The Case for Six-Year Appointments

Ah, appointments. It's that time of year for itinerant systems of clergy like the United Methodist Church. So the blogs are talking a bit about it. This post is no exception.

How about a six-year appointment at a church? Whether that terrifies you or inspires you, read on for more discussion on what that might look like.

First, katie m ladd writes about the theological rationale behind the appointment system in the UMC:

Our appointment process makes a great deal of sense if we understand the pastor's presence to be primarily priestly and pastoral in nature. If the leadership resides among the laity and the pastor is there to teach, administer the sacraments, tend the flock, and lead worship, short tenures are fine. In theory, it matters not whether we are there one year or thirty years. The congregation itself provides continuity, vision, and leadership.
I uphold our appointment system because I agree with the theology behind it: we are not the leaders of our churches, the laity are. By moving us clergy around, that keeps churches from becoming cults of personality and instead they are to rely on their own gifts and graces for ministry. Beautiful. And fits perfectly within a grassroots bottom-up model of ministry so valued here at

As sound as the theology is, more and more the pastoral gift of visioning is being emphasized as crucial to moving churches from maintenance to mission. How can we nurture vision and mission-building in short appointments? Research shows that it is usually by year four that ministers really start seeing the fruits of their labors in concentric circles, ripple effects that no longer silence themselves because "the previous pastor didn't do that" or "we aren't there yet as a congregation." It is at the four-year mark that pastors see what is working well...and we move UM clergy usually every three years. Frustrating, I'm sure!

Katie writes further about the appointment system and congregation visioning:
By the time a United Methodist clergy person has been at a congregation long enough to build the necessary trust, lay the important groundwork, and build strong relationships, more often than not we are moved. This is especially true in small churches which have shorter tenures for clergy...A missional outlook is an intentional orientation to ministry. And, an intentional orientation takes time and risk, which require trust.
As we move our brick-and-mortar churches to move their ministries outside their walls, perhaps the way appointments are done can help facilitate that? The UMC can test-drive a few districts or even conferences a new way of appointments. What would it look like?

In the spirit of ecumenism, my Roman Catholic friends inform me of the 6 + 4 system that some dioceses operate under.
  • A priest is appointed to a parish for six years.
  • At the six-year mark, their ministry is evaluated by the diocese.
  • If all is well, then the priest serves another four years.
  • After those four years, the priest is moved to another church or given another four year extension based on ministry viability.
Thus this means often ten-year appointments. Ugh...Ten years is a long time for Methodists.

I would propose a 4 + 2 system that is similar to the above to achieve six-year appointments.
  1. Appoint a clergyperson to a parish for four years.
  2. At the four-year mark, when ministry and visioning is truly beginning, evaluate their ministry by the DS and the congregation.
  3. If there are seeds of missional context that need further growth by the pastor, then the pastor serves another two years.
  4. After those two years, the pastor is moved to another church or given another two-year extension based on ministry viability.
So, 4 + 2 = 6 year appointments.

I like this idea because then at any time, a maximum of half the churches in a district could possibly have a appointment change. This gives overworked DSes more time to make better appointments and make congregations feel truly present in appointment deliberations.

Your thoughts? Would appointments of four years minimum (barring extreme circumstances, not set in stone) give clergy the time and contentment necessary to move congregations to missional outlooks?

If any present or past bishops or DSes have spare time enough to read this blog (hahahahaha, I made a funny), perhaps some feedback based on being on the other side of the appointment process?

Thanks for your comments, they are always cherished!


Ann May 30, 2008 at 9:00 AM  

Would you like me to send this to my mother the DS? She likes commenting on my blog...I'm sure she'd enjoy reading is ;-)

A united method May 30, 2008 at 3:57 PM  

In some weird ways, I think making it a 4 year definitive move would really scare some pastors (or prospective ones) off. Whether that is good or bad is up to you, but they'd be scared off. Why? Because almost always its the pastor who wants to move.

I don't have the numbers on it, but I'd bet 3 out of 4 times a pastor moves it is because they request it. For a raise, because of personal stress, whatever. Because of eons (40 years?) of this wonderful system, pastors have learned to blame the system rather than admit defeat or unhappiness - "oh shucks! I'd love to stay mrs. doe! But that darn DS is moving me!" when in truth they can't pack the car quick enough.

This only matters because after eons of hearing pastors say that, Churches started to believe it. They got to where they felt a victim of the system instead of in control of the system. Strangely, pastors started drinking their own kool-aid and started thinking they were victims of the system too!

a definitive four year appointment would be great - think of the people who would be forced to not give up. Think of what it would do to people looking to build a career and "move up" the ladder? (or down). Those who are actually interested in God's will still win because God's will just moves in four year increments :)

I just don't know if a four year guaranteed appointment would give the spirit enough to work with. The world moves really quick nowadays - things change in a blink. And yet, I agree, we need fewer moves just so we can get our feet wet in a community.

There would be so many exceptions made in this "four year stint" program that it would be a worthless statement. But like I said, I like where you are going with it, just not sure how to get there.

I wonder if the problem is more abstract. If you can call, train, and implement pastors better, the system doesn't need a four year safe-guard.

John Leek May 30, 2008 at 8:21 PM  

It's a good thing to think about and as a soon to be seminarian I see both sides. If all was going well I might like to hang around a bit longer, but if I was miserable I'd love to be able to get up a go!

