The Methodist Prisoner's Dilemma, part 2

Following up on The Prisoner's Dilemma Part 1, I wrote this:

Structurally, we want Methodism to remain connectional, so pastors are moved around often.  But for the local church, research shows that pastors need more time to build up local churches before being wisked away.  So the game is how to find the right balance.  
One aspect to the game revolves around the Staff-Parish Relations reports.  They are the basic communication aspect between the Conference and the local church about the pastor.  Thus, they form the backbone of the Prisoner's Dilemma.  Read on for how they fit into the game.

Since we just passed SPRC evaluations time in the Methodist church (fun times), here's what I see as the prisoner's dilemma elements:

  • The Conference says that if you give the Conference honest feedback on your pastor, they will keep the pastor there as long as they can.
  • If the LOCAL church cooperates, they will send accurate reports to the conference in trust that the conference will keep their end of the bargain.
  • If the LOCAL church defects, they will embellish reports to the conference in attempts to keep the pastor there as long as possible.  I say this not as a negative "those lying SPRC meat-heads" but as a commentary on human nature.
  • BOTH COOPERATE: If the Local church offers honest feedback and the Conference keeps up their end of the bargain, then we have parity.  Trust prevails!
  • LOCAL COOPERATES, CONFERENCE DEFECTS: If the local church offers honest feedback and the conference moves the pastor, then the local church may feel betrayed.  Great care must be taken on the Conference level when moving a popular pastor to ensure future evaluation standards.
  • LOCAL DEFECTS, CONFERENCE COOPERATES: If the local church exaggerates on their evaluations or covers up pastoral difficulties or malfeasance, then the Conference may follow along.  While it is in their interest in the short term, in the long term choosing the pastor over the Conference may lead to a dark dark road of congregationalism and pastoral malfeasance.
  • BOTH DEFECT: if the local church doesn't keep the conference in the loop, and the conference moves the pastor anyway, then pretty much everyone is miserable.  Dude.
This is a dilemma in that the dominant strategy for local churches is to retain their pastors.  This applies to popular pastors as well as small churches that know they "have to hold onto" decent pastors as long as they can, because who knows what the next fry will look like.  It is this tendency that the Conference has to deal with.

Two lessons from this:
  1. Building and retaining trust is absolutely essential in the appointment system.  If a pastor has to be moved, then great care must be done on the Conference level AND on the SPRC to ensure proper participation in the process.  By degrading trust in the system can lead to congregationalism drift and a level of pastoral accountability that is damaging to all parties involved.
  2. Pastors have a huge role to play in this.  If pastors encourage connectional participation and expose their parishioners to more connectional (district or conference) events, then there's a greater sense of "we are in this together" rather than "us versus them."  This has been a bigger push in recent years, particularly around younger clergy who are a bit "outside" the system and have noticed the effects of congregationalism in a connectional church.
Thoughts?  What elements of the Prisoner's Dilemma have we missed?  What are other ways that pastors and laity can encourage trust and connectional participation in the system?


Anonymous,  August 7, 2008 at 2:16 PM  

I agree that the key lies in church leadership (not just the pastor) making the connection a real part of the life of the congregation. Our Annual Conference report this year consisted of showing what we did as a connection ... the missions and activities that our church can't do alone, but can do when we join with other United Methodists around the conference, and the world.


Rev. Jeremy Smith August 7, 2008 at 6:48 PM  

That's great Marty, and very inspiring to churches that get stuck in ruts and think they can't achieve what the "bigger" churches do. Connectional inspiration!

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