By now you have probably seen the news that the Judicial Council of our UMC has “restored guaranteed appointments” and ruled the changes voted by the 2012 General Conference unconstitutional. Some people have already written me to say, “I guess now we don’t need the gathering of our Order of Elders on November 15th, because this issue has gone away.” My response: It’s not that simple, and Yes, we will still have the gathering of the Order of Elders on Thursday, November 15th, at St. Luke’s UMC in Indianapolis, and all Elders are expected to attend. This issue of appointments and pastoral effectiveness, is not simple. We need to talk about it. (You can still register for the Order of Elders meeting by going to the Indiana Conference website and signing up, which will give us an accurate count for the lunch).

Here is where things stand (this is my summary): The General Conference did not eliminate appointment security for Elders (there is actually no such phrase as “guaranteed appointment” in our Book of Discipline), but the General Conference voted to modify appointment security to say that if an Elder fails to live up to criteria established by their Annual Conference (and there was a very specific process for laity and clergy input into setting those criteria), then that Elder might be appointed to either transitional leave or to a part-time appointment while that Elder gets new education or training in order to be prepared for a full-time appointment again. The Judicial Council ruled those changes to be unconstitutional on the grounds that clergy should be given the same “due process” they would receive if a formal complaint were filed against them. So all of the changes about appointment security are null and void, and we are back to the former situation with regard to appointments.

But it is not that simple. I have been involved in making appointments since 1990 when Bishop Hodapp appointed me to serve on his Cabinet in the former North Indiana Conference. In these 22 years the making of appointments has become so much more complex, and I don’t believe either the General Conference or the Judicial Council fully recognized these complexities. Here are some obvious things that have changed:

  1. Clergy spouse employment – most clergy spouses have their own jobs and careers which have to be factored into a clergy’s availability and readiness to move to a new appointment.
  2. Limited itinerancy – we have many clergy who go through seasons when they have to limit their geography due to children’s needs in school, elderly parents to care for, and another whole list of such concerns. We used a Limited Itinerancy form for clergy to request such geographic limits, and that form indicates their understanding that they are also limited in appointments available to them.
  3. Local church expectations and differences – no longer (if was ever true) are all local congregations alike, so clergy are not just “interchangeable parts” to be moved from place to place. Bishops and Cabinets spend a great deal of time trying to understand the uniqueness of each local church as we make appointments and look for a pastor who can match those needs.
  4. The decline of full-time appointments – as churches struggle financially, more and more are going to part-time pastors or eliminating associate pastor positions. This has meant having some Elders choose to serve less than full time, and it has also meant using more and more part-time Local Pastors. We simply do not have enough full-time appointments for every Elder who is “guaranteed” a full-time position, no matter what the Book of Discipline may say.
  5. The concern for ineffectiveness – the proposals voted by the General Conference came from the Ministry Study, which attempted to address a real concern in our UMC, namely that we have too many clergy who are ineffective. Simply saying those clergy are still “guaranteed” an appointment does not address those concerns.

I could name other complexities, but for now that list illustrates that the issue of “guaranteed appointments” is not that simple.

Here in the Indiana Conference we will be sharing at our gathering of the Order of Elders some other ways we can address these issues, within the bounds of our Book of Discipline and following the decisions of the Judicial Council. We will focus upon strengthening our Clergy Covenant with one another, we will hear how we can apply the Clergy Effectiveness process which our Clergy Session adopted a few years ago, and we will hear how our “Called Anew” fund is helping clergy who need to retire early or change their ministry focus.

There is much to discuss, many concerns to be shared, and a need for new creative answers to the whole question of clergy appointments in our United Methodist Church. I look forward to our conversations on November 15th when we gather the Elders to worship, pray, converse, and learn together.