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May 31, 2012

Edgar Moore: Holy serendipity and General Conference

Serendipity is one of the dialects the Spirit speaks every now and then. And like every dialect of the Spirit, serendipity can lift us heavenward in joy, compel us to profound soul-searching or move us to tears -- tears of anger, desperation or something else.

The Spirit serendipitously dropped two documents on me recently, both within a few minutes of one another. The first was Lee Siegel’s May 3 op-ed piece in “The New York Times,” a review of the current Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s iconic play, “Death of a Salesman.” The second was an e-mail from my bishop, John Schol, reporting on the United Methodist Church’s General Conference, just adjourned in Tampa.

Siegel’s op-ed notes the contrast between audiences who paid $4.80 to see “Death of a Salesman” at its 1949 debut and those who pay upwards of $800 to see the current production. In the old days, Siegel writes, folks in the audience, “especially men, were bent forward covering their faces, and others were openly weeping,” because so many middle class theatre-goers identified with Willy Loman’s tragedy. Arthur Miller recalled that Elia Kazan, the play’s first director, “was the first of a great many men -- and women -- who would tell me that Willy was their father.”

But audiences don’t weep anymore, because they can no longer fathom Willy Loman. “[T]oday’s capitalists no longer share Willy’s belief that he could attain dignity through his work,” writes Siegel, “In 2012, a fight to the death for shrinking opportunities in so many realms of life renders the idea of fair competition an anachronism.” Willy’s dreams of a simple middle-class life seem pathetic, and “make him a deluded loser” by current canons.

When I read Bishop Schol’s report on General Conference, I couldn’t get Willy Loman out of my mind. The Conference had just voted to abolish the guaranteed appointment, United Methodism’s equivalent of tenure for fully-ordained pastors; its covenantal counterpoint to pastors’ agreeing to go wherever appointed; the prophetic assurance that women and minorities were given pulpits. Working among United Methodist pastors almost daily, I knew many of them were fearful General Conference would take this action. Their concern was not only the possibility of losing the guarantee, but also the emergence of the inevitably politicized structures necessary to determine who would be allowed to continue in pastoral ministry and who would not.

Bishop Schol reported his disappointment that General Conference had failed to adopt a restructuring plan for denominational boards and agencies, after expending enormous time and energy. He wisely noted that we err when we imagine that repairing structures will fix problems that are symptomatic of missional opacity and theological confusion. He went on at some length about “adaptive spiritual challenges,” regretful that General Conference had failed on a number of fronts. “A church with declining membership, worship attendance, new disciples [sic] and money should be ready to take bold steps,” he wrote. “Instead we opted for small changes or no change.”

There was no mention of the loss of the guaranteed appointment, a loss that was scarcely “no change” as far as pastors are concerned.

As an historian, I know that a document’s silence can be as instructive as its pronouncements, and the silence here is deeply saddening.

One of the running debates among scholars who study American Christianity is whether the church can stand at sufficient remove from American culture to assess itself, or is inevitably shaped by secular culture’s values and agenda and therefore risks the loss of sacred identity. When a bishop writes with evident passion about matters of denominational structure and, with some eloquence, laments his denomination’s theological superficiality, yet cannot imagine front-line pastors’ fears, perhaps he is sitting in one of those $800 seats where no one understands Willy Loman.

Perhaps the question for United Methodism ought not be whether this or that board or agency gets merged with another, but why we aren’t moved to tears at the courage and sacrifice of the pastors out there in the three-point charges, preaching faithfully in a culture increasingly content to view them as “deluded losers.”

When we cannot even imagine them, their hopes or their fears, we’re no longer standing downwind of the Tree of Life that flourishes in the New Jerusalem, but, instead, somewhere quite different. Where, I wonder?

Sometimes the Spirit speaks serendipity. It may lift us heavenward in joy, compel us to profound soul-searching or move us to tears -- tears of anger, desperation or something else. Thanks be to God.

Edgar Moore is Duke Clergy Health Initiative's director of theological education and conference relations.

19 Comments

UMC

I read this with a sad heart.
When money becomes the bottom line for assessing a pastor's " effectiveness" we are in great spiritual danger as a denomination.
I love my church but I often am angry at her.
Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!

Guaranteed Appointment

I pray that justice will prevail as this unconstitutional legislation is reviewed by the Judicial Council.

Holy Serendipity

I appreciate the holy serendipity I have witnessed when pastors I did not think capable have actually had wonderfully
meaningful and fruitful appointments. Sometimes rightness of fit and giftedness means a lot more than the cabinet's or even colleagues perceptions. Although loss of guaranteed appointment will make cabinets' work easier, do any of us really believe that it will help accomplish the turn around for which we keep seeking?

