Take it or leave it: the UMC appointment system in the postmodern world

John_Wesley_by_William_Hamilton
Wesley Preaching by William Hamilton

As a member of the United Methodist Church (UMC), I have found that people in other mainline denominations are surprised when they hear about the UMC appointment system for pastors. This system means that, instead of a local church calling a pastor and being in control of who is hired to shepherd their church, the bishop has the power to do this and may install a pastor that the church does not want. Ideally, the bishop and others in leadership appoint a pastor to a local church based on the gifts of the pastor as well as the needs of the church. Unfortunately, in many cases these criteria are not followed.

The appointment system goes back to the 1700s when things in the church and society were very different from what they are today. John Wesley, who founded Methodism, used the appointment system to utilize the limited amount of ordained pastors to spread Methodism. In America the population was growing and mobile in the 18th and 19th centuries. Pastors were deployed to grow disciples, grow congregations, and start new congregations. Pastors served circuits which might have as many as 18 churches. The laity were used to form and lead small groups where disciples met to worship, fellowship, study, etc. and keep the Methodist system growing.

In our present time, with settled populations, pastors have taken on much of the ministry that the laity previously led such as organizing and leading small groups and visiting the sick. Since the role of clergy has changed so drastically over the centuries, it’s time to reconsider the appointment system which often leads to short tenures for pastors.  Studies show that short term pastorates have a negative impact on a church’s growth.

From the perspective of a congregation in our postmodern world, the appointment system smacks of authoritarianism. People who are involved in a church and sharing their gifts, time, and talent expect to have a say in something as important as who their spiritual leader will be. In a world where we realize that the opinion of everyone needs to be respected, those in a church who have a pastor appointed without having any say in the process may find this disconcerting to say the least. Although there is a committee in the UMC (Staff Pastor Parish Relations) which is consulted during the appointment process, their meetings are not open to other members of the congregation and the members of the committee do not necessarily reflect the views of the entire congregation.

From the perspective of the clergy, the appointment system has both good and bad aspects. Ordained clergy (elders) are guaranteed an appointment so they have job security. However, a clergy person who is happy with his/her present appointment and in the midst of helping a church become or remain vital can be moved at any time. If the appointment is made to a church some distance away, this may mean a spouse having to look for new employment and/or children having to say good-bye to their school and social life. Because the pastor is accountable to the bishop and not the congregation for his/her job security, it may be easier to make necessary changes in a church that is resistant. It would be nice to think that politics don’t enter in pastoral appointments, but it just may be that the “good” appointments are given to those who have an in with the higher ups.

The system most benefits ineffective pastors or those who may be unsuitable for ministry. If clergy are called by a church, it is a natural process that those who are incompetent or have other issues find themselves without a church to pastor. In the UMC, this is not the case. Like a tenured teacher, once in, it is extremely difficult to get rid of a pastor who perhaps should not have been ordained in the first place.

Church membership is declining along with denominational loyalty, so churches who attract new members will be the ones who understand the need of postmoderns to make their own choices rather than making the choice for them and telling them to “take it or leave it.” In the UMC, if the appointment system continues, it just may be that many people will make the choice to “leave it.”

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