Choosing Ordination Systems over Ordinands

Methodist church in OklahomaImage via WikipediaSorry for my non-Methodist readers, but it is Annual Conference time and that means United Methodist posts aplenty.

Annual Conferences are like the three bears: they either have too many clergy or too few. The 'just right' bear is off taking a nap somewhere, I think.

Indeed, in some annual conferences with too many clergy, there's a vicious circle of clergy appointments and ordination. Walk with me through this:

  1. IF the Book of Discipline requires all provisional and ordained clergy to have full-time appointments.
  2. BUT there are less and less full-time appointments to which to appoint provisional and ordained clergy.
  3. THEN the Board of Ordained ministry will not commission candidates for ministry until a full-time appointment opens up for them.
The rationale is solid: if the BOM cannot offer a full-time appointment, and if they bring in more candidates, then the system of appointments will suffer. Also, if they cannot offer a full-time appointment by ordination time, then they are in violation of the Discipline. Makes perfect sense from a maintaining-the-system perspective.

While this takes care of the system of ordination, it leads to several injustices to the candidates for ministry. Some real-life examples:
  • One candidate was approved for commissioning, but due to the lack of appointments, he was not commissioned. Two years later he finally got to be commissioned, but during that time he developed a medical condition which required surgery. One month before he would finally be under the clergy health care...he was required to pay for the surgery out of his own pocket.
  • One candidate was up for commissioning, but to be commissioned he would have to leave his vibrant, passionate half-time appointment for a different full-time appointment altogether...there were no other half-time appointments available in the area. Thus, the candidate forwent commissioning in order to keep his passionate ministry.
  • Transferred clergy or clergy on cross-conference appointments are not required to be given full-time appointments.
Truth be told: there are local pastors who are in full-time appointments while candidates for ministry wait in the wings. Is that wrong? Not as a whole: they are gifted pastors in their churches, and if there is viable ministry, then continue to do good works! But even if they are gifted pastors, does that mean a seminary-educated candidate for ministry would be any less appropriate?

From a systems perspective, I find this troubling. If our theology of ordination includes consideration for the system of ordination above the individual calls to ministry, then there's something wrong. If we are caretaking the system of ordination more than we are affirming the call to ministry God has placed on individual people....then is that really what ordination is?

Now, full disclosure: I'm not on the ordained ministry leadership, and I'm not privy to those conversations. But I think that when we are keeping candidates for ministry out of the clergy pool we are essentially putting systems above people. And that troubles me.

Perhaps there are ways to commission candidates for ministry and maintain the tense balance between clergy and churches? To me, there is a simple answer to this...but no one will like it.

Perhaps clergy missionaries can be made of candidates. If annual conferences with too few clergy would contact conferences with too many clergy, then they can offer to take commissioned clergy into their conferences for a while on cross-conference appointments. While they may run the risk of staying when they get there, it would ensure that candidates' ministries are affirmed. I realize the hardship this would be on families for a drastic change in venue, and try to balance that against keeping candidates out of the clergy pool.

Full disclosure: I'm on a cross-conference appointment. By constantly maintaining relationships between two conferences, I'm seeing a lot of United Methodism and drastically different ways of ministry. By seeing how two different conferences deal with ordination, one with too many clergy and one with too few, I think better use and beefing-up of the cross-conference appointments may be a good approach.

Perhaps it can be a precursor to a blend between connectional and congregational systems: churches that want a minister so badly they will accept a cross-conference appointment can put out a "call" for a minister that other conferences can fill.

....let's stop there (number one critique of HX: my posts are too long!). What do you think?
  • What balance should there be between maintaining systems of ordination and affirming the call of individuals?
  • What do you think about the cross-conference appointments idea?
  • What other methods can ordained ministry leadership try rather than being the stop-gap for new clergy?
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DogBlogger June 16, 2008 at 12:40 PM  

Re: "What do you think about the cross-conference appointments idea?" The DCOM on which I serve is actively working with this idea right now. Time will tell whether it actually goes anywhere; it was placed on tables at Annual Conference but never brought to the floor for discussion, so we are pursuing other avenues.

Rev. Jeremy Smith June 16, 2008 at 1:12 PM  

I think theological diversity works against cross-conference appointments. Because it usually involves changing jurisdictions, there's some bias against Western Jurisdiction people going to the SE Jurisdiction, and vice versa. It's a gross generalization, for sure, but one I think isn't too far off base.

Eric Helms June 16, 2008 at 9:22 PM  

My understanding is that my conference has in the past informally practiced this by telling candidates, "we don't have an appointment for you, but if you find an appointment in a nearby conference we will commission you."

I think cross jurisdiction appointments should work. My home conference was originally southern Indiana, I went to Seminary in North Carolina, and currently serve in New Jersey. Each conference has had congregations and clergy that are across the theological spectrum. What use is there in being UNITED Methodists if we can't be in ministry with people across the theological spectrum represented within our denomination?

Finally to add the the systemic conundrum, I have in two different conferences seen the "Gee, we really need young clergy, we would be glad to have you, but sorry no space." In one conference, they are actually recruiting young clergy despite not having places to put them and end up turning away those whom they recruit.

I don't know if your posts are too long or not, but this comment certainly is!

Anonymous,  June 17, 2008 at 6:19 PM  

Coming from a conference that always struggles to fill its open appointments, I must say I was rather surprised by this post (although not by the shortsidedness of the BOOM -- that's sadly quite common).

Sounds to me like we need to have a better means of exchanging clergy across conference boundaries. That's not a call system, its simply using our connectional system more effectively.

Cross-conference appointments are pretty common, but have generally been done as 1-for-1 exchanges. The polity is already in place, we just need to revise our practices.

As a lay person, however, it continues to amaze me how difficult we make the ordination process. We've done such an awful job of recruiting young clergy over the last 20 years. Why do we keep shooting ourselves in the foot?

Rev. Jeremy Smith June 18, 2008 at 2:55 PM  

@ Eric, I think that's exactly the system I'm proposing...since it is already in use, encourage it more!

The young clergy conundrum points to a breakdown between the Board of Ordained Ministry and the Cabinet which places clergy. If there aren't locations for young clergy, then they should get a heads up beforehand that they can be commissioned if they secure a placement in another conference...and give them the resources to do so.

@ anonymous, amen to that! It would seem that your conference would greatly benefit from partnering on an official level with a clergy-rich conference. Perhaps you are just the anonymous person to suggest and spearhead it!

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