You’ve heard the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Too often today, we also believe, “If it is broke, throw it away,” when that may not be the best thing to do.
Sometimes we experience “referred pain” – pain in a part of our body that is not where the actual problem lies. Likewise, problems within a system can appear in no relationship to the source of the problem.
There has been a lot of conversation over the last few years about whether or not guaranteed appointment for elders has outlived its usefulness. I had been singing that song, but I am starting to change my tune.
I work very closely with two critical bodies in the life of a United Methodist annual conference: the cabinet and the conference Board of Ordained Ministry. We are blessed in Minnesota with an excellent cabinet and a great working Board of Ordained Ministry.
The two groups don’t always see eye to eye, because they are charged with different responsibilities. Among other tasks, the cabinet (superintendents and bishop) appoints pastors, while the board determines whether those who offer themselves for ordained or licensed ministry have the gifts, graces and fitness for it.
The cabinet and the Board of Ordained Ministry share responsibilities for supervision, although the board does not become involved in supervision once individuals are qualified – unless those individuals fail to live up to the disciplinary expectations of their ministry.
It is not the guaranteed appointment that is broken. It is the failure of the board and cabinet to provide adequate supervision so that clergy who need specific assistance or skills are getting them at their point of need. This isn’t because they don’t care or are not paying attention, it is because we expect a span of supervision by the superintendent that is impossible to achieve.
We also need a more transparent and simpler way to determine a clergyperson’s inability or unwillingness to perform competent ministry once remedial assistance has been offered. At that point, the Board of Ordained Ministry can address the issue through such actions as involuntary leave of absence, involuntary retirement or administrative location. The problem must be named. It may be poor working habits; it may be health issues that impair one’s work; it may be disinterest; or it may be incompetence.
There is a delicate balance in our current system that is not always seen even by those of us intimately involved in it. There must be a balance between the power of the bishop and superintendents and the Board of Ordained Ministry. (Let me reiterate, I do not see an imbalance among our current bishop, cabinet and board.)
Without guaranteed appointment, all the power rests with the bishop and cabinet. If the power is too heavily on the side of the Board of Ordained Ministry and there is no process for exiting ineffective clergy, then mediocrity becomes the norm and the bishop, cabinet and local churches must “make do.” This shouldn’t happen. Churches have the right to expect solid, competent leadership. Clergy have the right to expect churches that are eager to be an expression of the body of Christ in their communities.
Helping clergy when needed
I think that the shortcomings of supervision could be fixed by our instituting a remedial process for clergy who need to acquire or sharpen essential skills. We have done some of this over the years. It helps in some cases and not in others. We also need metrics to assess progress.
We need a clearer and more streamlined process that assists clergy to exit our system. This can be done while maintaining fair process for the clergy involved. We also have to be willing to set aside funds to assist clergy to make a career change.
We should have a similar expectation for each local church, regardless of location or size. All of our churches, by The United Methodist Book of Discipline, are charged to “minister to persons in the community where the church is located, to provide appropriate training and nurture to all, to cooperate in ministry with other local churches, to defend God’s creation and live as an ecologically responsible community, and to participate in the worldwide mission of the church, as minimal expectations of an authentic church” (Paragraph 202).
Our appointment system is part of the Wesleyan genius. Let’s fix what needs fixing. Fixing it will take more work and be more complicated than tossing out one piece, like the guaranteed appointment. To start to dismantle it would upset the delicate balance between cabinet and Board of Ordained Ministry, and could start what I fear will be a fundamental change in our system that will be for the worse.
Jim Perry is director of ministries and appointed leadership for the Minnesota Annual Conference.
“Churches have the right to expect solid, competent leadership. Clergy have the right to expect churches that are eager to be an expression of the body of Christ in their communities.”
The Rev. Katie Menne is ordained during the Minnesota Annual Conference session in Saint Cloud, Minn.