The New Terms of Employment

As I follow General Conference, I can’t shake a feeling that my church is dramatically changing the terms of the relationship between the church and clergy in the order of elders.  The move to end guaranteed appointment is one of a several things making me wonder.

I want to start by saying I recognize that we can’t continue to let bad pastors kill churches.  That’s first, and most important.  I’d urge you to listen to this interview where Bishop Will Willimon describes how he’s dealt with the problem.  His argument, in part, for the end of the guaranteed appointment is that some of his colleagues aren’t willing or able to do what he’s done to remove ineffective clergy.

It’s not just the appointment issue the GC is dealing with.  There are also the changes to the pension plan.  This will be the third plan we’ve had in 10 years.  I’m reminded of Jacob’s complaint in Genesis 31:7, but I can understand this and deal with it.  It’s everyone’s reality now.  I honestly wish we’d just go to some kind of 401K with a match and be done with it.

Then we’ve got the CTA with its emphasis on numbers.  I was an engineer before I was a pastor.  I know numbers are important.  I track them and have been blessed to see ours going up.  Our congregation set some aggressive targets in the Vital Congregations planning.  Still I can’t help but wonder – if we miss, how will that miss figure in the cabinet’s evaluation of my work?  (Maybe we should have sandbagged a little bit.  I imagine a lot of churches did.)

And here’s where I wonder about the end of the guaranteed appointment. I don’t really fear for myself (except when I consider how freely I tend to speak my mind.)  The congregation I serve is growing and vital.  I believe God has called me and gifted me for this work.

But I do know good pastors in tough appointments – places where they get beaten down by the people for trying to make changes that will lead to vitality and beaten down by the hierarchy for not paying the bills.  Or where pastors are immediately rejected just because they are female.  Or Korean.  Or both.  How will we measure them?

There’s a lot of talk about the typical layperson not having any job guarantee.  I get that.  But honestly, the UMC doesn’t much resemble a free market.  Between the bishop, the conference, and the local church, not just my employment but a good deal of my life is under someone else’s control.  That includes the church-owned house we call home and even the credentials that allow  me to do my job.  Imagine a lawyer whose bar association assigned her a job, a salary, and a residence.  That’s a lot of power to give into the hands of an institution.

It’s no small thing for a family to commit to live under itinerancy.  The question always comes up in the spring:  should we plant a garden or not? Someone might say, “you knew what you were getting into.”  I guess.  I thought part of the deal was that if I offered myself to serve, I’d always have a place to serve.  I thought that was part of the reason the Conference asked me to undergo 7 years of education and evaluation before ordination.

I can accept the end of guaranteed appointment.  But I don’t want to give it up without something in return:  if we go this route, we need term limits for bishops.  That didn’t pass today.  I pray that in time we’ll see that simple fairness requires the issues of  guaranteed appointments and term limits to travel together.

Meantime, my prayers are with General Conference:  the delegates, the bishops, and all who have come to observe and serve.