I want to start by framing my discussion a bit here. I believe in change, and I believe The United Methodist Church, and our local churches, need change. Because I believe that change can have positive impacts on the way we do ministry, the way we create disciples, and the way we (try to) transform the world, I have great respect for all those who have worked so hard on the Call to Action. For those unfamiliar, the Call to Action is a report that recommends sweeping changes to the UMC, changes on everything from appointments to the size and scope of general agencies to creating a new head episcopal position. The Call to Action has been endorsed by the Council of Bishops (including our own Bishop Hagiya who has been featured in news articles and reports – see this story), the denomination’s Connectional Table, and many other leaders of the UMC. And yet, there are aspects of it which make me uneasy to say the least.
Because I don’t want to be up for several days writing, I’ll start with just one issue – appointments. In the interests of full disclosure, I am a certified candidate for ordained ministry, and hope to some day be ordained, and appointed, as an elder. So yes, any changes passed, or not passed, could have profound impacts on my life, my career, and my ministry. In case you would like to read up all this before (or after) reading what I have to say, you can find the Call to Action website (yup, it has it’s own website!) here; a helpful summary here; and the specific legislation I’m talking about here.
While I will admit that some of the legislation proposed by the Ministry Study regarding ordination intrigues me in a positive way, I am deeply concerned about the amendments and deletions offered surrounding guaranteed appointments (relating specifically to paragraphs 337 and 338 in the 2008 Book of Discipline). The changes are largely aimed at increasing pastoral “accountability” and providing Bishops and cabinets with ways of addressing “ineffective” pastors. With the decline in church membership (and much more importantly, participation) in the United States (while the UMC continues to grow in other parts of the world) I certainly understand the need to revitalize congregations – which means finding pastoral leaders who are capable evangelists, and are capable of guiding their congregations in the work of making new disciples.
However, removing guaranteed appointments feels like a step in the wrong direction for many reasons, two of which I will elaborate on. The first is that guaranteed appointments provide clergy with the security to speak out boldly, to proclaim Gospel Truths even when such Truth is unpopular. How often is the Christian message at odds with popular opinion in our communities, in our states or provinces, in our nations? Dare I even ask how often the Gospel may be at odds with political beliefs held by members of cabinets? I find myself inspired by the stories lifted up by Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill (Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University) of Methodist ministers boldly living out their callings to preach Truth, even when such Truth was unpopular and even dangerous. You can find his sermon, and these inspiring stories, in the sermon archives here.
The second reason that I believe in guaranteed appointments is that I believe they are a matter of, and means to, justice. How many stories have we all heard of female clergy, or clergy of non-dominant ethnicity (in the U.S., generally non-white) struggling with congregations who do not want them because of their gender or ethnicity? How many of these stories also involve discrimination by Bishops and District Superintendents? How many of these stories are still happening? Here in the Pacific Northwest we may feel that this is less of a problem, because we have many women and minorities serving in leadership in our conference, which is an accomplishment I believe we can celebrate. But progress does not mean the problem is gone. And what about regions of the country and world in which problems of discrimination are much more prevalent and persistent?
Admittedly there is language in the proposed changes to paragraph 338 that is designed to address these concerns. The amended language reads: “Bishops and cabinets shall commit to and support open itineracy and the protection of the prophetic pulpit and diversity.” Later on it states “Special attention shall be given to ensure that the values of open itineracy are preserved.” I, of course, welcome your feedback, but I do not believe that those two sentences are enough. Those commitments are already supposed to be in place.
Yes, the Church needs effective leadership, yes we need to change, and yes, if passed, this legislation will create flexibility. All of these can be positive. But will it also tie the hands of our clergy, muffling prophetic voices in our church on issues of justice, compassion, and peace? Will it hinder progress towards equality? Will it create fear for pastors serving declining congregations? Are we trying to use fear to motivate?