Breaking Free in the UMC: The Guaranteed Appointment as Relic

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Despite our Protestant leanings, United Methodists do indeed revere relics. Not sure what a relic is? Let Webster‘s help:

rel·ic: noun \ˈre-lik\

1 a: an object esteemed and venerated because of association with a saint or martyr

  b: souvenir, memento

2: plural:  remains, corpse

3:  a survivor or remnant left after decay, disintegration, or disappearance

4:  a trace of some past or outmoded practice, custom, or belief

In our case, the relic in question is not the pinkie of some obscure saint. Rather, it is what David Noer calls an “old reality” system of relating the organization to the employee. I am, of course, referring to the ecclesially infamous so-called “Guaranteed Appointment.” The gist: once made an Elder in Full Connection (read: ordained and granted tenure), under our present system it is nearly impossible for the United Methodist Church to exit its clergy. While there are a whole host of offenses possible that could, de jure, lead to de-frocking (basically a clerical defenestration), in practice an Elder has to be grossly incompetent, caught embezzling, or found to be committing sexual misconduct to be ousted (and even with these, it sometimes seems to require multiple or especially egregious offenses).

As presently arranged, our current system baptizes dependency, and is a classic example of what consultant David Noer warns against in his Breaking Free:

“Engaging in a strategy that sets up long-term dependency relationships with employees is expensive and limits organizational flexibility. Dependent employees are motivated by pleasing, fitting in, and, most of all by staying employed. They are not the independent, customer-focused risk takers you need to thrive and compete in the new reality.” (215)

This clearly implies that the GA is straight out of a previous reality, which Noer unpacks later:

“The old reality, the old psychological contract, or the old paradigm are labels for a pattern of beliefs that held that a person who maintained proper performance and compliance with the organizational culture could count on remaining employed with one organization until voluntary departure or retirement. The reciprocal organizational belief was that loyalty required the individual’s total commitment. The organizational response to this commitment and dependence was an acceptance of the obligation to provide a life-time career.” (237, emphasis added)

My jaw fell when I read these descriptions, written by a lay business consultant, that so aptly narrate our own situation.  Of course, General Conference 2012 attempted to get rid of the GA but was rebuffed by the (not nearly activist enough) Judicial Council. Systems love homeostasis, after all, whether a country, an ecosystem, or a denomination.  But what if homeostasis isn’t healthy?

The Guaranteed Appointment fits into every possible definition of a relic. In our system, it is revered; the GA is a souvenir or memento of an old and non-functioning reality, a corpse (albeit a lively, zombie-ish corpse, because it doesn’t seem to know it’s dead). I have no clue if it will be challenged in 2016. I hope it will.

Healthy organizations do not function this way anymore. In reality, they have not in some time. Noer wrote these words in 1996 – almost 20 years ago.

The Guaranteed Appointment is a relic, and should be discarded with all possible haste. To paraphrase Jesus, the church does not exist to serve pastors, but pastors to serve the church.

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12 thoughts on “Breaking Free in the UMC: The Guaranteed Appointment as Relic”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I wonder if this conversation has stalled, in part, because of the ongoing conversation about itinerancy. It is one thing to get clergy to acknowledge that guaranteed appointments can encourage ineffective (even destructive) clergy that can’t be easily removed, but it is quite another to get them to accept that they must give up a GA, and yet still be willing to move where the Bishop wants, knowing that after the move the appointment could suddenly end.

    We have a tough road of equally tough decisions ahead. I am hopeful, though, that the difficulty of these decisions won’t stand in the way of making good ones.

    1. I am hopeful as well! Thanks for stopping by. I may need to do a follow-up about the link between itinerancy and GA. I don’t think they rise or fall together, as is often argued.

  2. I’m told by people in Indiana that the conference exits 6-8 pastors a year via current systems and processes without church trials. I’m not sure how many more the bishop would want to eliminate if he had the choice, but I do think we need some actual data about the claim that it is “nearly impossible” to remove pastors.

    I’m not saying we should keep the system of guaranteed appointment, but I do think we tend to speak about it without reference to actual data.

    1. John, I am a humanities person at heart and data is not my cup of tea. I do recall an interesting interview with Willimon on Ministry Matters where he basically said Bishop had more authority than they were typically willing to exercise, and he had exited 30-ish clergy a year. I think he indicated that this was not some huge percentage of clergy, but it was an increase – and if one thinks of the damage ineffective and/or unhealthy clergy can do, then we should be making it easier, not harder, for Bishops to exit folks. Thanks for the suggestion, however.

