Friday, April 06, 2018

Is the United Methodist Itinerant System Broken?


This is my opinion and reflection on something that I made a commitment to. In May of 2002, I stood before the Bishop of the Oklahoma Annual Conference and the gathered members and family. In that particular worship service, I made a vow to uphold the itinerant system. As part of our polity and discipline, I understood that being an Elder in the United Methodist Church meant I would make myself available to the system of providing pastoral leadership and support to local churches. That came with the understanding that I would move throughout my career at the call of the Bishop through the District Superintendent. It also meant that my life and choice were somewhat limited to the desires of others.

16 years later (my 20th year of ministry), I am reflecting upon my current position within that system I vowed to uphold. It has been a bumpy ride from a personal point of view. I have had circumstances that were directly related to my appointments that have changed my feelings and opinion about the itinerant system.

When I began, the itinerant system was something that I supported without question. I put my life, and that of my family, in the hands of District Superintendents that I felt had my and the churches best interests at heart. I believed in the system and trusted that the “will of God” worked through the decisions that led to appointments.

20 years has changed a lot of that.

Now I feel that the system of how appointments are made has more of humanity about it than the will of God. I have been comforted/consoled by friends and colleagues that I should trust God to make the best of the appointments where I am sent. My opinion of the itinerant system is that it is broken and my feelings are not all positive about its impact on my life as a pastor.

Here, I wish to express my viewpoint on where I see it is broken. This will not be fair. I have a limited, small point of view. I can only develop my viewpoint from the narrow window of my experience. This is not the experience of everyone in the United Methodist Church. It is not the experience of every pastor under appointment. My comments are not directed at all District Superintendents or Bishops. And I do not name any clergy by name, but only highlight examples of MY narrow experience.

First, the biggest issue I have encountered is that the needs and gifts and experience of a clergy person, or the needs of their family, don’t really amount to much in the math of determining where an appointment will take someone. The needs I have expressed at times over my career, the passions that I have had for ministry, the gifts that I have displayed, or the personality that drives me were, in my opinion, never really regarded. If they were taken into account, they were taken into account as only the bare necessity of function.

I have expressed a disconnect with rural settings that began in my teenage years, yet my appointments have led me to 15 years of rural setting. My ability to teach has never put me into a setting where that could be highlighted or used for anything beyond teaching a Sunday School class, small Bible study, or youth group. My involvement in campus ministry as the beginning of my call and the emphasis I placed on it in my seminary studies resulted in 1 year of campus ministry.

My family has also experienced a serious lack of acknowledgment in appointment. When I requested a move to be near Lisa’s family, the outcome was that we were moved almost as far away from her family as we could be in Oklahoma. When her dad died in the first year after that move, it rattled us. When her mom died that next year, it shook us badly. I began to question how 3 District Superintendents could not hear the need in my request to be closer to Lisa’s family. Those events brought back the betrayal and hurt from the experience of being moved in the first place. I lost all of the progress I had made on moving past what I felt was having our needs ignored.

As I look back on my time of ministry, there have been 5 times when my requests for what I felt were reasonable consideration in an appointment were disregarded with no explanation for why it couldn’t realized. There have been 3 of those times when the exact opposite of what I requested became my appointment. In one of those, I was told an outright lie regarding the request (more on that instance in a bit). In all, those 5 times represent all but once when I expressed a need or desire for a ministry. In every other case, I stated that I would make myself available to whatever appointment was given to me. Or to re-frame the point I’m making, in 21 years of serving as a pastor, 6 times I asked to be considered for a particular type of appointment. In 21 years of serving as a pastor, I received the thing I asked to be considered for 1 time. That request: to allow my family to remain so my oldest son could graduate. So the one time I received what I asked for it was a request to make no change whatsoever.

My next biggest issue comes from being in a position where the people who are directly responsible for determining my gifts, skills, talents, and resources have never been a position to personally evaluate me in those areas. Our appointments are, ideally, supposed to take the gifts and skills and experience of a pastor into consideration to match to the needs of the a local congregation/appointment. The person who, ideally, is supposed to have that knowledge is the District Superintendent. In 21 years of ministry I have been under the supervision of 10 District Superintendents. Of those 10, only 2 have taken an extra amount of effort to get to know me outside of the annual consultation. And it is in those annual consultations where I expressed my desires and interests in appointments.

