Jesus Wants Us to Break Some Rules

Q: “How many United Methodists does it take to change a lightbulb?”


The Judicial Council of the UMC recently met and reversed an action passed this year at General Conference that would have ended the so-called “guaranteed appointment.”  Per the United Methodist Reporter:

“Security of appointment has long been a part of the tradition of The United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies. Abolishing security of appointment would destroy our historic plan for our itinerant superintendency. Fair process procedures, trials and appeals are integral parts of the privilege of our clergy of right to trial by a committee and of appeal and is an absolute right which cannot be eradicated by legislation.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a people-pleasing, rule-following only child by birth, nature, and inclination.  I hate rebellion for the sake of rebellion (and let’s be honest, nothing today makes one less of a rebel than self-identifying as one).  But sometimes rules become self-serving, stale, and rusty.  Boundaries are important, but when they become an impediment to organizational vitality and, in the case of the church, a barrier to the mission of Jesus – they gotta go.

In Back to Zero, Gil Rendle has an excellent chapter on rule-breaking.  He makes a great point:

“Bad behavior may be hard to change but not so hard as trying to change policies once they are established and applied to all.  Institutions and corporations easily can make new rules but do not have the natural capacity to break those rules once they are made.” (21)

The whole of General Conference 2012 was proof that our particular corporation does not have the capacity to change rules despite institutional decline and overall ossification.   Rendle is part of a growing chorus within the church that seeks to reclaim Methodism as a movement rather than an institution.  This means change, though:

“When a paradigm shifts, everything goes back to zero.  Former practices are found to be ineffective.  Old rules don’t apply.” (24)

The tenure system that rewards clergy for time in the system and emphasizes the security and rights of the clergy (notice the language of the decision above) over the call of Jesus and needs of the church has indeed proven to be ineffective.  Is it all the clergy’s fault? No.  Is our system of deploying clergy defensible any longer? No.

Rendle offers three questions (via an Army general, no less) to guide potential rule-breaking:

What is the purpose of the rule?

Is this rule still appropriate?

Does the rule serve or prevent the mission?


So, given the questions above, what do you think? is it time for us to break some rules – even if they are “restrictive“?



Gil Rendle, Back to Zero (Nashville: Abingdon Press 2011).


10 thoughts on “Jesus Wants Us to Break Some Rules”

  1. I think Gil Rendle is spot on and has been for some time.

    Everywhere I look I see pastors excited for this ruling. The argument was that pastors might get exited if they are prophetic. If I need a guarantee appointment to be prophetic then I should begin to question my own calling.

  2. I appreciate your thoughts. However, I don’t think the answer is “rule breaking.” Rather, it is “rule changing.” Instead of saying we disagree with the rules, therefore let’s not abide by them, why not directly engage the rules and convince a majority of the church to change the rules? I think this latter course has a lot more integrity.

    If we eliminate guaranteed appointment, I think we also have to eliminate itineracy. The two are flip sides of the same coin. This means giving the clergyperson and the congregation much more say in making appointments than is currently done in many annual conferences.

    1. Tom, I’m not sure Rendle is actually talking about the same rules that you typically are looking at in your work with the Good News Movement. He looks more at some implied rules within out institutional structure and the Book of Discipline than the more direct rules of ordination, guaranteed appointments, etc.

      For example, he talks about what charge conferences are for (the opportunity for a local church to reconnect itself to the ministry of the denomination) and then how they look on the ground (a long list of administrative requirements) (pg 24). He suggests that churches and District Superintendents would be better served by matching charge conferences with the needs and energies of local churches around their connection to the larger church. These “rules” tend to add to the institution’s weight but do not always support the mission.

      Confronting these rules openly and directly, while honestly sharing reasons for what we hope to accomplish by visioning a new way, would I hope be a way forward for those of us called Methodists.

  3. Revfife, there are plenty of prophetic pastors in congregational churches; you are absolutely right.

    Parson Carson, IDK, your soul? 🙂

    Tom, thank you for your feedback. Perhaps you are more patient than I, but I feel like what you describe was tried – in spades – at Tampa and before. It is very hard, as Rendle points out, to convince folks to vote against their self-interest.

    I think Andy Langford’s suggestion of de-funding the agencies may be the only real way to get some serious restructuring done, though I haven’t seen a lot of traction behind this idea. That is, frankly, the kind of rule-breaking I’m thinking of – I don’t know how the GA gets broken in practice by bishops and cabinets (there may well be ways of doing so, they are just far above my pay grade).

    For me, the analogous organization is the military. You get a living, they tell you where to go. You don’t make a lot, you aren’t guaranteed a job for life, and while you get a lot of honor and respect you also might get killed doing it. There is a level of dedication and shared mission there that clergy need to recover. Do I think some changes to the itinerancy system might be good? Yes, and I think they are also inevitable. But there is far too much red tape involved in exiting ineffective pastors, and our system is currently bending to the anxieties of insecure clergy rather than incentivizing us to do our best.

  4. John is right, Rendle’s idea of rule-breaking is somewhat subtler than I may have suggested. I happened to be reading this book as the Judicial Council decision came down and I couldn’t help but make some connections. Nevertheless, I believe his suggestion for disregarding/undercutting/breaking rules under certain, mission-minded criteria holds for this particular issue.

    1. I’m not sure that I agree Drew. One of the major reasons I hear for keeping guaranteed appointments is a missional one: to protect the appointments of female and minority clergy. And I’ve heard enough stories to think that the UMC has not reached a point where those will happen without certain guarantees.

      A friend of mine was told that her DCoM meeting for commissioning could not move when it was scheduled two days after she gave birth. She now gets to wait another year. Would I trust that DCoM (or BOM) to treat her fairly as a fully ordained elder if guaranteed appointments were removed? Not really.

  5. John, I’m not sure that’s a gender issue as much as it a bureaucracy issue. We’ve all heard horror stories of folks about to interview for Full Connection who get sick or have a car wreck right before, and there is no rescheduling possible.

    Again, as with “prophetic” appointments, appointments for women and ethnic minorities exist in parallel denominations absent anything like the GA. Furthermore, I thought that the legislation that was added to the initial proposal (that passed with the removal of GA) for increased accountability about the details of who was non-appointed or placed on transitional leave and why made the arguments about protecting such constituencies largely void. Do we really think that bishops and cabinets today are so sexist and ethnocentric?

    Overall, did you enjoy Rendle’s book?

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