Guaranteed Appointment

Sometimes comfort breeds lazy preachers.
Not having a Guaranteed Appointment encourages better workers. Guarantees and tenure is rare in the secular world and you still have to go where told. I think it would improve our pool of ministers.

When a preacher preaches only

When a preacher preaches only to hear himself, and not to inspire others, then it is appropriate to have him placed in an empty church.

Sounds to me like we are

Sounds to me like we are trying to make a clery's "call" into a "job". If you have ever been called, know someone that has responded to that call and left behind many of the secular ambitions another job might offer, you realize that not haveing guaranteed appointments brings us one step closer to a job. I wonder if we might "fix" the problem of ineffective pastors with coaching, a non-threatening discernment process and love rather than the fear that has been invited in with non-guaranteed appointments which is being presented under the cover of "for the health and growth of our denomination."

Guaranteed Appointments

As a UM pastor I feel more and more responsibility being shifted to clergy. Very little is said about ineffective churches, and bishops have lifetime appointments. So, clergy are deemed effective or ineffective based on how well they "fix" our churches (ie, increase in professions of faith). At the same time we get less and less support from our churches and denominational structure. The Book of Discipline once contained a statement that I believe speaks to this situation: Support without accountability promotes moral weakness. Accountability without support is a form of cruelty. Increasingly I feel a lack of support.

ineffective Pastors/Churches

Again I ask, who is to say who is an ineffective Pastor? If a Pastor brings one soul to Christ, comforts one hurting person,teaches one person about God's love, who is to say that person is not effective. That Pastor is very effective in those lives he touches positively.
Guaranteed appointment: absolutely. The Pastors who are out there have worked hard and spent many hours and many dollars to get where they are, whether a large city Church or a rural Church with 20 members. They deserve the support of their superiors. Shame on General Conference. Have those Ministers forgotten where they came from?

Guaranteed Appointments

great idea in theory. but in practice it removes good pastors from churches so some fresh kid just out of collage can have a posting, and that just wrong unfair to the churches and their pastors. why should ministerial grads be guaranteed a job, when it doesn't work that way for other grads.

guaranteed appointments

What concerns me is that elders who have served for many years in some of the most difficult and "ineffective churches" and have done a great deal of ministry without any real help or support, and have not been allowed to work extra jobs outside the church, because our discipline says that when we serve a full time appointment we can't do any outside the church employment, can now be told, "sorry" you don't have an appointment and yet they are not being offered any changes in the side of the covenant that says, "you go where we say, and get paid what the church can pay,while those above us are still making more than most of us will ever see and they cannot be removed as easily and put on transitional leave. No wonder clergy are over stressed.

Actual effectiveness

When I was a boy growing up in Colorado, we in our churches knew our bishops and our district superintendents. They showed up in our churches, usually unannounced. One pastor at my home church was seen by just about everyone as "administratively ineffective." The DS and the bishop kept in touch with him, and helped him find in our church laypersons to help with the administrivia -- under his hand the church grew and prospered because he was the very personification of God's love for everyone ... every one. Without a guaranteed appointment we'd likely have lost the blessing of this wonderful pastor's ministry. Today, I do not see a continuation of the practices of the first bishops of our denomination, Asbury and Coke, in supervising pastors and helping them to grow in skills and grace, and therefore, leading churches in evangelism (the purpose of church, by the way). Instead of punishing pastors for their lacks, when they've agreed to go where sent, perhaps we should insist that our bishops "bish" and our superintendents "superintend" to enhance the process of bringing the least, the lost and the left-out to Christ. Expediency is not a good answer. I've learned the truth of my grandfather's admonition, "Most times, the easiest way is not the path to the best result."

lost touch

Most bishops have lost touch with the local church. They are too busy being bishop to remember what its like. It doesn't help that most bishops come from large churches, or confernce positions. Maybe if we elected someone show was currently serving at a 3 point charge life would be different.

