
Can I expect this every year? Yes, if I perform well and if we as ministers perform well enough as a group to make sure there are enough appointments and ifpeople retire when they should and if district and conference BOMs do thorough discretionary work. (That’s a lot of ifs.)
Is this really no-questions-asked guaranteed appointment? No.
It must be tempting to place excess, excited, newly commissioned ministers (regardless of age) in underperforming churches, knowing that revival is highly possible. PNW (and most annual conferences) have large numbers of churches that could be revived with skilled leadership—both lay and clergy. Most of our beginning clergy want to and can do those things. But we come with seminary debt to the tune of $25–100K. Quarter-, half- or three-quarter-time appointments, though full of rich ministry opportunity, will not allow us to stay in the UMC while raising families, or paying off debt and concentrating on becoming our best minister selves (which according to Path1 takes approximately 10 years).
Now, I have equated itinerancy and educational privilege of a master’s degree with guaranteed appointment. I feel stuck. This concept stinks of privilege, and yet I cannot think of a better way. United Methodists need educated clergy, and I don’t believe we can have an itinerancy system that does not have the counterbenefit of expected appointment. It is absurd to suggest that seminary graduates concurrently journeying through the ordination track shall have guaranteed appointment until loans are paid off. But if we require seminary for ordination and advance a person through each year of certification, then it seems reasonable to give such an individual a decent period of time to exercise ministry if she agrees to all the other demands that we claim to want to keep: itinerancy, continuing education, and specific attention toward identified growth edges.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Guaranteed appointment in and of itself is not the problem. Our problems lie with systems that have broken down for various reasons, some of which got worse when we truly did not have enough ministers to fill positions. PNW and Oregon-Idaho are experiencing that phenomenon right now. It will be very important that district and conference committees are clear about standards and admit to full membership only those individuals that they feel are truly able to serve a variety of churches well.
I do believe we have both a systemic problem and a personal rights problem. While the system needs to take more responsibility for ordaining only those who meet standards for leadership potential, individual clergy must also be honest with themselves. Too many clergy locate themselves geographically or insist on one type of church profile. To our credit, we are learning more about the importance of matching gifts and graces and affinity to particular churches. With the wealth of available tests, surveys, and skills profiles, it is getting easier to do a good job of making suitable matches. It requires tremendous grace and accountability on all sides and at every level: clergy, the local church, district superintendents, and cabinets.
In seminary, there is much time devoted to understanding our gifts and limitations. As a whole, we may have to let go of the idea that our leaders need to be perfect. There seems to be an idea that ridding ourselves of guaranteed appointment will allow us to find and hire perfect people. Not many of us have arrived at the perfection we are working toward.
The concept of guaranteed appointment is misleading for our denomination. The words themselves imply a once-you’re-in-you’re-in attitude. Perhaps there are people who claim this as their own experience. However, I often hear clergy 30 years my senior chuckle and exclaim, “Oh, I couldn’t get in if I were to try today. All I had to do was breathe and utter ‘prevenient grace’ a few times.” I grit my teeth when I hear that. I understand that requirements have stiffened, but these older clergy also have experience and a lifelong call toward learning and leading God’s people.
My biggest frustration is when we clergy types expect that we should continue to hold prime positions (full-time) past a normal retirement age when attitudes about ministry have soured or energy for engaging in new practices has waned significantly. I believe we collectively forget that most (USA) individuals expect to retire or be let go from the workforce around 65 years of age. Surely, God gifts select people with incredible bursts of energy and zeal for life (and love for youth) at many different ages. However, if one has 30–40 years of full-time ministry acquired, her retirement package is sufficient (not luxurious) and her skills would be well used at a church that needs a boost, whether as a hired pastor or a church member. The ungraceful truth is that many of us need to be willing to retire sooner and do the work we want to do in ministry as energized, valuable church members specializing in what brings life to God’s world.
You can call that ageism, or you can understand it as believing that there is a time that “God calls us into retirement,” as my formation adviser, Rev. Judy Schultz, says with a smile. Akin to that original call into ministry, that call out of professional ministry is different for each person, but some need to recognize it earlier than others. Are we willing to make room for the new clergy that we claim to need?