I have expressed that I enjoyed campus ministry and working with college age students. I have expressed being considered for a multicultural setting. I expressed a desire to serve in a less conservative appointment. I feel drawn to fringe cultures. I would like to try to serve in a non-traditional setting. I am moderate and mission minded with classic Wesleyan beliefs and influenced by modern social justice viewpoints. But those desires and interests were taken with the grain of salt they were worth. I have served in mostly near super conservative traditional settings with little college or multicultural connection in churches who took pride in being “not very Methodist” and interested in chaplain or maintenance roles of the pastor.

And part of the problem is that District Superintendents do not know the churches under their supervision, either. There is little time for those in the role of “pastor to the pastors” to learn who they are as individuals. There is an impossible task of knowing the churches whom those pastors serve. As we continue to find ways to move into a future with declining resources, the number of districts is at the top of the list of cost cutting measures. That means fewer District Superintendents to shepherd more pastors and more churches in their service area.

It is nearly impossible to know every church in a district. It is impossible to know what their needs, gifts, history, and ministry setting is. It is impossible to know what their ministry potential could be. The role of the District Superintendent in this capacity is so overwhelming that it is ridiculous to assume that they can be effective in fulfilling the task. Yet that is exactly what the expectation is.

That brings me to the third frustration I see: little accountability for District Superintendents for errors in matching pastors and churches. Whether it is a failure to hear the pastors needs, gifts, and skills or it is the lack of understanding of a church’s needs or ministry potential, if a “bad” appointment is made, it is not the fault of the District Superintendent or the Cabinet. The fault of the a failed appointment rests in the pastor not being available enough or the church being more destructive. Or it just wasn’t a good “fit”. But if pastors and churches were known at a deeper level than what is on a very biased evaluation form, those types of “fits” wouldn’t happen as often. There is no accountability to change the approach. There is no accountability to fix the system when it fails.

In my own “greatest failure” of the system, I approached 3 District Superintendents about my expressed need to be closer to Lisa’s family. At no time, that I am aware of, was that need made known in the Cabinet conversation. When we moved to the opposite end of the state, whose fault was it? Regardless of the outcome of my ministry in that appointment, the need that was expressed (and that was what it was expressed as) was ignored by my own District Superintendent and two others with whom I expressed that need. Those two were appointed to areas closer to where we needed to be. It would have been in their service area that I could have been appointed to meet that need. Whose fault does it rest upon that the need of my family was not met?

I can say that not one of those District Superintendents ever apologized. Not one ever acknowledged that nothing could have been done. Not one recognized the pain of my family when Lisa’s parents died. But I have been counseled to keep my opinions about the system on the down low. I can express my hurt, but making those hurts public would not be a good thing. Well, if we don’t make things like this public, how can we improve the system? How do we make change if we just accept the failures and the errors to continue with out accountability?

Perhaps the frustration I have struggled with the most is that I have been lied to by District Superintendents. In asking to be considered for a campus ministry position, I had a District Superintendent tell me a bold face lie. How did I know it was a lie? Because I knew campus ministries that were opening when I expressed an interest in being considered for the position. And my District Superintendent told me with a straight face that there were no campus ministry positions coming open that appointment year. I had a District Superintendent tell me that if I didn’t accept the appointment that I was being offered, that there were no other appointments available except for appointments at a lower salary level.

In an Annual Conference of 400+ churches, there were no other appointments other than the one I was being offered or something that should be served by a local pastor or student pastor. There are around 100 moves every year toward moving season. Not all of them are at Annual Conference. But somewhere in the vast wisdom of the system, it has become easier to lie to a pastor about an appointment that isn’t available than it is to be honest and express what is really in the way of that appointment. This has led to a theory and frustration.

The theory I have developed is that there is a caste system within the itinerancy. The caste system that is in place has various levels. It is easy for a pastor to move within their caste, if there is an available church. It is somewhat easy for a pastor to move down in caste, but the higher one is in caste, that downward movement is scalable. The higher one is, the less significant the move down. The lower one is, the lower the caste you can be moved into. It is very difficult to move up in caste. Breaking into a caste requires some significant presence or associations.

