Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Who Saw That Coming?

Wow. Who saw that coming? This morning, almost without noticing it, the General Conference voted to do away with "guaranteed appointments" for clergy. No discussion, no concerns raised, no arguments, no amendments, no rebuttals, nothing. We just voted away the rights of Elders in Full Connection to receive a full-time appointment.

How did that happen?

Well, it should come as no surprise that parliamentary procedure had a lot to do with it.

For some background on this issue, let me attempt to summarize what was at stake here. Ordained elders in full connection currently serve "at the pleasure of the bishop." This means that we agree to go where we are sent and to use our gifts in ministry in whatever setting the bishop and cabinet choose for us. In Methodist-speak, this is known as itinerancy.

Molly Simpson Nason and Jeannie Trevino-Teddlie
While this does create a considerable amount of uncertainty for itinerant elders (housing, salary, geographic location and ministry setting can change for you and your family very suddenly, and without your input), one thing that counter-balances this uncertainty is a line in the Book of Discipline that says, "All elders in full connection who are in good standing in an annual conference shall be continued under appointment by the bishop....." In short, we have a guaranteed appointment. If you are an elder in good standing, the cabinet has to find a place for you.

But this will now change. For some time, there has been a growing awareness that our current system is not supportable. Bishops and cabinets regularly scramble to fill all the pulpits. In some conferences, there is a clergy shortage. In others, there are more elders than there are pulpits. In addition to this challenge, Bishops and cabinets occasionally find themselves at a loss to know what to do with a clergyperson who is not deemed effective. A pastor who has a pattern of ineffectiveness, but is otherwise in good standing, must be given an appointment. In practical experience, this sometimes hurts our connection, it hurts our churches, and it hurts our witness to the world. It also doesn't allow an opportunity to acknowledge that there may come a time when a clergyperson is called to exit the ministry gracefully.

Okay. So, there are some arguments "for" doing away with guaranteed appointments. But what about the flip side? What if  you are a 57 year old woman who has served three churches in a row that are not willing to accept a woman in the pulpit? What happens if you are thus deemed ineffective? Without a guaranteed appointment, you could be put on leave - with no pulpit, no salary, no benefits - "at the pleasure of the bishop." What if you are a Korean-American pastor with an Korean accent who just doesn't seem to "fit" in the churches in your conference? Could you find yourself without an appointment, even though you have great gifts for fruitful ministry? What if you have a strong theological/social stance that is contrary to the one held by your bishop or district superintendent? Could you be told, "We just don't have room for you?"

Clearly, there are strong arguments for and against guaranteed appointments. You'd pretty much expect that some of these issues would be raised on the floor of Conference, wouldn't you?

Here I am, working with Gary Mueller
and other delegates to"perfect" the
Mueller Amendment in sub-sub-committee.
As a member of the Ministry & Higher Education committee and the sub-committee on the Ministry Study recommendations, I can at least report on what happened before the petition came to the floor this morning. When the original petition, which was presented by a Study of Ministry Commission that has been working on this and similar issues for the past four years (as sanctioned by the 2008 General Conference), came to the sub-committee, there was not a lot of initial discussion about the issue.

To get the ball rolling, Rev. Gary Mueller of North Texas presented an amendment to the petition that would create some framework for the bishop and cabinet to be held accountable to the annual conference, the conference Board of Ordained Ministry and the episcopal committee of the jurisdiction. Specific metrics are built into the amendment to require the Bishop to report to the BOM and the episcopal committee who does not receive an appointment and why, plus statistics of age, ethnicity and gender for those who did not receive appointments. This amendment was discussed, debated and "perfected" in the sub-committee (and, again, a sub-sub committee). The sub-committee then passed the petition, as amended.
And here's our work in progress....

On Saturday, the amended petition came before the Ministry & Higher Education committee. The petition was presented, and the committee asked some clarifying questions about the amendment. Oddly, there was very little discussion and debate. People seemed ready to vote. We did - and the amended petition passed: 68-7, with 8 abstaining (and before you judge those who abstained too harshly, please know that we had a number of international delegates in the committee. This petition does not apply to their process of ordination, and some did not truly seem to understand our system, with or without the petition. Possibly, these delegates chose not to vote.)

