Sorry, We’ve Decided to Let You Go For Someone Younger and Cheaper: Guaranteed Appointments

The Commission to Study the Ministry: 2008-2012 is making headlines again over the issue of guaranteed appointments. You can read the article from UMNS here.

At the recent Council of Bishops the Commission yet again made the recommendation to do away with the tradition of guaranteed appointments. The essence of their argument seems to be this:

Guaranteeing clergy jobs produces “a culture of mediocrity. It allows people to coast rather than to continue to strive and to grow,” said Seattle Area Bishop Grant Hagiya, a commission member. “What we need is the flexibility to maximize our leadership to those who are going to make a difference.”

Two issues seem to be at stake here. First, in several annual conferences there are more fully ordained clergy than there are churches to appoint them to. And, second, several of these surplus clergy are ineffective in ministry, and we would be better off without them.

The solution, then, is simple: Get rid of the excess clergy who are ineffective. Assign the effective pastors to the remaining churches. Those who are left over, let them go. (That’s a nice way of saying, “You’re fired.”)

I have a couple of problems with this. First, don’t we already have a mechanism in place for dealing with ineffective clergy? I’m fairly certain the Book of Discipline has something to say about this already. The problem is, we’re not using it.

So why do this then? If we’re not already dealing with ineffective clergy by the mechanisms currently in place, why deal with them this way?

Isn’t this the more cowardly way to fire a pastor? “I’m sorry, but we can’t offer you an appointment this year” seems like a real dodge from the truth of “You’re incompetent, so we’re firing you.”

What’s more, isn’t this going to open us up to any number of undesired abuses of the system? Aside from the issues the Commission mentions, such as race, gender, or individual retribution, what about the matter of agism?

I’m a fairly young pastor (not yet 40), but I can already see how this could be used to leave pastors who are older and more expensive out in the cold. After all, isn’t it the dream of every church to have a 45 year-old pastor with a spouse, 2 children, and 15 years of pastoral experience?

What happens when pastors don’t fit this bill? Will we soon join the American corporate culture that “downsizes” its older, higher-salaried employees? We may make all sorts of assurances to the contrary, but how do you prevent it?

Finally, there is the matter of itineracy. If I’m hearing this correctly, the Commission wants to remove guaranteed appointments while maintaining pastoral itineracy. In other words, pastors are being asked to be available to go anywhere without the promise of having an actual place to go.

To me, that sounds deeply unrealistic. We may say that guaranteed appointments and itineracy are not linked. And historically that may be true. But practically it just doesn’t work that way anymore.

From a practical point of view, if you don’t appoint me to a church this year, what are the chances I am going to make myself available for appointment next year? Won’t I have hopefully found another job and be gainfully employed elsewhere? So why would I be waiting on your call?

If there’s no guaranteed appointment for me, there’s no guaranteed pastor to appoint for you. That’s the way it works.

So isn’t not appointing a pastor really a cowardly way of firing someone? That’s what it looks like from here. But then, that may well be the point.

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