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A district superintendent in the West, after participating in a difficult cabinet meeting at which appointments had been discussed, commented, "Unless we make some changes, the preachers' union is going to wreck The United Methodist Church."

The clergy alone have not caused the membership decline or the malaise within the denomination. Nor will they alone be able to turn the church around. But, because of their critical role as leaders of both the congregations and the denomination, pastors must inevitably carry a large share of the responsibility for the current situation and can have a greater impact on reversing the trend than can the laity. Recent trends leading to increased clericalization of our church must be reversed if our clergy are to lead effectively.

The United Methodist System of Clergy Placement

The United Methodist Church has had a unique system of assigning clergy as compared to most of Protestantism. The pastor is appointed by a bishop who has the authority "to make and fix the appointments . . ." and "to divide or to unite circuit(s), station(s), or mission(s) as judged necessary for missional strategy and then to make appropriate appointments" (Discipline, par. 516.1 and 516.2). Pastors, by virtue of their election to conference membership and ordination, have entered into a covenant with all the ordained elders of the annual conference. The Discipline states that, "They offer themselves without reserve to be appointed and to serve, after consultation, as the appointive authority may determine" (par. 42 1). The United Methodist pastor has agreed to go where sent. The bishop is required to appoint every full member of the annual conference.

The clergy, not the lay members, determine who shall be admitted into the United Methodist ordained ministry. The only part that laypersons have in the process is at the very beginning, when the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee and the charge conference of the church of which the individual is a member recommend him or her to become a candidate for the ordained ministry. In the ensuing seven to ten years during the individual's candidacy, the decisions are made by members of the clergy only. The responsibility for deciding who shall become clergy is in the hands of those who are already clergy.

In the early days of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America, the clergy had some of the characteristics of a monastic order. They were assigned by the bishop to their circuits for periods of a year or less. They were expected to devote their entire energies to their work. Marriage, while not prohibited, was discouraged. The elder who married often found it necessary to "locate," that is, to withdraw from the itinerant ministry and become a local preacher.

Much of the world of the late twentieth century bears little resemblance to that of the early nineteenth. Nevertheless some of the values of the early circuit riders are as appropriate for today as they were almost two centuries ago. These include a willingness of the clergy to devote themselves entirely to the spreading of the gospel, giving their ministry priority over personal concerns, and being willing to go where the church feels they are most needed.

The United Methodist Church has had an effective system of admitting persons into the ordained ministry and placing them in local churches. It is a system that ensures that the ministers will have the freedom to preach the gospel. Because pastors are appointed by the bishop, they cannot be discharged by a majority vote of the congregation, as is the case in some denominations. Furthermore, every full member of an annual conference is guaranteed an appointment. This system allows the skills of a specific pastor to be matched with the needs of a congregation at a particular time. The appointive system permits women, minority, and younger and older clergy to be assigned to churches that might, under ordinary circumstances, not desire them. This results in the clergy, themselves, having the responsibility for ensuring that their peers maintain high standards of performance and conduct.

All of the above characteristics are positive and need to be continued. However any system is subject to abuse and can be used in ways that do not serve the best interests of the entire church. When a good system goes awry, it can be very difficult to change. People tend to remember the way it used to be and to emphasize the positive aspects. They may be reluctant to act because they don't know what to do or are afraid they will make a bad situation worse. Institutional inertia sets in.

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The Seniority System

There has developed for the ministerial members of the annual conferences an informal, but clearly recognized and accepted, seniority system. It is not contained in the Discipline or any annual conference's standing rules, but it is adhered to with great care. United Methodist clergy are expected to follow a career track that begins in churches of small membership, often a circuit of two or more congregations located in a rural community. With the passage of time, a minister "pays his or her dues" in such appointments, but expects to "move up" to larger urban and more prestigious churches. There is, of course, nothing wrong with allowing young pastors to gain experience and rewarding those who have served effectively.

However, the problem with the United Methodist seniority system is twofold. First, it is extremely rigid. Generally, there is little likelihood of younger pastors' being appointed to large congregations until they are at least middle aged or even nearing the end of their careers. This is true even if a church desperately needs the energy and skills of a specific individual. The appointment often goes to a particular pastor, some "good soldier," as a reward for long and faithful (even if not too effective) service. It is rare to find an instance anywhere in the denomination in which the talented younger pastor, someone with less than twenty-five or thirty years in the ministry, is appointed to a large church. If professional baseball were run like The United Methodist Church, the Dwight Goodens would have to wait in the minor leagues until the Pete Roses had retired. One looks almost in vain across United Methodism for young pastors on the "fast track," persons being deliberately given the experience to be the denominational leaders of tomorrow.

