Methodist Church Commission Proposes Changes To Call System

Back when I was in (a Methodist) seminary, I flirted with the idea of joining the United Methodist Church for, oh, I don’t know. Ten minutes?

The temptation was largely the same as that laid out in this article from the UMC national office web site about proposed changes to the appointment system, as it’s known. Methodist clergy work for the bishop of their conference – and, basically, only for the bishop – going where they’re told, when they’re told to go. The traditional offset for that sacrifice has been that they are more or less guaranteed a job, as long as they’re fit for it.

It seems like a win-win at first glance, but it doesn’t take long (about ten minutes) to figure out what can go wrong. First of all, as the article says, it’s a recipe for mediocrity. Not to disparage my colleagues, but if the only reason you can be fired is gross negligence or actual malfeasance, why not find somewhere cozy and settle down until they itinerate you? Put differently, pastors respond to incentives just like anybody else. Take away the incentives and, well, people live up to expectations.

That’s not the only problem, though. In the Methodist church, you have to please not just the bishop, but the district superintendent, who as the name implies, oversees a certain portion of the conference.

In a perfect world, that would be straightforward: you do a good job, the DS is happy, the bishop is happy, everybody is happy. In the actual world, relations become intensely political – and I don’t mean just church politics. It can be tough in many places for a woman or a minority to break out of the unfulfilling slots to which they have been delegated. (My Methodist colleagues often lamented that it was practically impossible for a female pastor to be appointed to a solo pulpit straight out seminary, an opportunity I took for granted.) Even white dudes can have a hard time if they’re on the outs with the people calling the shots.

Before you jump on me for casting aspersions, listen to what the Commission itself had to say:

The interim report recommends each annual conference determine a clear definition of and method for evaluating clergy effectiveness and the mission needs of the communities to be served.

Among their tasks: “Specifically, how will we protect against discrimination on the basis of gender or race, or against individual retribution, in the appointment process?”

Part of the task is putting in safeguards, commission members said, such as instituting checks on church leadership or perhaps guaranteeing only the first two appointments so all people have a chance to prove themselves.

“The other thing is a trust factor,” Hagiya said. “Most of my colleagues have a great sensitivity to prophetic pulpits.”

There’s no perfect system for staffing a denomination, of course. My own UCC occasionally suffers from its polity: because congregations are not required to call ministers from within the denomination, they will sometimes bring in a pastor from another tradition who is indifferent or even downright hostile to the values of the larger church. So it goes.

It is interesting to see the UMC struggle with these challenges, though, and it will be doubly interesting to see what comes of them. It could be a very different denomination before too long.