Systemic Denial & Blindness

During 1970-1971, I served in IV Corp, Mekong River area, South Vietnam. Thirteen times, I was sprayed by Agent Orange/Dioxin mist while driving an open jeep to basecamps before sunrise. I went to Vietnam with a normal sperm count and came home with a zero sperm count. All my potential future children and generations "died" in Vietnam.
I've been a United Methodist local church pastor for 25 years in Western North Carolina in small, struggling, rural churches. I've been very faithful, but "effective" depends on one's definitions. My church members would say I've been extremely "effective" in the ways that matter to them and our community. Many of my dreams died in Vietnam. Has a vital dream died in general conferece???? Ralph Lepley

Appointments

We're a dying denomination, people and I find it telling that the primary concern of our Clergy in this hour of crisis is that we can no longer guarantee appointments.
I don't think we have to look any farther then that to understand why we're a dying denomination, do we?
I love and pray for my brothers and sisters in Christ and my goal here is to speak truth in love, and you can add to that I consider myself to be a hopeless idiot (and I am not alone in that opinion) but since you've read this far, I'll hand you another dollop of foolishness to consider.
People tell me that our problems stem from a dwindling congregation and it's all I can do not to laugh. We're afflicted with far too much congregation. People who've squatted their pew for forty years and feel a place in heaven should be theirs based on the size of the callous on their backsides. Women who can tell you the designer of every garment worn by a female in the congregation last Sunday but couldn't tell you the book the old testament bible reading came from if her immortal soul depended on it (and perhaps it does).
The clergy, for their part, has largely coddled these people and empowered their predisposition for confusion. It comes from being more interested in building attendance than disciples. In the end, we're left with precious little of either.
Have faith in the Lord, my brothers and sisters in the Clergy, for all his plans are for our benefit. Rest on his understanding of our modern age and accept that if we build a church deserving of the accolade "Body of Christ", he will fill it for you. That's the job of the Clergy and the Laity and the sooner we're about it, the better.

At our Ad Council meeting

At our Ad Council meeting someone said this feels like No Child Left Behind for churches--a dependence on metrics will determine effectiveness: are apportionments paid? missions supported? how many baptized/confirmed/new members brought in? For those of us living in rural counties where the population is dropping faster than the corn grows, the likelihood of a pastor wanting to come to an appointment where the metrics show little possibility of positive outcome is small, and the probability of a pastor wanting to stay where the label of "failure to be effective" is high--well, you can imagine.
Then there is the one-sided aspect. I am and know clergy who have been the victim of more than one DS who really didn't believe that women should be clergy and who held grudges and blatantly played favorites, and there was no recourse. We have had a bishop who was just waiting to retire, and everyone knew it. All too often, clergy are being held accountable for those "pew squatters" who cannot be moved, who complain about the pastor's preaching on discipleship and missional giving ("we need to take care of our own first") and withhold their offerings until they get a "real pastor": a man, a white man, a young man (preferably with a wife who can play piano/organ and a few kids to fatten the Sunday school)who won't rock the boat. The poor resident pastor is thus deemed "ineffective" and a new martyr is sent in for sacrifice.

Broken Trust

When hearing the bishop say to the newly ordained, "will you go where I send you?" I felt that they could have answered with a question, "will there be a church for me to go to?" It seems as if the Conference is asking for loyality of its pastors but no longer offering loyalty in return.

Change that would matter

Moore et al are looking for changes that could/would help to, with integrity, turn around our continuing shrinkage...so here's a very simple but powerful change:

Replace our mission statement from: "...making disciples..." to: "helping people discover a more meaningful and enjoyable life". It's really the other side of the coin; the side that tells people NOT that you are a unit of input for our process, but that there is more, much more to life...and its ti be found here.

I know I speak as an outsider...

...but I come from a church that has never guaranteed any pulpit to any pastor. OTOH--it is very difficult for minority or female clergy to find a call. OTOtherH--pastors actually have *less* anxiety sometimes than UMC pastors claim that we do. I spent a dozen years serving on another denom. call a joint parish with a UMC church. Thus I could be a non-anxious presence each spring with all my UMC colleagues who jumped whenever the phone rang. I've seen both appointment and call systems. Nobody has all the answers. Everyone's afraid of dying. No one is asking about giving life away for a savior.

Ordination is not the only

Ordination is not the only manner by which a person pastors a congregation in UMC. And yet the same metrics are applied to Certified Lay Ministers and Local Licensed Pastors as Elders--yet with lower pay structure, lower reimbursable limits on continuing ed (required of all pastors), etc. Predominantly appointed "part-time" these call-answerers do not receive health insurance, guaranteed appointment, nor all-expenses-paid housing(for which the minimum requirements seem quite luxurious). Pension is calculated on a part-time salary, and therefore lower. The appointment is under constant scrutiny and review, CLM's report monthly to a team of mentors/Elders and the LLP's license must be reviewed and renewed each year. Yet, somehow, there is effective pastoring happening without the safety net of guaranteed appointment. Perhaps bishops should ask if the ordinands are willing to be used by the Lord or be set aside for the Lord. It's about more than answering questions asked of you by a bishop, it's about answering the question asked of you by the Holy Spirit.

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