United Methodists are reevaluating the so-called "guaranteed appointment" of clergy system, calling into question the effectiveness of the long-established practice amid membership decline.
For decades ordained elders have been assigned to local churches regardless of their effectiveness. While pastors could be removed from their leadership position for immorality, violation of church law or criminal activity, ineffectiveness has not been dealt with in the same manner.
The guarantee that ordained leaders have stems from The United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline, which states, "All elders in full connection who are in good standing in an annual conference shall be continued under appointment by the bishop."
It was originally adopted in 1956 to protect pastors from arbitrary, sexist or racist abuses of authority. But decades later, some say the protection is producing more negative outcomes than positive ones, such as ineffective pastors.
"What we want to do is retain protections for women and minorities. But guaranteed appointment is having the consequence of supporting mediocrity," said Bishop Grant Hagiya of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference and the Alaska Conference at a meeting earlier this month.
In 2004 the United Methodist Church's highest legislative body created a task force to study its system of lay, licensed and ordained ministry. The panel later reported that the guaranteed appointment of clergy was one of the biggest hurdles to reviving the church, according to the United Methodist News Service.
Though a petition to completely eliminate the guaranteed appointment provision was rejected in 2000, Methodists last year approved a petition to amend, and not remove, the paragraph in the Book of Discipline dealing with clergy appointment.
The petition outlines responsibilities that an ordained elder must fulfill, including annual participation in an evaluation process with a pastor-parish relations committee or comparable authority; evidence of continuing effectiveness reflected in annual evaluations; and professional growth through continuing education and formation, among others.
The petition also gives bishops procedures for corrective action or terminating an ineffective pastor's appointment.
United Methodist leaders clarified that the petition does not point the finger at clergy. The concern is rather on the effectiveness of entire congregations. The Rev. Mary Ann Moman, an elder in the South Indiana Conference, told The United Methodist Reporter that effective congregations take initiative to reach populations in their community "that are not like themselves. To the level that we're not doing that, we're not being as effective in congregations as we could."
Meanwhile, the work of the task force – Study of Ministry Commission – set up in 2004 continues. A report was expected to be delivered in 2008 but the commission asked for more time to study ministry orders and make recommendations.
The commission held a meeting earlier this month in Nashville where they considered changes to the guaranteed appointment principle and the ordination process.
Bishop Hagiya said the goal of the commission is to remove obstacles and rules to allow "creative ministry to thrive."
The United Methodist Church is the second largest Protestant denomination with 7.9 million members, but it has experienced membership decline for decades now.
With continued losses, Hagiya said the church cannot continue to afford guaranteed appointments.