Burning Questions - General Conference and Guaranteed Appointments
Note: Each month, the Rev. Dr. WIlliam Dobbs, Michigan Area Clergy Assistant to the Bishop , answers your most pressing questions about the Michigan Area of The United Methodist Church. If you would like to submit a question to be answered please email him at email@example.com.
Two questions have arrived this month, even as many of us are glued to the events in Tampa. Both of them seem to be born out of an awareness that something special is happening, but, I think, they come from very different places. They are:
1) What happens in your office when the Bishop is away like he is now at General Conference? Do you get the ten days off, do you go to General Conference with the Bishop, or is it just "kick back" time until he returns?
2) I just heard that guaranteed appointments are gone. I've been at this practice of ministry for nearly 20 years. What happens to me? I'm not trained for anything else and I'm too young to be a greeter at Wal-Mart!
Please allow me to begin by saying that I am not in Tampa, nor have I been, during this General Conference session. I do love the city, both the people and the weather, and I am a bit envious of those who had the chance to travel there. But I’m not envious of those who strapped themselves to chairs and waded into the hard work of sorting through some 1,200 petitions, participated in the discussion and debate during 12 to 14 hour days, and doing the hard work of Holy Conferencing. Our elected delegates deserve our thanks and praise for work well done, even if we do not agree with the outcome.
But even as those delegates and the many other visitors and volunteer workers gathered in Tampa, life was going on in the Michigan Area. Difficult to believe as it may seem to those of us who observed the live-streamed sessions and the sometimes heated conversations, there were more United Methodists in Michigan than there were in Tampa for those ten days. So Deana, Vicki, Stu and I stayed behind to “take care of business” here. We were in the office answering questions, writing letters and responding to e-mails just as we usually do. Some of us managed to get away for a personal day or two, but the office was open and work was done every day of General Conference. And, unlike what may have happened in years past, we were in nearly immediate contact with Bishop Keaton via the gift of “smart phones” and “I-pads” if we needed him for emergencies. And these were not “kick-back” days either. I will admit that the pace of external stimuli was less, but this gave all of us a chance to catch up. In fact, by the time they all came back from Tampa, some of us could actually see the tops of our desks. That’s a good feeling, too!
But May 1st saw the phones light up and the volume of e-mails increase as the news went out that General Conference had made at least one major change in the way we appoint clergy by doing away with the “security of appointment” that has been part of our Disciplinary language since the mid 1950’s. Elders, Provisional Elders, and Associate Members have all enjoyed the security of knowing that, come what may, they would have an appointment in a church or churches somewhere. Even if a local church rose up and demanded that they be appointed somewhere else, they would have an appointment somewhere in their annual conference. Even if the Bishop or the DS got mad at them for something they said or didn’t say, as long as it wasn’t a chargeable offense they would have a full-time appointment somewhere with at least a full-time minimum salary and benefits. Over the years that policy has given clergy the courage to take unpopular or prophetic stands in the pulpit. Over the years, that assurance of appointment has given women and ethnic persons a place to serve when there were many persons who questioned their right to lead a local congregation. At the same time, so-called “guaranteed appointments” has forced more and more small churches into two and three point charges to enable them to afford an elder who needed to be placed. Guaranteed appointments have meant that some quality Licensed Local Pastors who had served faithfully and well for many years would not have an appointment because there were too many pastors who must be appointed. (Some conferences have adopted rules that prohibited local pastors from serving full-time appointments just because they had too many Elders needing appointments.) And, sadly, guaranteed appointments have forced Bishops and their cabinets to find places for people who were ineffective, even when it was clear that some local church would be negatively affected by their ineffectiveness. It is hoped, by those who authored this legislation that, by removing the “security of appointment” language from the Discipline, the last such scenario will not have to happen anymore.
Let me say a word to the person who asked this second burning question and all those who may be wondering the same things: “Please don’t panic!” There is a great distance between the General Conference’s changing the language of the Discipline and the felt effect in any local congregation or parsonage household. First, the Bishop and the Board of Ordained Ministry in any conference or episcopal area need to spend time reaching an agreement about what is “effective pastoral ministry.” I can tell you that, to their credit, Bishop Keaton and the two Boards of Ordained Ministry have already done some preliminary work in this regard. Secondly, there will have to be conversations and, perhaps even more importantly, training for all local church pastors about what is and is not going to be used to judge one’s effectiveness. There will also need to be renewed training for local Staff Parish Relations Committees about their role in pastoral assessment. And the Boards of Ordained Ministry will also need to do some work on putting tools in place that will help pastors transition out so that we are not like some other organizations that just turn people loose to fend for themselves.
Finally, for this article at least, a word that is meant to be encouraging to all clergy: Concentrate your energies on making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Decide for yourself what disciple-making looks like in your community or context for ministry. Do some honest self-assessment. Have you all the skills you need to grow disciples – both in wisdom and in numbers? How have you been doing over the last few years? Have you seen more disciples? Have you seen more evidence of spiritual maturity in those whom you would number as disciples? If not, what do you need to do to get the skills you need? Should continuing education and life-long learning be focused in this area? Can you develop partnerships with laity in your church so that gifts you may not have in this regard can be found in others? How have the disciples in your ministry context been changing the world? Have you been keeping track so that you could answer that question if it were asked? If not, today is not too soon to start! Don’t wait for someone else – some board, some committee, some DS or even some Bishop to do it for you! Take thou authority for your own effectiveness!
And, as you think about these burning questions, please know that Bishop Keaton, all 12 District Superintendents, both Boards of Ordained Ministry, and especially this Clergy Assistant, want nothing more than for you to succeed beyond your wildest dreams. I am confident that I speak for them as well when I say that we will do whatever we can to support and encourage your growth as an effective pastor, even as we ask the hard questions and continue to “raise the bar” for clergy in the Michigan Area. May God bless you until we meet again to consider more “Burning Questions!”