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COMMENTARY: Don’t leave clergy vulnerable Matt O’Reilly, Mar 24, 2011
By Matt O’Reilly Special Contributor
The so-called guaranteed appointment for ordained United Methodist clergy will become a matter of increased debate as General Conference 2012 draws near. In some corners it seems to be the church’s whipping boy and the source of every ill in our denomination. But is the matter that simple? Does the guaranteed appointment play no positive role in United Methodist polity? And what is the potential for damaging consequences were the provision removed? These are important questions which must be carefully considered as we discern the future course of our denomination.
I say so-called guaranteed appointment because the actual term isn’t found in the Book of Discipline. The principle appears, though, in ¶ 337.1 which ensures that all elders in full connection and in good standing will be continued under appointment by the bishop.
Similar to tenure
Guaranteed appointment functions much like tenure for a university professor. Professors need tenure in order to conduct their research and writing without fear of negative professional repercussion. Consider, for example, a professor who writes an article or book disagreeing with another member of the faculty from her own university; tenure protects that professor from professional maltreatment or injustice. She can research and write with integrity and without fear of persecution for engaging critically with the work of her colleagues. Likewise, the guaranteed offer of appointment protects the prophetic voice of the pulpit and frees the pastor to preach and teach without fear of unfair professional repercussion. Without this guarantee, pastors are more likely to be intimidated by a bishop or superintendent who may not agree with them on some points of doctrine or interpretation. Pastors may even become less transparent in their convictions among colleagues that do not have immediate authority for fear that such a one may one day be her superintendent. As long as the guaranteed offer of appointment is in place, pastors will be free to preach their convictions rather than hedge their bets for professional protection.
The reality is that the guaranteed offer of appointment plays an important and protective function in United Methodist polity. Clergy live and work in a continued state of vulnerability. The prophetic ministry of calling people to repentance and discipleship carries the implicit risk of stepping on the wrong set of toes. Clergy are expected to lead the church even in the face of criticism. The certainty that they will be continued under appointment ensures that clergy can preach and minister with integrity and without the fear that someone with an axe to grind may bring an end to their ministry. Guaranteed appointment frees clergy to lead with integrity and excellence even in the face of possible antagonism that, without the protection of guaranteed appointment, might foster less than a clergy person’s best effort. Guaranteed appointment also functions positively to protect the ministerial rights of minorities and the underrepresented. Unfortunately, we have not yet seen the day when racism and sexism are things of the past, even in our denomination where an inclusive ministry is valued. If the guaranteed appointment were taken away, it is not hard to imagine a situation in which a woman or a member of a racial minority might be slighted or the victim of an unjust process.
Beyond the potential for injustice, becoming ordained in the United Methodist Church can easily take a decade or more to accomplish. Given the extensive nature of evaluation during the candidacy process and the lengthy time commitment required for gaining entrance into a United Methodist clergy order, it should not be so easy to be removed.
Not the real problem
Some have observed that the real problem is abuse of the guaranteed appointment and not the guarantee itself. For those who abuse the provision, it is assurance that they will have an appointment despite sub-standard work. But we must be careful not to focus on the provision for guaranteed appointment when abuse in the form of under-performance is the real problem.
Guaranteed appointment is not the problem; under-performance is. And while the matter of under-performance merits its own thorough consideration, let me mention briefly that the Book of Discipline presently has procedures in place for evaluating clergy effectiveness and for removing from the appointment process ministers who perform at a sub-standard level (see ¶s 334.3 and 334.4). The ongoing guarantee of appointment is already qualified by the expectation for continued ministerial effectiveness. Given this qualification, removing the guaranteed appointment to deal with clergy ineffectiveness would be redundant. We simply need to make use of the provisions that are already in place.
We must be sure that we are addressing the real problem rather than what we perceive as the problem. Guaranteed appointment functions to maintain a truly inclusive ministry by protecting vulnerable pastors and the rights of minorities. If the real problems are abuse of the system and sub-standard performance, we must deal with those specific problems rather than undermining a principle that United Methodists are supposed to value, namely the protection of the vulnerable.
The Rev. O’Reilly is pastor of Jay United Methodist Church in Jay, Fla. He blogs at www.mattoreilly.net.