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Finance group explores clergy job guarantees

 
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6:00 P.M. EST June 3, 2010

Clergy and choir members sing during a 2008 ordination service for the California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference at the University of Redlands in Redlands, Calif. <br/>A UMNS photo by Larry R. Hygh Jr.
Clergy and choir members sing during a 2008 ordination service for the California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference at the University of Redlands in Redlands, Calif.
A UMNS photo by Larry R. Hygh Jr.

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 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.

Staff members from 15 conferences, including benefits officers, treasurers and a director of connectional ministries, joined the endeavor. The group also received support from staff members from the pension board and the General Council on Finance and Administration.

The group initially started by examining benefits, Boigegrain said, but soon expanded its research to include compensation and infrastructure.

“We decided we needed to get a bigger picture,” she said. “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.

“I think the appointive system has a lot of benefits to it, but it also comes with a great deal of fixed costs,” said group member Scott Brewer, director of connectional services for the General Council on Finance and Administration. “A number of people have identified the guaranteed appointment concept as one of the major drivers in some of those costs.”

Web only. A UMNS Stock photo by Peter Booth.
Web only. A UMNS Stock photo by Peter Booth.

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.

“When a (United Methodist) pastor submits to ordination, they are placing themselves in the trusting care of their bishop,” said Chris Wickersham, an Arizona youth pastor and certified candidate for ordained ministry. “They agree to serve where and how the bishop and cabinet discern they can best serve and place their trust in the institution that they and their family will be taken care of responsibly.”

Fewer people support more clergy

But 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 local churches now have fewer than 125 congregants.

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.

Based on church needs and a sample of U.S. bishops, the advisory group said, there are 784 “excess clergy” in the country today. That results in $47.3 million a year in costs for unneeded clergy positions, the report said.

While “guaranteed appointment” provides important protections, the study group said, “the time has come to examine other ways of ensuring a qualified and diverse leadership pool.”

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, the study said.

Still, that action alone is not enough, the group said.

The report said altering the “guaranteed appointment” system “alone could potentially have the single largest positive impact on the UMC because it immediately impacts both cost and possible quality of leadership.”

The report is being distributed to bishops, conference benefit officers and task forces studying the future of the denomination.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Briggs is news editor of UMNS.

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

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