Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
April 30th, 2015 by Joel Watts

End Guaranteed Appointments, not the Itinerancy

Stripped image of John Wesley

“Hey Fr. John. You ever heard of Drew McIntyre?” “Who?”

Drew McIntyre, the (un)official leader of the non-existent non-caucus group officially known as Via Media Methodists, writes,

There is nothing sacred about itinerancy, as best as I can tell.  It is an organizational habit that is no longer effective; like a post for tying up horses, it is frontier architecture to which the United Methodist Church of the 21st century has no need to retain.

Drew has three points.

  1. Itinerancy has changed
  2. Itinerancy primarily benefits single men
  3. Itinerancy is designed for short-term service

There is very little I need to do since experts in the area have spent some time destroying Drew’s premises.

Some background. I am a lay person. I will never go into the ordained ministry. However, I am a lay person in the United Methodist Church and as such, I have a pastor. I know pastors. I know people who have pastors. I have written before on how I feel about the itinerancy system. My opinion has changed very little, even when we have suffered the loss of our very beloved senior pastor. I do feel like my home church has changed considerably in presence because of itinerancy. And I have considered leaving.1

But, getting rid of itinerancy is not the way to do it.

Instead, we need to look at the system of guaranteed appointments, that clause that requires the United Methodist Church to have a job ready for ordained elders in good standing. We’ve tried this once, in 2012, but it was overruled by the Judicial Council.

Under this new legislation, bishops and cabinets will be allowed to give elders less than full-time appointment. The legislation also would permit bishops and their cabinets, with the approval of their boards of ordained ministry and annual (regional) conference’s executive session, to put elders on unpaid transitional leave for up to 24 months. Clergy on transitional leave would be able to participate in their conference health program through their own contributions.

There is, I think, some merit to that. There are simply bad pastors – not bad people — in the ministry. You can spot them. They are emotional bullies, staying very shortly, and roaming from town to town, person to person. We have those who have forsaken their vows. We simply have some who became a minister for the wrong reasons. Frankly, there should be a way to move unhealthy people out of the ministry.

How would you protect conservative and orthodox pastors from being systemically driven out of the Western Jurisdiction? Or the progressive and liberal pastors from having to leave the Southeast? Not sure. I’m sure there is a way. Or, maybe that hasn’t happened and internal politics are never at play even in our current system.

What would this solve? I think it would free the bishops and the cabinets up from having to move people around simply because one pastor is killing churches. There is never just one pastor moved. There will have to be two or more moved. Maybe, and just maybe, you get read of the unhealthy pastor and you won’t have to move as many. This creates stability. This creates a healthy system. I believe that a longer appointment is healthy for the church — if the pastor and congregation mesh. But, sometimes appointments can be too long leading to interdependency.

Also, I would be in favor of longer appointments, more say from the Staff Parish (but not full control), and some sort of official acknowledgment that some pastors are church killers. In short, Drew has something important to say. I do not agree with him, but I do think he is on to something; however, I think we can find better ways of fixing our polity than ditching the itinerancy system.

  1. I’m not. We’ve decided not to. Sure, there is a UMC church closer to my home; however, I respect my soon-to-be-former pastor enough not to have a cult around him. This actually happens and it is sad thing. For instance, the UMC in Carthage, Indiana. All decided to leave and follow their pastor when he left. This was the congregation that wrote a letter to all of the Indiana UMCs that read more like a fundamentalist wish list than a Wesleyan call for holiness. So, they all left. Every single one of them. This is unhealthy and shows that the people followed the pastor rather than Jesus.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).


16 Responses to “End Guaranteed Appointments, not the Itinerancy”
  1. It is ludicrous to think that we need itinerancy to protect clergy. The Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and every other large Christian communion does not have the itinerancy – so it must not be necessary.

  2. I don’t think most clergy would support the end of guaranteed appointments unless itinerancy is also done away with. Forcing someone to move their family to a place where there is no guarantee they will have a job in a year is more of a burden than most would be willing to shoulder. It is different when one has a choice of where they will be sent, even if there is no guarantee of longevity.

    Another issue to consider is the original purpose behind guaranteed appointments, which was to combat racial and gender discrimination. We need to find some healthy ways to address this problem (especially with all the Metho-Baptists who would refuse to have women clergy if given the choice).

