Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Where will you work next year? United Methodist pastors will find out shortly.

Working people find out about their NEXT job in a variety of ways. Perhaps they are contractors, and they negotiate their next contracts with clients. Perhaps they're unemployed, and they're waiting for job offers. Perhaps they're in the military, and they'll find out when they need to find out.

United Methodist pastors are closest to this latter category, and they participate in an interesting ritual to find out about their next assignments.

Here's part of what the United Methodist Church says about pastoral appointments:

Every local church needs a pastor. The United Methodist Church has a unique way of matching pastors and congregations. Rather than local churches hiring and firing their own pastors-as in some denominations-United Methodist bishops appoint pastors to serve in local churches and other ministry settings.

One advantage to this process is that a local church never has to go without a pastor. Likewise, a pastor (specifically, a full member of an annual conference in good standing) never goes without a setting for ministry. The primary goal of the appointment system is to match the gifts and graces of a particular pastor to the ministry needs of a particular congregation at a particular time.

This itinerant system, where pastors move from one appointment to another, dates back to American frontier days when circuit riding preachers traveled on horseback from town to town. At that time, bishops matched preachers to circuits four times a year. Now bishops typically fix appointments once a year....

Appointments are formally 'fixed' at the regular session of annual conference and they take effect on a designated Sunday, usually in early summer.

Once I got to see how this functioned in practice. Years and years ago, I was a lay delegate to our local Annual Conference here in southern California. The conference took place over several days, and considered all sorts of resolutions and had all sorts of presentations. (Yes, church organizations have bureaucratic ways, just like government and business organizations.)

Finally, we reached the last day of the Annual Conference, and the last item on the agenda. This consisted of our local bishop, talking. Actually, the bishop was reading from a list. As he prepared to read from the list, the pastors were all waiting around, ears perked up.

You see, in the United Methodist system, the pastor has some input into where he or she is assigned, and the individual congregation has some input, and there are others with input, but the Bishop has the final responsibility for determining where the pastors will be appointed. Perhaps the pastors have been told something or another, but nothing is official until the appointments are fixed...and no one knows how the appointments were fixed until the Bishop actually reads the list.

So, at least in the Annual Conference that I attended, each pastor made sure NOT to leave until he heard his or her name called, and knew with a certainty about his or her next appointment.

At this particular Annual Conference, the two pastors for my congregation were again appointed to my congregation. But sometimes there are changes:

While I myself am not moving, I do feel like my life is in a bit of an upheaval. One of my mentors is retiring and taking on a new position in the life of the annual conference (grouping of local churches). Another mentor is being fill the position of the mentor that is my home church. It is a time of transition and change for many people. It's positive change, but change just the same.

Some people don't consider it a positive change. After all, you can't please everyone, and I know of at least one person (not me or a member of my family) who left the United Methodist Church because of the consequences of the pastoral appointment system.

But I firmly believe that no human-run system is perfect, and you can have problems when a congregation calls a pastor, or when a pastor starts his or her own congregation, or whatever. While certain organizational systems may result in certain job-hiring actions, at the end of the day they all choose from similar pools of people.

And those people have to end up somewhere.
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