Much buzz is taking place around the United Methodist Judicial Council’s decision to restore the language of the 2008 Book of Discipline regarding “guaranteed appointment.” Another attempt to change structure (therefore practice) has bitten the dust and, according to the Judicial Council Digest, a major reason for this one has to do with itinerancy.
From the 2008 BOD: “The itinerant system is the accepted method of The United Methodist Church by which ordained elders are appointed by the bishop to fields of labor. All ordained elders shall accept and abide by these appointments.” (Para. 338)
This statement calls for a dip into our history. Consider this basic point so easily overlooked: Mr. Wesley appointed preachers, not pastors. We have held onto terms like “itinerancy” while practices, offices and relationships have changed dramatically. When Methodists were developing the terms we still use (i.e. when Mr. Wesley made appointments), Methodism was not a church and preachers preached and class leaders and circuit stewards did the lion’s share of pastoral work.
Then, preachers in full connection itinerated, literally. They traveled. Now, preaching and pastoral care reside in the same ordained office. We now have a settled pastoral ministry while retaining the language of itinerancy.
Then, preachers preached to convince sinners of their need for conversion. Methodist preaching was aimed primarily at provoking people to experience conversion and enter the path of serious discipleship. And preachers could have a solid year’s worth of sermons aimed at this end and do just fine for a whole career, because they really did itinerate.
Now, we think of the need for pastors to stay long-term (I agree) and to engage in a full set of activities that preachers could not adequately do because they were, well, itinerating. Pastors preach, but they do far more. The move from preacher to pastor is much more significant for the current discussion than we realize, I think.
Thus, I see two pressure points working in the current debate about guaranteed appointment. Bishops, whose authority has eroded over the generations, have the authority of appointment. (I admit, I’m on the “return more authority to bishops side,” but with that authority goes other stipulations that I would want to ensure.) And the Judicial Council ruling, for whatever else it does, reminds us of this facet of episcopal authority.
On the other side, elders in full connection – the only UM clergy who fall within the concept of “itinerancy” – often think of guaranteed appointment as offering some protection. Since we have met all the requirements for entering full connection (and those requirements are many), we deserve an appointment that allows us to have significant ministry, to be sure, but also to be able to make a living. In a shaky economy, with an aging clergy population in a church convinced that young clergy will bring young church members, “guaranteed appointment” begins to look like the last bastion of protection – and maybe even dignity – for elders who alone itinerate.
We’re using the same term (“itinerancy”), but with clearly divergent concerns. We hang on to the term for historic reasons because it seems to say so much about who we are. Yet, here we begin to see other challenges. The current struggle begins to look like a version of the labor-management power struggle evident in a number of quarters. In my neck of the woods, the fight between American Airlines and the pilot union comes to mind.
Which suggests to me that other assumptions far beyond the specific question of guaranteed appointment are fully in play, though not always sufficiently out in front. For me, it comes back to shared vision and mission. I’ll save that thought for another post.