Two actual examples will illustrate this problem. The first involves a pastor in his late thirties, who has served several appointments with distinction. His record includes growth in membership and an increase in support of mission projects in every church he has served. The district superintendent asked him to indicate the type of church that he would next like to serve. The pastor named an old, prestigious, but declining central city church and said he would like to see if he could turn it around. The superintendent laughingly responded, "It will be twenty years before you will get a chance at a church like that."

The second example involves a pastor who has just turned sixty. He has had a long and effective ministry and is currently serving a growing suburban congregation. In reflecting on his appointments, he said, "I don't think the church has used me well. Personally, I have no complaints, but I should have been assigned to a church like I have today about fifteen years ago. I think I could have given my best service then. I had the experience and the energy and certainly could have done more for the church in a community like this than where I was then serving."

The second aspect of the problem is the use of the pastor's salary as virtually the sole criterion to determine the individual's next appointment. The myth prevails that the higher the salary, the more effective the pastor. District superintendents urge churches to keep their salaries high so that they can be assured of having the best possible pastor appointed. Laypeople are led to believe that a high salary will assure that they will receive an effective pastor. This may or may not be true. Their next pastor may be a person of great dedication and ability or simply an individual who has achieved enough seniority to be appointed to a church that pays the amount the congregation offers.

A church that sets even a fairly high salary cannot be assured that a large number of pastors will be considered for the appointment. In point of fact, it is likely that only those clergy in the salary level just below the one being offered will be considered. One Pastor-Parish Relations Committee was told by the district superintendent that there were only thirteen ministers at the appropriate salary level (which was the step below the amount being offered). Only these could be considered for promotion to that church. The superintendent went on to say that seven or eight of these pastors were not in a position to move, so that actually only five or six pastors could be considered for the church. This shocked some of the laypersons on the committee. Because their church was one of the larger congregations in the annual conference, they assumed that the bishop would have a fairly large pool of ministers from which to select their next pastor.

The reason there is the greatest reluctance to tamper with the seniority system is the unwritten, but strictly followed, rule that no minister shall ever receive a reduction in salary. This, again, is a good practice, but because of the rigidness with which it is adhered to, it is one which also causes serious problems. A younger minister cannot be appointed to a church that pays a salary higher than he or she would be expected to receive at that point in his or her career because the next appointment would have to be at an even larger salary. To do so would put the seniority system out of balance.

The person who causes great consternation for the system is the younger pastor who, on her or his own, makes a large congregation out of a small one. In one case, a minister was appointed to a small urban congregation. In the course of a few years, he had recruited a large number of new members. This resulted in an equally large increase in the church's budget, including the amount contributed to the denominational benevolence programs and a corresponding increase in the minister's salary. However, the salary was not out of line for congregations of the size to which the membership had grown. This minister was the source of great concern to the judicatory officials. One district superintendent asked the key question, "Where can we send a man as young as he is at the salary that he is currently making?" Despite the fact that this pastor was effective at bringing people into the church and increasing the congregation's contributions to missions, he was perceived not as an asset but as an appointment problem. Too often, rigid adherence to the seniority system rewards mediocrity and punishes excellence.

The tragedy of the present seniority system is that it very often results in bad matches of ministers and congregations. When salary level and years of service become the most important factors (alas the only factors), ministers are sent to churches in which the skills of the pastor are not appropriate to the needs of the congregation. The mission of the church receives less attention than the professional advancement of the minister. The pastor who is effective in a stable county seat town is sent to a growing suburban community. His personality, skills, and style of ministry are not appropriate for the church and community to which he has been sent. The result is that the church does not receive the leadership that is needed, and the pastor is frustrated because he knows that he is not being effective. Under the seniority system, the only option is to allow the pastor to remain for what would be considered the normal length of time and then to move him to a church with a slightly higher salary level. Over the long term, neither the clergy nor the congregations are well served by such a system.

When urged to disregard the seniority system, bishops and district superintendents often respond, "It would kill morale among our pastors." Is this true? The present system is killing the morale of the best clergy and the most deserving congregations. Clergy cynically speak of the present system as one in which ministers can "flop to the top," knowing that their appointment is a matter of salary and years of service rather than productivity. Congregations feel abused when they realize that someone was sent to them for no other reason than "she made $15,000 at her last appointment, and your church pays $15,500."

