Add another voice to a growing number of church officials calling for reconsideration of clergy job guarantees. The Sustainability Advisory Group, a body examining church finances, estimates there are 784 more U.S. clergy than there are positions needed to meet church needs today, and that some conferences are trying to fill jobs the denomination does not have.

The group is recommending church bodies review and, if necessary, change church policy that states elders in good standing “shall be continued under appointment by the bishop,” according to The Book of Discipline.

“The current UMC clergy appointment structure and compensation system are unaffordable and unsustainable, and too often do not achieve the desired results of placing competent and qualified leadership in local churches,” the group’s report said. “It simply does not make sense to maintain a larger work force than local churches can afford.”

Facing tough times

The study group was formed in the wake of the economic recession that put pressure on conferences and brought greater attention to the financial challenges already facing the church.

Barbara Boigegrain, top staff executive of the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits, in March 2009 requested volunteers to examine the sustainability of the church’s financial obligations. “The group initially started by examining benefits,” she said, “but soon expanded its research to include compensation and infrastructure.”

Boigegrain further stated, “We decided we needed to get a bigger picture. As we started to focus on benefits, we saw there is no specific area that is not affected by others, especially when it comes to benefit, compensation and church costs.”

Promised jobs

The effort found that total local church expenses may include trying to support full-time clergy in small congregations that may not be able to afford them. Eventually, the group looked at the total employment costs of the current appointment system.

The group’s report follows an interim recommendation by the 2008-2012 Commission to Study the Ministry to do away with clergy job guarantees. “Guaranteed appointments” are a major contributing factor to mediocrity and ineffectiveness, the commission told the United Methodist Council of Bishops at its recent spring meeting. The commission will not make its final report until next year.

United Methodist elders agree incompetent clergy should be removed from their ranks. However, many say The Book of Discipline already outlines a process for such action, one with rights of appeal.

Clergy have expressed fears that the commission’s proposal would leave them open to arbitrary dismissal, compromising their freedom to speak hard truths to troubled congregations. In addition, they worry that such a shift would leave women and ethnic minorities more vulnerable to discrimination.

Fewer people support, more clergy

In its report, the Sustainability Advisory Group said the church must confront a hard financial reality: The denomination now has fewer people responsible for supporting more clergy.

The United Methodist Church in the United States has seen its membership decline by 25 percent to fewer than 7.8 million members since its peak in 1968, the report said. More than 80 percent of congregations now have fewer than 125 members. Yet in the past 25 years, the number of active clergy has held relatively steady, and the number of retirees has grown by 250 percent.

“The church simply cannot afford to support itself much longer without drastic change,” the advisory group said. One of those necessary changes, the group said, is managing the clergy pipeline so supply does not exceed need.

New approaches

The group suggests following the examples of the Indiana and Missouri annual conferences. The Indiana Conference helps clergy who might do better in another profession with the “Called Anew” program, which includes three to six months of severance. The Missouri Conference provides intervention and training for struggling clergy. But if no improvement happens, the conference counsels ineffective clergy out of pastoral ministry.

Another possible savings, the study group said, is extending the terms of appointments. Such an action would not only save on moving costs, but also likely improve the emotional and spiritual lives of clergy, their families and local church members.