Covenant or contract:

As if we had nothing better to do, debate over General Conference has already begun with calls for the elimination of the guaranteed appointment. All the arguments in favor of its elimination center on the problem of incompetent clergy. The argument goes like this: We have ineffective clergy who move from one church to the next causing problems and we cannot remove them out, because they are guaranteed a job. This is costing us money and numerical growth.

Clergy incompetency is a real and pervasive problem and the guaranteed appointment can contribute to it. However, the elimination of the guaranteed appointment will not solve this problem and could actually make things worse.

Why won’t it solve the problem?

First, it is the wrong target. If the problem is clergy ineffectiveness then it needs to be addressed directly by changing our processes of accountability. You are only guaranteed an appointment if you are ‘in good standing,’ but we rarely take this seriously except in extreme cases such as sexual misconduct. Along with greater accountability is the need for developing better procedures for the selection and supervision of pastors. The guaranteed appointment can reinforce the acceptance of ineffective clergy but it is an accomplice to the crime and not the actual perpetrator.

Second, it is based on the wrong assumptions. How do you define ‘ineffectiveness?’ I fear that our definition will not reflect the biblical idea of faithfulness but our consumer-driven society’s infatuation with numbers, which translates into counting attendance without considering the quality of the message being proclaimed. According to our capitalist values, the prophets were losers and the cross was a failure.

Calls for the elimination of the guaranteed appointment are also based on another false assumption that the ineffective pastor is the sole problem. Our itinerant system also suffers from dysfunctional local churches and incompetent bishops. How will we hold local churches accountable for being ‘clergy killers’ or bishops for repeatedly making poor choices? Too often we have been seduced into thinking that a single solution will solve what is often a complex set of interrelated problems.

Removing the guaranteed appointment will not solve these problems and it may actually make things worse, because it replaces the idea of covenant with a contract. The guaranteed appointment is the other side of the pledge to itinerate without reserve, forming a balance of power in our system. Clergy should be concerned that too much power will be given to the whim of a cabinet or the voice of a congregation.

Also, incompetent clergy (however you choose to define ‘effectiveness’) will not necessarily be removed because the relationship has become contractual. Dysfunctional pastors often learn how to work any new system that is created. There are just as many ineffective pastors in Congregationalist systems as there are in our denomination, and we should not put too much faith in tinkering with The (United Methodist) Book of Discipline as the solution to our problems.

Covenant relationships are more than about creating a balance of power. Covenant-making creates the context in which accountability, supervision and support can take place. At some point in our ministries, all pastors are ‘ineffective’ for a season, and covenantal relationships can restore one’s effectiveness instead of being discarded by a breach of contract.

Practicing covenant takes us back to who we are called to be. It is at the heart of Scripture and our Wesleyan heritage. The problem with our current system is that the covenant of itinerancy has been taken over by our bureaucratic procedures. The elimination of the guaranteed appointment will perpetuate this bureaucratic culture, because it is essentially a technical solution.

Yet, the underlying problems are spiritual. A technical solution can never solve a spiritual problem. Yes, the appointment process needs to be re-invented, but not abandoned. Real renewal will draw from the richness of our covenant-making tradition rather than replacing it with the poor substitute of a contract.

The Rev. Darren Cushman Wood serves as senior pastor of Speedway United Methodist Church.

The guaranteed appointment is the other side of the pledge to itinerate without reserve, forming a balance of power in our system.