Since fewer than 10 votes were cast against this petition, the petition was placed in the consent calendar, along with many other petitions that qualified for the consent calendar. 

As you might guess, a petition that goes on the consent calendar can be lifted off the consent calendar. All it takes are 20 signatures of voting delegates. It appears that these signatures were sought and a request was made to lift this petition off the consent calendar for discussion by the body on the floor of General Conference.

So - this morning, when we received our Daily Christian Advocate, one of our first orders of business was to vote on the consent calendar, in its entirety. We were told that a small number of petitions would be taken off the calendar, and we were given those numbers. We were also told that two petitions would not be taken off the consent calendar, because only 19 signatures were submitted (apparently 20 lines were filled out, but one person signed twice). Amazingly, one of these petitions was the one dealing with security of appointment.

And so...we voted. We voted to approve, wholesale, all of the petitions (with the exception of the few that had been properly taken off the consent calendar) on the consent calendar (about 14 pages of closely-written text). We felt pretty good about it, actually. After the frustrating day we had yesterday, it was nice to take care of business in such an expedient way.

It was close to two hours later when Rev. We Hyun Chang of Belmont, MA came to the microphone and brought this action to the attention of the body. There was a flutter of concern, a request to reconsider this item, a few impassioned speeches and a clear desire from many to have the opportunity to discuss this monumental shift in our polity. And then, we voted. And the vote did not pass (564-373). Not enough people wanted to reconsider this item, and so the original vote stands. And guaranteed appointments fall.

I spoke with Gary Mueller shortly after the vote. We both could not believe that there would be no discussion on the floor on this issue. (Especially considering the amount of time we give to issues of far less import for our ordained clergy.) Gary said he never intended for the petition to receive no discussion, and we are both concerned about the negative feelings from a body that feels that they had no voice in this decision. But there you are. We finally made a decision to change something. We did it with very little discussion.

I pray that the decision was the right one.


  1. Thank you for your careful explanation of what happened. It makes me almost sicker at my stomach to read this. How carelessly the GC has proven itself to be with the thousands of faithful clergy who serve in nearly impossible situations, and now will find themselves cast out. I weep for this day and for our connection.

  2. Wow! (That is all I can muster at this point)

  3. Thank you for this blog! Your ease and clarity of speech is very much appreciated. The posts are quite informative and do a great job summarizing potentially mind-numbing and tedious debates, papers, and information.

    Again, thanks. These are great.

  4. I wonder if the UMC didn't just vote for a more intense clergy shortage? Who would want to attend three years of seminary, come out with a large debt, and not be assured of being able to put it to use? And receive a salary that is less than average for their state?

    The freedom of the pulpit to preach as we feel God leading us to preach is also threatened.

  5. I am interested in the way the decision making bodies, bishop or whoever... MEASURE the effectiveness of a clergyperson. I am hoping it is not by numbers in the church. How is the effectiveness of a pastor measured? Is it all subjective?
    Nancy Ericksen Ward
    St Paul Center UMC,
    Springfield, Oregon

  6. Thank you for your excellent recapitulation of the process of this matter!

  7. Because I was deemed qualified to be a clergy member of our Annual Conference in 1951, I was able to speak prophetically (I believe) on important --- that is "controversial" issues. Although some in the congregation asked for a change of pastors, our bishop found another place where I was able to serve effectively.

    A friend in a denomination with a "call" system was stuck in place when he needed to move. With the long delay in that call coming, his family suffered economically and emotionally.

    Both systems have faults and advantages.

    I am glad for the amendment that was added -- so a bishop needs to report on those not appointed. .... hopefully, that will moderate the effect of the main motion -- for justice.

    Retired Clergy in Oregon /// Paul LaRue

  8. Church folks, including Methodists, generally are considerate and concerned with the well-being of others (read: clergy); but, the record of chusrch shrinkage tells us, less sensitve to effectiveness than we MUST BECOME in order to Keep Jesus Christ present in our society. This move was needed