Guaranteed Instability

United Methodist circles have been abuzz over the last eighteen months or so regarding the topic of guaranteed appointment.

For those of you unfamiliar with our lingo, guaranteed appointment is the United Methodist practice that for all practical purposes grants tenure to all those ordained as elders.  The mantra is:  there is a charge for every pastor and a pastor for every charge.  Once you are “in” our itinerant system via your ordination, it is well nigh impossible to get you “out” for any reason other than moral failure.

And in recent months, we United Methodists have learned that what the General Conference taketh away, the Judicial Council giveth.  You can read that story here.  So after walking on the thinnest of ices for the better part of two years, guaranteed appointment is, apparently, once again the law of the Methodist land.

But out itinerant system “guarantees” something else other than pastoral appointments.  Something much more pernicious.

It guarantees congregational instability.

See, every January in every United Methodist Church in the land, two letters are received from the Annual Conference.  One letter goes to the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (Human Resources) of the church. It asks:  Do you want him or her to continue as your pastor; do you want a change; or are you ambivalent?

At that same time, the pastor gets a letter.  That letter is best summarized by the Clash:  Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

But think about that process.  Every single United Methodist pastor is on a series of one-year contracts (not signed legally, but agreed to verbally), debated and decided upon each January.  If either party — church or pastor — decides that year is enough, well, the pastor gets sent to another church and the church receives another pastor.

It’s Methodist Musical Chairs.

And it is, by its very design, a sick system.

It’s hard to imagine another profession which has more built-in volatility and insecurity than the system we have in the UMC. 

Teachers often sign contracts for multiple years, especially as they establish tenure in their school district.

NFL rookies sign for three to five years, and coaches work much the same.

The other employees at Good Shepherd don’t even sign contracts — their employment here is for the forseeable future and certainly not subject to a tension-inducing annual decision.

Marketplace executives sign employment agreements that involve annual reviews but not the threat of annual termination or relocation.

This system has been benign for me personally — each January I desire to stay (what a fool I’d be to desire otherwise) and our church has been content with its leadership.

But I began thinking about the instability our appointment system guarantees when a clergy friend of mine was in my office not too long ago, sharing that he had been blind-sided by the SPRC of the church he serves.  They decided it was time for a change.  He had very little indication such a decision was coming.

Well, it turns out that same congregation has made that same decision with every pastor they have had in recent memory.  Why? Because they can.  Because the system by design encourages it.  Because whether it’s from the side of the clergy or the perspective of the church, that every year, each January mentality makes it very difficult for either church or pastor to settle in for ministry over the long haul.

Let me be clear:  this is the proverbial two-way street. Many a UM pastor has given up on a particular appointment prematurely simply because he or she has that annual “out.”  As Amy Ramsey said on the UM Reporter’s Facebook page regarding this post:  “It seems to me that our itineracy system makes it very easy for both congregations and pastors to give up on each other. No relationship was ever built or thrived in a term of one year.”   

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  In fact, I didn’t.  She did.

Because ministry impact rarely happens over the span of a year.  It instead occurs over the span of a decade.

I guess I have a dream for our appointment system: that next January mailboxes across our connection would have one fewer letter in them.