The frustration comes from not knowing where the lines of the castes are. I thought originally that there were three castes: the noticed, the notorious, and the supply. The noticed were pastors and churches who were in high profile positions. They were recognized and known broadly. The notorious were pastors or churches that were known to cause problems. The supply were the pastors who don’t draw attention or recognition and churches who just maintain themselves.

I think the castes may be more defined. I think there may be regional castes. I think there may be political castes. There may age-based castes. And there are “fruitfulness” castes – whoever fits into the current definition of fruitful as determined by the Bishop and authorities guiding the Annual Conference.

I consider myself a supply caste. I haven’t drawn attention to myself. I haven’t served churches that go beyond maintaining their local presence. I seem to be considered a rural caste pastor (due to the types of appointments that I have served). I am a non-entity in political castes because I have been seen as “the other” by both political extremes. And, if there is an age-based caste, I am in the Generation X group. I am too young to be part of the current powers-that-be and too old to be of vital age.

The caste that does not seem to be present is experience. Years of service and experience don’t seem to have any weight in determining where you rest in the system. I could retire soon. I could find another career and fill my days of life with another field of interest. And honestly, I don’t feel like my years of experience will be missed.

I am coming to the end of my frustrations. I have one left that seems to be a recurring beast of burden. It has to do with where I mentioned the leveraging of an appointment. It seems that there are some pastors who can refuse an appointment with no negative consequence. I’ll be honest. If it weren’t for my family, I would accept an entry level appointment. The reduction of pay wouldn’t bother me. And if we were in a better place financially, Lisa wouldn’t have a problem with it, either. I would be willing to serve an entry level appointment because it seems that my experience and current age would be a gift to an appointment that is used to breaking someone in or getting someone on their way out. I would take an entry level appointment just to refuse being leveraged into accepting “the only appointment available”. I would take an entry level appointment with 20+ years of experience just to tell the system, “You are broken.”

But some pastors can say, “No” to an appointment and be offered another chance at something that is “right” for them. There isn’t a negative consequence if they refuse to take it. It used to be a threat that if you refused an appointment, they would send you to the Panhandle or somewhere just as bad. I can tell you that the Panhandle has great churches filled with godly people. They care for their pastors and love the willingness of pastors to serve them in the love of Christ. Yet, it is challenging to get a pastor to serve in the Panhandle. It is challenging to get a pastor to accept an appointment in the “far reaches” of the state of Oklahoma. And if someone says, “No”, what will they do?

Yet the threats are still present. The leveraging of appointments is still a practice. The idea that there will be a negative consequence seems to be idle bluster. Well, I have served the Panhandle. For 10 years, I have been faithful to my appointment. I served in good times. I served in bad times personally, professionally, and congregationally. I have tried to love the people and they have tried to love me. It hasn’t always been easy for us to get along. It has always been rewarding for me to be in that appointment. And for 15 years, I have served the “far reaches”. I have been in Northwest Oklahoma longer than anywhere else in my lifetime. There are only a few regions I would like to serve in this state. But I am glad I am in Northwest Oklahoma.

This may seem like a manifesto leading to a resignation. It is, in fact, the very opposite. This is a manifesto declaring that in spite of all of these frustrations, I am remaining. I get cross with the system. I get envious of younger pastors getting bigger or more prestigious appointments than me. I let my pride get the better of me sometimes and wonder, “When is it my turn?” But God has not released me from the United Methodist Church. More importantly, God has not released me from the vow I made to the UMC.

24 years ago, I made another vow. Lisa and I stood before God and a gathering of family and friends to make a vow to stay with one another. There have been some difficult times. There have been times both of us have wanted to quit, give up, find a better way of moving forward. But we take that commitment to our vows seriously. I take my vow to the United Methodist Church and Oklahoma Annual Conference very seriously. It seems that the system has betrayed me at times. I have let it down at times. But I am not giving up on my vow and God has not released me from it. I am here to stay for some time. When God may let me know that I am free, well it may never come. It may happen should something occur in the union of the UMC. But until that day, I am appointed under the authority of the Bishop, submitted to the supervision of a District Superintendent, and sent to serve the church of Jesus Christ under the banner of the United Methodist Church.
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