Rev. Sonja May 31, 2008 at 8:05 AM  

I am in my third appointment. My first was a year and a half. It was one of those that I requested the move and it was an extreme circumstance. The next one was 4 1/2 years. Yes, it had it's fair share of problems, but what the church really needed was a pastor who didn't leave after 3 years. The third year was stressful, but after it was halfway over and they saw I wasn't going anywhere, things got better. They begin to have some continuity, and did not have the same pattern of "separation anxiety."

I am currently in an appointment that I would like to be at for a minimum of six years, maybe longer. If the church is willing to work with the pastor and growth is happening, I don't see why we need to rush into an appointment change simply because of superficial benchmarks like graduating, commissioning or ordination.

The denomination is decreasing, except in the new church starts or larger churches where they leave the pastor for 10-12 years. Do we see the connection?

Rev. Jeremy Smith May 31, 2008 at 8:11 AM  

@ ann, absolutely! I wouldn't type it if I didn't want everyone to read it!

@ jack, I agree with your comments on the clergy side of things. I'll have to put more thought into it from that side of the altar rail. For me, it seems term of appointments is more for the laity. If laity realize you aren't moving for four years, then they aren't gonna try the "I'll outlast you" card if they know it will be at least three more years. Plus, it forces laity to work together with the pastor who they know is going to be there for a long time.

I fully agree the problem is abstract; however, concrete structural changes may change hearts on the laity side when they realize time is not on their side for the first time in the UMC.

@ john, that's the double-edge sword of appointments: either you are miserable or happy. After you've been a pastor for a while though, you are able to perfectly achieve both, I think! :-)

Rev. Jeremy Smith May 31, 2008 at 8:17 AM  

@ sonja, you snuck in while I posted my last comment!

Right on about clergy status changes meriting changes in appointments...there's no change for the local church except you get to call yourself a Rev. or you start wearing a stole. I don't see what impact that has on a local church rather than clergy confidence!

I'm not sure I'm totally with 10 year appointments. New church starts need clergy that long to be viable, but established churches can easily become a cult of personality for a 10 year pastor, or they suffer badly when the pastor changes. While there is a correlation between longer terms and church we really end up with truly UM churches that see themselves as connectional? I'd love to see more research on that...

Bryan Hooper May 31, 2008 at 4:26 PM  

I think it would be a mistake to establish a "one-size-fits-all" approach to appointments - especially in terms of duration. Congregations vary greatly as do pastors. What we really need in our denomination is genuine leadership from our Bishops and District Superintendents. We need real mechanism for evaluating congregational health and pastoral effectiveness. We need realistic assessments of a pastor's skill set and lifestyle and personal ambitions. Anything less than that will short change the church.

I strongly disagree with the suggestion that clergy are not to be leaders in their local church. The most fundamentally consistent reality in the churches I've served - and the churches I've discussed with colleagues - is the utter desperation in the local church for solid leadership. Leadership does not mean building a cult of personality, but if clergy do not understand that it is their job to lead their congregations into transforming ministry and responsible administration no one will.

Richard H June 2, 2008 at 3:13 PM  

"we are not the leaders of our churches, the laity are. By moving us clergy around, that keeps churches from becoming cults of personality and instead they are to rely on their own gifts and graces for ministry."

To lead or not to lead. That ISN'T the question. The more relevant questions are Where, Why,and How.

In my experience most small churches are allergic to leadership of any kind. Oh, they might have a matriarch or a patriarch that makes things happen (or, more often, impedes anything new from happening), but they are firmly entrenched in the American model of democracy, giving everyone a say in what happens.

In some areas democracy is mostly harmless. In the areas that count, for instance the mission of the church, it's deadly. One of the previous churches I pastored operated on the assumption of a dual mission: 1. Return to the 1950s, 2. Save money.

That church has been running off pastors since the early 1960s. If they were only running off pastors, that'd be one thing. But they're even more successful at running off their own children and grandchildren. The "leadership" of the laity in that case are leading the church to death.

On the other side, what are pastors to do who have a vision, a calling or a gifting for leadership? Stay out of the ordained ministry? Only exercise their leadership in organizations in which they are a sort of laity?

I see no reason to think that pastoral leadership necessarily results in a cult of personality, unless "Cult of Personality" means "viewed as effective."

Nathan Mattox June 4, 2008 at 2:24 PM  

If you are a believer in 4 year appointments, then you belong to the right bishop...I mean conference. Bishop Hayes had made the statement to us that he isn't interested in moving us until we've served an appointment for 4 years. Though we love our current appointment, this new "rule" was a bit of a disappointment to my wife, who's a professional who has to commute 2 hours a day to and from work. When we came into the conference, we were told that the cabinet would find us an appointment in her working area, and we had hoped to get closer to her working area, now especially because she is preggers and the commute will be even more taxing on us (plus we have to drive to Tulsa for ob visits, and all the other stuff.) One prob. with the "4 year rule" is that if the "right fit" type appointment opens up and the pastor hasn't completed four years at their existing appt., whaddayado? I like the idea of more secure tenures for the sake of hte laity and clergy, but I also like the fluidity of the system of year to year appointments too (when it benefits my family especially).

Richard H June 5, 2008 at 10:26 AM  

Nathan, unless your cabinet is significantly different from ours, you ought to take anything they say about the future (i.e., regarding moves and locations) with plenty of salt. Their job is to fill churches NOW, not to look ahead down the road.

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