Yesterday, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church did the right thing and voted to eliminate something called “guaranteed appointments.” Guaranteed appointments meant lifetime job security for us ordained elders, provided we play by the rules. I imagine that any average layperson reading this would scoff: “Lifetime job security? In this economy? With declining church membership? That’s nuts!”
I hear you… But it’s not as bad as it sounds. The rule was implemented in 1956, just as the denomination was beginning to ordain women. It gave the church an incentive not to discriminate against women and, a little later, African-American clergy. (Until 1968, to the church’s shame, black Methodist clergy served churches in a segregated Central Jurisdiction.)
Guaranteed appointments were well-intentioned and, for all I know, a net-positive for the church. The unintended consequences, however, were foreseeable: How do you get rid of deadweight clergy? And doesn’t the system reward mediocrity? And how does a denomination with declining membership afford it?
The General Conference saw the writing on the wall and agreed by a large margin that lifetime job security is an idea whose time has passed. I like the way the Rev. Tom Choi, a district superintendent from Hawaii, summed up the problem:
These days, the group most protected by security of appointment is ineffective clergy. To that point, I have sometimes felt that there has been a distortion to a line in the Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition: “Let me be employed for Thee, or laid aside for Thee.” The cynical side of me thinks that a handful of elders and associate members have the attitude of “Let me be employed for Thee, or let me be employed for me.”
Rev. Choi went on to say that he doesn’t think the new rule will affect many clergy. I hope so. As for myself, I assume that when the cheetah comes running, I won’t be the slowest antelope. But more importantly, as Choi’s comment implies, we need to trust in God, not in the institution of the United Methodist Church. Only God offers true security, whether we are “employed for Thee or laid aside for Thee.”
I know, I know… I’m writing as a white male, married, family… I enjoy the privileges of my particular social location, one of which is that I’m not normally a target for hiring discrimination. Easy for me to say, “Let’s get rid of guaranteed appointments.” I get that.
Still, I know myself. I know my own tendency to live in such a way that I don’t require faith most of the time. I want to trust in my own strength—my own skills, my own intelligence, my own money, my own resources. Guaranteed appointments are one more hedge between myself and God. Thank God they’re gone! It will teach me to trust a little bit more.
I also know how easy it is to become complacent and self-satisfied. I know how easy it is to live, work, and minister without a sense of urgency for the gospel. Things are going pretty well for me in my ministry right now. That’s good enough, right?
I hope not. Thank God the UMC will expect more from me and my fellow elders.