Every time a bishop or district superintendent tells a pastor, "Even though your gifts equip you to serve that church, I can't send you there yet because the salary is too high," or "You are going to that church because you are now making $15,000 and that church pays $15,500," they demoralize the most effective clergy and reinforce the notion of the least effective that it makes little difference what they do in a congregation - the system will keep them and promote them regardless of their work. The unwritten, unprescribed, and unlegislated clergy seniority system is demoralizing the church and its clergy.

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Where Priority Is Placed

A decade ago Lyle E. Schaller wrote about what he called "the Big Revolution" taking place in American society. He stated, "For centuries people were trained to fit into the existing structures, patterns, schedules and traditions of the culture. . . Increasingly the emphasis is to change the culture to accommodate people and to affirm the differences among people."1 In the past decade, we have seen this trend continue until virtually every institution in society is under pressure to adjust to the perceived needs and desires of both individuals and groups.

This has some positive aspects. Institutions can become rigid and attempt to force persons into preconceived patterns that are neither good for the individual nor helpful to the institution. On the other hand, the purposes for which an institution was created can be thwarted if the institution is forced to adjust to a wide variety of individual desires.

Aspects of this "Big Revolution" can be found in The United Methodist Church, particularly among the clergy. Consider the amount of time and attention an annual conference gives to matters concerning the well being of the clergy and the ways that the clergy are attempting to make the church adjust to their particular needs and desires; items such as salary levels, pensions, travel, continuing education, parsonages, utilities, and various other clergy benefits occupy a prominent place on the agenda. These are, of course, relevant and important matters; pastors need to be fairly compensated.

What is increasingly evident is that the clergy are being influenced by the trend in the larger society and attempting to have the church adjust to their desires. The debate over whether the minister should live in a church-owned parsonage or purchase a home is an example. The debate has focused on whether owning a home is economically advantageous or emotionally satisfying to the pastor, not whether it contributes to or detracts from the effectiveness of parish ministry. Clergy couples and working spouses of pastors sometimes expect the appointment system to meet their needs before the needs of the congregation. Much of the time and energy of the church is being expended in attempting to get the institution to adjust to various individuals or classes of individuals.

The emergence and increasing importance of caucuses is a further example of the clericalization of our church. Meetings of the caucuses are often subsidized by national and conference funds. At caucus meetings, members plan strategies for getting "their" candidates elected to key positions in the church, to gain a larger share of denominational funds for more activities of the caucus, and to supress all criticism or rivalry from other caucuses. These caucuses are clergy dominated and, on the whole, concerned with issues of clerical power. The issues these groups raise tend to center on ways to make the institution provide recognition, positions, and status to people within the caucus. The transformation of the certified layworker into the diaconal minister is an example of the church's creating a category of ministry to provide recognition and status for a specific group. Such aspirations are understandable. The question of whether the changes in classification will increase the effectiveness of the church in proclaiming the gospel tends not to be given attention. Winning persons to Christ and ministering to the needs of the world are largely ignored in the debate of many clergy special interest groups. These priorities must be reversed; those who are called to be leaders in the Christian community must give their attention to serving, rather than to being served.

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Maintaining Quality and Competence

The clergy, themselves, have the responsibility of maintaining a high level of quality and competence among their peers. It is the clergy who determine whom shall be admitted into the ministry. When a pastor is appointed to a church, the lay members are expected to accept and support him or her. If a pastor becomes lazy, incompetent, or immoral, the clergy have the responsibility to see that the individual makes appropriate behavioral changes or that disciplinary action is taken. The laypeople cannot act on their own. They can complain to denominational officials or, if they feel strongly enough, drop out of their local church.

While the vast majority of pastors are conscientious and competent, it is no secret that the clergy are also most reluctant to take action against one of their number unless his or her actions are flagrantly immoral or illegal. The Discipline provides a careful method for investigation and possible trial of clergy and lay members that is designed to protect the rights of the individual (see pars. 2620-2626). But we have all heard of shocking examples of how the clergy have failed to discipline or eject errant fellow clergy, resulting in a decline of respect for the ordained clergy by the laity and by the clergy for themselves. There are several reasons for this reluctance. Any professional group tends to protect its members. Furthermore, the church sees its task as being redemptive and assisting persons to reform. Pastors want to avoid being judgmental, and disciplining another pastor requires making extremely difficult judgments. There may be the feeling among the clergy that dealing with a problem pastor will cause a public scandal that will harm the church. But the cover-up of a bad situation tends not to remain secret; it is like an untreated, festering sore that over the long term can do irreparable damage.

