One of the things coming before The United Methodist General Conference is going to be the recommendation to eliminate guaranteed appointments. Before I get into the crux of this post, I have to be upfront: I have long supported and don’t have a problem with getting rid of guaranteed appointments. Understanding how they came about, though helps us understand some of the aversion people have to getting rid of them. They were created in a culture where it was important to have a “check and balance” as reform (the ordination of women) was being instituted to guarantee there was protection (or at least that is my understanding and take on it). I totally get it and yet I still think it is not something that we as clergy should have as an absolute right because it can be abused. So yeah, I have no problem with getting rid of them.
However, I think those voting at General Conference should think long and hard and pray about this because of the current context. First, we are instituting this in a time of decline and anxiety. There are huge amounts of mistrust (that can be scene by just listening to people in conversation or looking at some of the tweets in the twitter-verse) and instituting something like this in a culture like that can lead to all kinds of unintended consequences. At its core, the ridding of guaranteed appointments is about giving Annual Conferences the ability to gracefully exit clergy who have “check out” and no longer are living fully into their call to ministry. I get it, but in this system of mistrust here are some things that I fear will be possible unintended consequences:
- Reformers that the UMC needs will remain silent out of fear. As much as we would like to think this won’t happen, I fear it will. One only needs to look at our current “provisional” period to see this already happening. So often I hear clergy who are in the provisional period hold back on prophetic speaking because they are afraid of not being ordained, or even sometimes they are told not to rock the boat until they are ordained. This doesn’t help them and it doesn’t help the system face the change it might face. Whether the “abuse of power” actually exists or not doesn’t matter, it is the perceived power over.
- Unpopular clergy will be gracefully asked to leave under the auspices of being ineffective. Perhaps this is different from conference to conference or even region to region, but we live in a connectional system. That has many benefits, but it also has drawbacks. The “reputation” of clergy can quickly spread. I have heard individuals upset because of the pastor they were getting (based on 2nd hand or even 3rd hand knowledge of the individual), this easily could lead to the pastor being viewed as “ineffective” because churches won’t “buy in” to the pastor because if the weather the storm of making him/her look bad by not engaging for a couple of years the reputation will gain momentum. I hope this doesn’t happen if this legislation passes, but it could be a potential unintended consequence.
- Newer clergy will not be given the time needed to mature in ministry. The fact is many of our new clergy coming into the system are being trained to face the new day and the context we now face. This doesn’t always match up with the lived out culture of many of our churches because they have hunkered down and are still behind the “times.” It takes new clergy time to understand the churches and there are bumps and bruises along the way. My fear is that the “fruits” of ministry that might lead to evaluations of clergy being effective or ineffective could lead to earlier exits for many of the clergy we might need the most because they aren’t given time to mature and learn. (I trust this won’t happen, but is it that far of a stretch for a system to want to cut its losses sooner rather than later…my fear is at the first sign of “problems” the path to exit may be made)
- Those that challenge the system will face “abuse” to try and keep them from challenging. Power is an easy thing to use over someone under that power. I am afraid that those who might challenge the system could easily see that power used to try and “keep them in line.” Systems are powerful things. Power has a way of trying to maintain the order that brought about that power. Basically, what I said about people remaining silent out of fear is looking that this in the best light, but we have to face the facts that real abuse could still be used and even the “accountability” factor of reporting in the exit can be influenced to achieve the desired outcome.
Ultimately, I trust that God will be with us in all of this, but I do fear that we must be aware of the real mistrust that abounds and how something that would be of great value in a system full of trust could have major unintended negative consequences. May God be with all those voting and may we see the path God has for The United Methodist Church as we move into the future.