      1. I hear your point. I wonder if there is some way to promote the election of bishops who have a more mission-orient mindset.

  3. It amazes me how so many “centrists” ignore the plight of minority groups. All the removal of guaranteed appointments will do is make it harder for women, and people of color to get hired in Methodist churches, call me an alarmist but as a person of color this hits closer to home for me. You claim that it’s “nearly impossible for the United Methodist Church to exit its clergy” yet Jimmy Creech, and Frank Schaefer got removed rather quickly. Removing guaranteed appointments is just a quick way to eliminate diverse voices in the pulpit.

    1. Do other mainline denominations without the GA not have a diversity of voices? (PCUSA, Episcopal, Lutheran, etc?) Besides that, what about the many diverse voices who are and have been serving the UMC without a security of appointment as local pastors, provisional elders, and provisional and full connection deacons.

      1. Mainline denominations are less racially diverse than the UMC, and seeing as the UMC really isn’t that diverse I think that speaks for itself.

        The local pastors, provisional elders, and deacons that are serving with guaranteed appointments are there – but they make less than elders in full-connection, they are not allowed to fully participate in the life of the church (especially around Annual conferences) and they are limited because any time they do or say something controversial their SPRC could fire them. Their prophetic voices are bound by their need to provide for themselves and their families. But that’s just my opinion.

  4. Security of appointment doesn’t equal “the church serving the pastor.” It is a safeguard for both female and minority clergy receiving appointments to local churches (as prejudices against both still exist in some hearts & places). And it enhances freedom of the pulpit, where a difficult to receive prophetic word doesn’t result in a loss of job and home the following day. Plus, sometimes it protects clergy from petsonal vendettas from “higher-ups.” At any rate, mechanisms already exist to remove ineffective clergy, as evidenced by clergy who are removed every year at our respective annual conferences. Security of appointment is not the boogey-man of a declining UMC.

    1. Pastor G, Nowhere did I suggest it is the boogeyman or a fix for what ails us. I only argued, based on stunningly parallel portraits of trends in the business world, that this practice is out of date. There are many pastors who do great, prophetic ministry without a “secure” appointment, both in and outside of the UMC. Did MLK need a guaranteed job to do his work?

  5. It is indeed obvious that data are not your cup of tea. In the first place, if you cared really to research the matter, you might notice that denominations under the call system are experiencing the same struggles we are. You might consider the matter that “ineffective” (whatever that is supposed to mean, in a context in which the ideal is forgiving seventy times seven times) and destructive lay people are virtually impossible to “exit” from the churches they destroy. You might consider the fact that bishops “exit” clergy they (arbitrarily) declare “unappointable” on a fairly regular basis. You might also consider the possibility that “exiting” clergy might be carried out by bishops more interested in throwing their weight around than in any kind of a genuine “missional” orientation.

    As it stands now, this piece is little more than mean-spirited prejudice that reduces GA to its lowest common denominator. You make vague, simplistic, arbitrary statements about Guaranteed Appointments, “backed up” with psychobabble that does not directly apply to the issue of Guaranteed Appointments, but to businesses whose sole purpose is pleasing customers. “…customer-focused risk takers” is a particularly interesting locution. One who is focused upon pleasing customers is no more inclined to take risks, or to adopt a “mission-oriented mindset,” than someone who has earned tenure; tenure, used with integrity, can foster a prophetic approach to ministry. You really don’t make any kind of a case at all. But then it’s your “blog”; you can think and say whatever you want.

    1. Ken, I am under no allusions that our system is perfect. My own experience has been marked more by encountering damage done to churches by ineffective pastors than by pastors harmed by vindictive bishops. And again, nowhere did I connect this argument with decline – I simply said it is out of date. There is no one magic pill for the denomination.

      Of course I understand that God’s people are not “customers,” and I appreciate you pointing out the danger. Noer argues that systems of dependency (which we clearly have, because everyone comes out of the woodwork when someone suggests challenging their “earned” status) create an orientation among employees more directed towards fitting into the bureaucracy than meeting the needs of the customer. In our system, that amounts to a choice of careerism over missional engagement, of personal status and security over calling. I am as aware as anyone of the dangers of secular leadership materials, and yet there is a value to reading outside of the narrow field of church-oriented materials. Wesley called this “plundering the Egyptians.” We have gone on for far too long thinking that – only for ordained elders, by the way (which are far from all of our clergy!) – ministry at some point becomes a job to which you are entitled rather than a gift to which one is called.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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