If The United Methodist Church is to have credibility in the larger society and if its clergy are to be effective and maintain integrity, the clergy must deal with their peers who betray their trust. They will also have to deal with those who, for whatever reason, are no longer effective. The church does not exist to give employment to the clergy, although we sometimes act as if that were its main task. Several concerned laypersons once called on a district superintendent to discuss a particularly inept pastor, whom they felt was exerting a negative influence on their church. The superintendent readily acknowledged that the laypersons were correct in their observations, but asked, "What are we going to do with him? He has only two or perhaps three appointments to serve before he can retire." One shocked lay member replied, "But what is he going to do to the churches he will serve in the next nine or ten years?" The district superintendent, by his response and subsequent action, made it clear that the pastor would be protected and appointed until retirement.

In our church, the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, the district superintendents, and bishops are responsible for evaluating the effectiveness of the clergy. The Discipline states that pastoral effectiveness shall be evaluated annually by both the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee and the district superintendent (par. 422. 1b). In actual practice, the superintendent plays the critical role in the process. It is essential that district superintendents develop a fair, clearly understood method for clergy evaluation and for securing direct feedback from both the pastor and the congregation concerning the minister's effectiveness.

The individual's ministry grows and develops through feedback. Corrective action can be initiated only if an accurate evaluation and diagnosis are made. Effective evaluation can assist the cabinet in better matching the pastor and the congregation. Evaluation, however, is not only a means for making better appointments, but also a way of developing more skillful pastors through accountability.

In the early days of Methodism in America, it was not unusual for persons to leave the ministry. Was it easier to change careers then than it is today? No, not really. There are plenty of opportunities for people with an education. The United Methodist Church must be willing to help persons leave the ministry when, for whatever reason, they are no longer effective. This must be done with as much care and understanding as possible, but it will still require difficult decisions. Presumably, this is why bishops and district superintendents are paid more than most of our other clergy - they must make difficult decisions. Persons who cannot make tough decisions, who place other concerns over the concerns about the integrity and the competence of the clergy, should not be appointed as district superintendents or elected as bishops. This may be the most difficult task the clergy will face, but it must be done if The United Methodist Church is to continue as a viable and effective institution in its third century. The clergy must become convinced that the church's mission is more important than their needs.

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What Can Be Done?

The United Methodist appointive system is basically sound and has served the church well. Our system, like any other, is subject to abuse and manipulation by persons and groups seeking personal advantages. What can be done? Is it realistic to expect those who receive special benefits to change the system if such alterations threaten their benefits? We are convinced that such changes are not only necessary, but also possible.

There are two reasons for optimism. First, and most important, the church throughout its history has had persons serving the cause of Christ without regard to self. There have been leaders who have devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the church. Such persons have been a minority, but their impact on the life of the church is beyond calculation. In retrospect, we call such people saints, generally after they have been dead for some time. It is not unrealistic to assume that such persons may be found in The United Methodist Church today. They must set the tone for our clergy and receive the recognition and rewards of the system.

Second,periods of difficulty tend to produce leaders who rise to the occasion and guide the institution through perilous times. As the impact of the continued membership decline on the life of The United Methodist Church becomes more evident to greater numbers of people, the pressures to take corrective measures will increase. Business as usual will become unacceptable. Clerical leaders who do nothing but serve the interests of the clerical status quo will be rejected. Ways of operating, which serve vested interests instead of furthering the goals of the church, will not be tolerated. Change will not come without struggle and pain, but it must and will come.

In the light of this, three changes must occur. United Methodists must understand the impact of some of our clergy deployment practices and realistically consider what must be done. This means looking at hard facts, something that is neither easy nor pleasant. It is, however, a necessary beginning. The clergy must accept their responsibility for ensuring that high standards are maintained. Religious reform movements have tended to come at a time when the clergy were lax and developed a church structure that was self-serving. Temptation toward clericalism must be resisted. Finally, the laity must become more assertive and refuse to tolerate clergy who are ineffective. United Methodist laypeople are much too passive and reluctant to challenge the clergy. Our structure does not encourage the laity to challenge the clergy, even when it is appropriate to do so. However, lay members can have more influence than most realize. These three steps would contribute significantly to the revitalization of the church.


  1. Lyle E. Schaller, Understanding Tomorrow (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976), p. 17.

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Copyright© 1987 By Abingdon Press

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