    I happen to agree that the UMC should seriously consider an end to guaranteed appointments. I just happen to think we should get rid of itinerancy at the same time.

    • What would the remaining system look like?

      • Well, it would be messy, for sure. Because there are times when clergy moves are necessary and good for both the clergy and the churches they serve. This is the case, even when clergy are effective.

        But, as you mentioned, rarely does just one pastor move. Every move sets off a ripple effect, so there would have to be some other method of identifying churches in need and matching clergy who are prepared to move with them.

        Honestly, it wouldn’t be a whole lot different than a church that practices direct hires, except that the discernment/placement process would necessarily include the polity. This is how we don’t become Baptists.

        I am not well versed enough in all things UMC polity to offer up a picture of what that would look like, or even if it is possible. But I do think it is worth doing the hard work of taking a look at the viability of appointments which are neither guaranteed or itinerant.

  3. One further thing to consider is the fact that we have a huge number of clergy nearing retirement age, and not enough younger clergy to replace them all. That alone may make this a good time to consider a change, because there will be a greater number of churches who need appointed clergy in the next few years and less chance that good clergy simply get lost in the shuffle, because there aren’t enough charges available.

  4. When did guaranteed appointments start?

  5. If you want people to go where they are sent, then there needs to be an assurance that they will be sent “somewhere.” There are more pathways to deal with toxic or ineffective clergy than some Bishops, Cabinets or Conferences are willing to use. There really is no need for additional legislation. How do we deal with toxic and/or ineffective churches, that receive a new pastor, no matter how badly they have treated their predecessors? Sometimes, those toxic churches CREATE toxic pastors.

  6. If an Elder is going to go where he/she is sent, then the Conference must assure that he/she will be sent “somewhere.” That is a principle much older than 1956. It’s not an unlimited thing, but it’s still important.

  7. Unfortunately, we can’t deal with guaranteed appointments without dealing with the issue of how much power the Bishop has. I remember my horror when this was passed at the 2012 general conference. Not because I disagree that they should be ended, but because It appeared that our bishop was inexperienced, mean, vindictive, and played a game of favorites that was destroying our conference. I can write these words only because I am now retired and can no longer be punished for them. Clergy are totally vulnerable to the whims of the bishop by the nature our ordination vows. Some protections must be in place. Not all bishops are worthy of the office just as not all clergy are effective.

    • Christy, that is one of the issues we have to figure a way around. In all cases, really, whether GA stays or goes.

      • I remember writing after the Judicial Council decisions of 2012 that the current structure simply cannot be fixed because of the nature of the restrictive rules. We are going to have to blow it up and start over. The question might be then: How to hold to connectionalism (having spent much time in the “unconnected” church, I do say this is a great strength) and our doctrinal distinctive of grace, yet get rid of a structure that is simply choking us to death now?

  8. I support itineracy, but as an appointed clergy (commissioned elder), I agree with those who say that guaranteed appointment and itineracy go hand in hand. Those other denominations that were mentioned–Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans–don’t have either; they’re also, like the UMC, shrinking, and in many cases shrinking at a faster rate than the UMC, so I’m not sure it’s fair to see itineracy or guaranteed appointment as a cause of our many ailments as a denomination.

    The Judicial Council upheld guaranteed appointments precisely because the two go hand in hand. Here is the ruling if anyone is curious: http://archives.umc.org/interior_judicial.asp?mid=263&JDID=1340&JDMOD=VWD&SN=1201&EN=1229.

    I also agree with those who say that bishops and cabinets have plenty of means at their disposal to phase out ineffective clergy, including asking for a vote from BOOM and clergy session on declaring a clergy member ineffective. Perhaps that should be slightly modified–such as, I don’t know, allow BOOM the authority to phase out a clergy for ineffectiveness after a few constructive interventions, with a right to appeal on certain narrow grounds to some other body. But with all due respect, I feel that ending security of appointment is like killing a fly with a sledge hammer, especially given the dynamics already mentioned where some conference with see a clergy shortage rather soon.

  9. Also, for the record, I feel silly. I should be able to spell itinerancy, given how much ink I’ve spent on that topic in classrooms and Board of Ordained Ministry paperwork…

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