I grew up in a mill town with union parents who never failed to help me understand the power and protection that unions provide to people seeking living wages. Additionally, my first career was as a music teacher in Southern California, and as in the UMC, we had two years to prove our effectiveness, and then we were essentially assured a full-time, paid position from then on. If my program suffered or if financial resources drained, the position could be changed drastically. Accountability for a job well done is essential. This is no different from what we see in our annual conferences. I have already witnessed our cabinets providing coaching and training for pastors who need skill work, and this fits with the way the church should operate. For the health of both the church and the person, this extra help needs to end after an ethical period of allowing for change. Fellow clergy need to provide compassion for ineffective clergy by helping them with counseling, job refocusing and connections to new ministry avenues. A powerful order of clergy will also stand up for colleagues who are experiencing discrimination in these processes. As to the kind of comments from my older clergy friends, mentioned above, our BOMs are doing a better job as gatekeepers.
I do not read ¶334.1—believing that I am guaranteed a full-time appointment perfectly suited to my every desire, no matter how I perform my pastoral job. What I read is that if I am in good standing and perform my job well (which takes three pages to outline in ¶340), then the bishop shall seek to place me in the best possible situation for the mission field. Best possible situations do not come in unlimited quantities, however. As a beginning clergyperson, I am saddened by the brokenness of the appointment system due to our own personal brokenness in our lives. There is incredible ambiguity in the tension between holding family needs (co-parenting, clergy couples, health issues, mortgages) and being free to place clergy in the church most matched to their gifts. I have noticed my district and conference boards asking many questions that seek to find out if I am “appointable” in various churches and locales, even as they seek to learn about my preferences. We cannot afford to bring more ministers to the appointment system who refuse to be relocated.
I simply believe that our problem with ineffective clergy is much bigger than voting out a safeguard that has helped us be a denomination that is inclusive of minorities and women. As a twenty-eight-year-old woman in a Nazarene Church, it was a great wake-up call when I heard that Nazarenes were ordaining more than 50 percent women, but fewer than 20 percent of those women were called to a pulpit. That was a major reason I fled back to my United Methodist roots, but it certainly helped me begin to understand where our systems can work for or against justice. Without guaranteed appointment, we run the risk of slowly giving in to injustice.
As much as I do not want to believe it, there is a nagging feeling that women will have a harder time. While churches would still not have hiring and firing power, they do and will have complaint power. In my last position, a woman who loved me very much (and I her) could not understand why it hurt and frustrated me to hear that she really hoped their next minister could be a man. We have paid our dues. When we continued to talk about this subject, she claimed that a mediocre male would have been to her delight over a female who might have the best-matched gifts for her church.
When the system is working well, cabinets should have the power to place the most effective clergy at churches or locales that can most use their gifts. Whether the person is a woman or a minority should not keep them from being able to appoint that individual to the church, and getting rid of the guaranteed appointment system likely will trigger congregations toward insidious complaints without giving them time to explore the root reasons behind problems. Conversely, I don’t think it is fair for ordained clergy to refuse to go where the cabinet believes is best (¶334.4 speaks to this). It trips up the system.
WHY GUARANTEED APPOINTMENT IS CRITICAL
As I seek ordination, my husband enters into the agreement to be sent out in ministry. He expects to let go of his job in order to go where we are sent. If this system is changed, we could end up in a very scary place if something goes wrong somewhere. While I don’t expect this to happen anytime soon, there are always life circumstances that happen. Family changes, medical emergencies, and a failing church can quickly turn congregations for the worse. If we are to be the church, we cannot simply dismiss people without time to plan or providing help for personal improvement (¶334.3, 4).
We all know that leading significant change in churches most often yields anger, doubt, and frustration before the turnaround takes place. Many churches lose members and revenue before they are able to become healthy and grow once again. We are in a time where pastors are required to do such turnaround work, and we need the backing of district superintendents, our colleagues, and the assurance of a job. In our disposable society, we cannot do our most integral, God-called work if we cannot navigate the braided rope of spiritual, pastoral, and prophetic roles. Guaranteed appointment does not need to guarantee a once-you-are-in-you-are-in-for-life stance if all arms of the system are doing their part. We are supposed to be ordained ministers in the United Methodist tradition who are prayerfully and strategicallysent to make disciples who change the world. This will be all the more achievable if we are free from the inevitable fears that will result if an end is brought to what we have come to view as our ministerial security.