Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Flipside of Accountability: The End of the “Guaranteed Appointment”

            The General Conference has decided to end what is commonly called the “guaranteed appointment” for ordained elders in our denomination. The over-simplified nutshell explanation is that clergy who are judged to be ineffective no longer must be given an appointment. The first waves of reaction are coming from a kind of suspicion of authority common to so many these days. And I find it ironic.

            Irony is rife in this decision, and in the reaction. One of the emphases of the UMC is attracting more young people, and the best way that happens is through vital and vibrant congregations. Young people are in general rather postmodern in their thinking. Postmodern people are (stereo)typically wary of big, institutional authority. So, some of the postmoderns who are already in the church, who are similarly prone to suspicion of authority, are reacting to the effort to bring new young people into the church by voicing their suspicion of authority, authority that is being wielded by the institution in an effort to bring more suspicious young people into the church by creating vital local congregations! Ha! I love it!

             More seriously, though, the question that many clergy are asking is, “What definition of ‘effectiveness’ will be applied to me?” There is a fear that, even though I may believe that I am working faithfully, proclaiming the gospel, and bearing fruit for the kingdom, my DS or Bishop might not see it that way. And now that I am not guaranteed an appointment they may apply their different definition of effectiveness to my ministry and ask that I consider another vocation.

            Another perspective might call this “accountability,” in that pastors are being held accountable with more purpose than before. There was a process by which ordained elders could be removed from service before this decision was made. Now however, the accountability piece is closer to the surface.

            Look, it’s all going to be fine. It will require pastors to effectively describe the fruitfulness within their particular context, and continue to maintain a healthy relationship with their DS. That’s all. No need to panic, everybody. It’s all good. Just be ready at a moment’s notice to lay down the dozen or more most fruitful moments that have happened in the last month, and share them with as many people as you possibly can.

            No, the conference isn’t going to guarantee your appointment anymore - you are going to have to guarantee your own.

            What I haven’t heard so much about is the flipside of accountability. I have heard an awful lot about how conferences will deal with ineffective pastors; I haven’t heard a bunch about how conferences are going to be supporting the effective ones. What new things will the conferences be doing now to support, encourage, inspire, refresh, renew, and affirm pastors who ARE effective?

            Accountability has a flipside, and that’s where I’d like us to focus.
+If an ineffective pastor is going to be encouraged to another vocation, how is an effective pastor going to be encouraged?
+Should our Annual Conferences expend all their time and energy concentrating on what isn’t working well and just leave “well enough” alone?
+Should the primary task of Conference staff be to guide ineffective pastors out of ministry and just assume that the effective pastors are doing fine?

            I don’t fear the end of the guaranteed appointment. I’m going to preach the gospel, serve God faithfully, and work to change the world for God’s sake. I will have eyes that are open to notice fruitfulness in all of its diverse varieties. And I’ll be able to describe them to anyone who asks. I’m just wondering now, what will accountability look like from the flipside?

            Not that I need an “Effective Pastor” plaque to hang on my wall or anything. I am an itinerant preacher in the United Methodist Church because I believe that’s what God wants me to be, not so that someone will pat me on the back and say “Good job, dude.” That’s not my point.

            My point is simply that accountability is more than just addressing what isn’t working well. Accountability also means supporting what is.  

UPDATE: Cross-posted at Ministry Matters - Click this.


Todd said...

I'm not quite as sanguine about this change. Not, mind you, because I fear for my own appointment status - I don't (and even if I did - I've changed careers before...)

But I see two major problems:

First: Much of the discussion around this issue seems to be based on a very clergy-centric vision of church, as if all we need to do to change the destiny of United Methodism is get the right people in clergy leadership.
But in my opinion that clergy-centric understanding of church is a big part of our current problem.

The Methodist system was based on strong lay leadership coming from intentionally cultivated disciples. That's what made itineracy work - the pastor wasn't the core of the local church system, so we could move them in and out without major disruption. If is our intention to move to a system of longer appointments and a clergy-centered system, we need to re-evaluate much of what we do, up to and including itinerant ministry itself.

Second: A pastor can only be an effective leader if the people of the congregation are willing to be effective followers. Yes, there are some ineffective pastors in our system. There are also toxic congregations, or congregations tired or broken beyond the point of healing, that I doubt few if any can fix.

There are also appointments that are just bad combinations - I've seen several gifted friends sent into situations that required a very different set of skills than they possessed, with predictably bad results for both church and pastor.

I suspect any of us could be made (or at least made to look) ineffective in the wrong setting. Is all the accountability on the clergy, or can we place some of it on other levels of our system.

Here's the scenario I fear: a 55 year-old colleague who has been in ministry for 30 years. S/he has spent their career in struggling churches, living in whatever parsonage is available, never making much more than a minimum salary. They have never "killed" a church with ineptitude or misconduct, but they've never "set the world on fire" with major church growth either. Maybe they're just on the quiet side and haven't been particularly good at promoting their gifts or their ministries. Or maybe they are tired, and the church they knew, the one they have been trained to serve, has passed away and left them feeling a bit lost. Maybe they even know themselves that it might be time to go, but have no idea how do do anything else but be in ministry?

What do we do? Force them into retirement on 90 days notice with letter from the bishop and a vote of the BOM? How do we support them in the transition? Do we offer vocational assistance, help in finding housing, "gap" insurance?

I keep hearing the refrain "people in other jobs don't have guarantees!" and that, of course, is true. Of course people in other jobs also choose where they work, negotiate their salaries and benefits, and make their own living arrangements.

Perhaps it is my own "suspicion of authority," but this seems like a convenient and expedient way to deal with a difficult and complex problem.

Lori Cloninger said...

Excellent post and Todd left an excellent comment with some great points!
Also, what I thought of is, not just toxic congregations (I've not served in ministry, but having once been married to a preacher's kid I saw it first hand) but what about a toxic DS? I knew one once (although I think he's just ministering now... maybe he'll be "suggested" into another vocation...?) and I could see him abusing his power to remove those that he would feel threatened by. It's an interesting move by the Methodist Church, for sure; and I think that one does have to wonder how many of the really good ones it's going to affect negatively just due to circumstances outside of their own control.

sandie.richards said...

I'm not afraid of accountability-- I crave it. My issue is that the 'guaranteed appointment' was a response to bishops who had to ordain-- but would not appoint-- women pastors. What of our UM clergy sisters on other continents, where sexism is still such a big factor? What shall we say to their Bishops, when the men of the congregation will not accept te leadership of clergywomen? What shall we say to the women? We're
a global denomination, but we see with primarily U.S. eyes.