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Pastors say job security part of covenant


5:00 P.M. EST May 21, 2010

New clergy may face greater uncertainty if the church ends guaranteed appointments for elders in good standing. A UMNS file photo courtesy of e-Review Florida.
New clergy may face greater uncertainty if the church ends guaranteed appointments for elders in good standing. A UMNS file photo courtesy of e-Review Florida.
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The Rev. Pam Estes has led a charge of three tiny churches in rural southern Arkansas and a small city church in Little Rock. Altogether, she has served Arkansas United Methodists in ordained ministry for 21 years, always going where her bishop sends her.

That is the covenant the church has had with its ordained elders: Serve where you are assigned and you always will have an appointment. Now that promise could be threatened: The denomination’s 2008-2012 Commission to Study the Ministry has made a preliminary recommendation of doing away with clergy job guarantees.

Estes worries about the uncertainty that she and other pastors will face if such a proposal is approved by the 2012 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body.

“What will happen if my next appointment doesn’t work out?” she said. “Would I just be let go? By 2012, I would be 60-plus years old, and I’m a single woman.”

Estes represents a number of United Methodist ordained elders who expressed deep misgivings about a preliminary recommendation to end “guaranteed appointments” for elders in good standing while retaining the ability of bishops to move clergy to different assignments.

Guaranteed appointments are a major contributing factor to mediocrity and ineffectiveness, the ministry study commission told the United Methodist Council of Bishops at its recent spring meeting. The commission’s recommendations are included in an interim report, but the group will not release its final report for the 2012 General Conference until next year.

United Methodist elders agree incompetent clergy should be removed from their ranks. But many say there is a process in place now for such action, one with rights of appeal.

They fear 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.

“I have a healthy enough view of the sinfulness of the human condition that I have some angst about changes that open the door to episcopal action against the freedom of the pulpit,” said the Rev. Carl Schenck, senior pastor of Manchester United Methodist Church in suburban St. Louis.

“I wish to protect the church from laziness and incompetence,” he added. “But I also want to protect the church from discriminating against gifted pastors.”

Estes said she knows from experience that women still face resistance from some congregations.

“There are churches that don’t want pastors who are women, or only want pastors who are married,” she said. “If you happen to get a first appointment that isn’t a strong one, what happens then?”

Due process for pastors

The United Methodist Book of Discipline states elders in good standing who honor their ordination covenant to the itineracy and who effectively fulfill their ministerial duties and attend to their annual continuing education requirements “shall be continued under appointment by the bishop.”

The ministry study commission in its interim report recommended changing the language from “shall” to “may” continue to be appointed.

During EXPLORATION 2006, more than 300 young people came forward to pray with clergy. A UMNS file photo by Vicki Brown.
During EXPLORATION 2006, more than 300 young people came forward to pray with clergy. A UMNS file photo by Vicki Brown.
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The Rev. Ivan Corbin, senior pastor of Peace United Methodist Church in Orlando, Fla., wondered whether such a change is necessary, even as he acknowledged the harm that can be done to congregations by moving pastors from church to church.

The denomination’s Book of Discipline currently permits annual conferences to remove pastors who have demonstrated a pattern of being unable effectively and competently to perform their duties. The due process for handling such complaints against clergy can be lengthy.

The issue goes beyond basic competence, the commission said. Commission members said guaranteeing all clergy appointments restricts the flexibility of bishops to appoint the most effective person for each congregation. At a time when some churches are fighting for survival, and there is an oversupply of ordained clergy in some conferences, “guaranteed appointments” have become a barrier to the church's mission, according to the commission.

The Rev. Jim Bryan, senior pastor of Missouri United Methodist Church in Columbia, Mo., and a former district superintendent, said sometimes the most gracious and loving thing is for church leaders to help ineffective pastors find their true calling outside pastoral ministry.

Others express concern about the lack of protection from the misuse of episcopal authority.

Schenck said he knows that the procedures for firing poorly performing pastors can be cumbersome.

“In my own heart, I am not closing the door to change,” he said. “If we can find a way to protect prophetic speech and protect the ministries of those outside the majority from arbitrary dismissal, then I am open to changes.”

A deeper problem

A number of pastors said there are deeper issues of mutual responsibility.

In social media responses to a UMNS article on the topic earlier in the week, clergy shared stories of alleged inequitable treatment by bishops and districts superintendents, saying it would have a chilling effect on ministry if they had to worry personal biases could cost them their jobs.

“Nice. After being assigned for the last 30 years to clean up behind broken colleagues, suffer abuse at the hands of clergy-killing congregations with no intervention from the superintendent, questionable appointment practices, and never once complaining or requesting reconsideration, making multiple salary concessions and living in substandard housing that I would spend up to six years renovating, I am now … serving a system that has NO reciprocal obligation to care for or support me,” one person wrote.

Another person said the appointment process has little to do with gifts and skills, and more to do with “climbing the church ladder.”

“Now you don’t just have to worry, ‘Where do I get moved?’ but ‘Are they going to get rid of me altogether?’”
–The Rev. Eric Van Meter

There is a basic issue of trust, some clergy said in interviews.

“I think we live in a culture of fear,” said the Rev. Eric Van Meter, the campus minister of the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. “Now you don’t just have to worry, ‘Where do I get moved?’ but ‘Are they going to get rid of me altogether?’”

When he was ordained, Van Meter said one of the first pieces of advice he received was to be careful what he said to fellow pastors. One of them could be his district superintendent one day.

“The root problem is mistrust,” he said, “and this isn’t going to help much.”

Estes said simply getting rid of guaranteed appointments lets bishops, district superintendents and laity off the hook.

“I would assert that mediocrity is bred by the annual conferences … by the lack of positive, productive supervision of pastors, and the unwillingness of a congregation to address their own ineffectiveness as disciples,” she said.

She said congregations often can make their pastors better.

“I always tell congregants that they can absolutely improve their pastors in how they hold us accountable,” she said, “and how they encourage us.”

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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