Itinerancy Versus a Call System – The Grass is NOT greener on the other side of the fence!

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On April 19th an opinion piece was posted by Dr. Donald Haynes on issues with the itinerancy and some proposal which effectively would change our United Methodist appointment system to a modified call system with some minor episcopal over site.  The article can be found here.

Normally I find myself nodding my head in agreement with much of what Dr. Haynes says about ministry.  But this time as I read his prescriptions for pastoral leadership in the article I found my self saying, “no, No, NO!!”   You see I am quite familiar with clergy call systems.  I am a former American Baptist pastor who served four different Baptist churches over more than twenty years of ordained ministry.  I was very involved in the ABC/USA and have participated in the search and call process multiple times.

Since becoming a United Methodist I have been surprised at the number of UMC pastors who wish we had some kind of call process for clergy, thinking they see advantages in a call process that I know to be not quite what it appears to be from the outside.

Here are some general misconceptions about call systems –

1. I can apply to any church I’d like to pastor! – This is far from true.  First of all you have to be looking for a new church at the same time a local church is seeking a new pastor.  What you often find in call systems is that while you are in the midst of ministry at a church you have made a commitment to, a church you would be interested in opens up and you cannot apply.  Or when you are looking for a new call a church is already in a good relationship with a pastor and not looking to replace her/him.  Availability of compatible calls is always an unknown.

2. The church will get the pastor the church wants! – Again, not the truth.  You only get one of the pastors that apply to your church and you can only get pastors that will agree to your pay package and the particular agreement between you and your church.  In the call system churches compete with salaries and benefits for the pastors they want and pastors can play offers against each other.  Also when that pastor sees a taller steeple or a better offer he/she may decide to apply and move on, ready or not.  Getting the pastor you want and keeping the pastor you want are two different things.

3. Because we get the pastor we “want” we also have the pastor we “need.” – Often church search committees are geared to go after the pastor they believe they or the congregation wants.  However “wants” and “needs” are often not the same thing.  Perceived wants sometimes do not lead to good matches.  Additionally many local church search committees are untrained and have no HR people or people with backgrounds in interviewing sitting on the committee to know what questions to ask in interviews to get a good match.  They do not have the theological training of the cabinet or the Bishop.  If the denomination does not offer search committee training or if the search committee does not follow recommended practices the committee can do a poor job of interviewing candidates.  Also being a pastor does not mean you know how to be a good interviewee or how to ask the right questions in an interview to get to the information you want and need from a congregation.  Over the years of searches I developed a very detailed list of questions for search committees that I needed answers to in order to try to figure out if the church and I were a match.

4. Local church committees are better equipped to pick the right pastor for their local church – That may or may not be true.  I had two experiences in which the search committee was elected to represent a faction in the church only to find that they did not represent most of the church that they were serving.  In one case I found out in time to terminate interviews and look elsewhere.  In the other case I became the pastor and found out that the church was not at all like what the search committee said they were like and it ended up not being a good match.  As I have indicated above, the qualifications of search committees varies widely by congregation.

Besides these general misconceptions about call systems I want to address the suggestions that Dr. Haynes made in his article.

1. Dr. Haynes suggested a congregational vote of confidence – Dr. Haynes probably is not aware that congregationalist churches that have congregational confidence votes on their pastor’s tenure usually get in huge destructive and divisive fights.  The bylaws of most Baptist churches allows for the calling of a vote of confidence on the pastor’s tenure.  But this is usually only brought up in a time of conflict and often the pastor will resign rather than go through the pain of such a vote.  This vote usually causes a huge floor fight in a church business session and even if the pastor wins, everyone loses because you are now pastoring a divided church.  such votes split congregations into winners and losers and can lead to a new search committee in which it can take months and even years to find a new pastor if the pastor leaves.

Churches with call systems get reputations. Churches that vote pastors out do not get applications from good candidates.  No one wants to be pastoring a church where the congregation is known to chase off its pastoral leadership.  I have seen it take two or more years to find a new pastor for more than one Baptist church that voted out a pastor in a confidence vote.  And in fact most church search processes take over a year in the best circumstances in churches with call systems.  Are most UMC churches ready to take a year to find their next pastor?

2. Dr. Haynes suggested clergy directly request interviews with churches in which the church picks 3-5 names and then submits names to the Bishop.  – Different denominations with call systems handle this differently.  But the majority of them that I am aware of (the SBC excluded) usually require you to send your resume or profile through a denominational leader or office.  This is to prevent unqualified applications, the application of the brother-in-law of the chair of the search committee, or the application of persons with suspended credentials among other things.  If the Bishop and the cabinet do not vet applicants first before they end up in the final cut they may find themselves disappointing congregations when they tell them the candidate is not qualified.

It is also well known among pastors with call systems which allow direct sending of resumes to the local church that this encourages a good-old-boy system where people well known to the church forward applications but persons who are less known find that their resumes get taken less seriously.   So if you are already a big name pastor or have friends who are well known you may get preferential treatment in a call system.

3. It was suggested that all five (or whatever number) candidates could come, interview, preach etc. – This is just generally not done in churches with call systems.  Usually the congregation does not hear a sermon from a candidate until they are “THE” candidate.  Otherwise it turns the selection of pastors into a horse race between the candidates who preach before the congregation rather than a matter of spiritual discernment.

People vote for and pick the person who preached best sermon in the pulpit, looked the best, sounded the best, etc.  Again this is divisive because it leads to an “I’m of Apollos and I’m of Paul” argument between congregants who voted for different candidates.  When I was an American Baptist pastor if you found out a church was running two pastors against each other at the same time you usually dropped out of the process rather than participate in the “horse race.”   Because the factions that lose such vote would not and do not give the pastor the same support because they did not vote for her/him.  Once you have congregations voting on new pastors or retaining pastors you will always have factions for and against the new pastor created in the congregation by the voting process.

4. Dr. Haynes has the idea of the clergy getting to “shop the markets.” – Yes, this can be done in churches with a call system and what it creates is the desire to ladder climb by pastors.  Some pastors shop for the bigger church, the bigger salary, and the bigger staff.  It creates a market system that benefits the largest and highest paying churches in the areas with the highest standard of living over smaller churches who also need pastors.  It also makes it even harder for small churches to attract pastors because they cannot compete in the “market.”

Worse than that, it creates a potentially unspiritual attitude about pastoring. It can become a job just like any other with job interviews, resumes, trying to land the bigger church, and climbing the church/corporate ladder.

Even with all of the negatives of a call system I’ve mentioned above one of the biggest drawbacks of the call system is the attitude it creates towards clergy in many local churches. The attitude is that “we hired you, therefore you are our employee, therefore you should mirror our opinions, pastor the church just as we say, and follow rather than lead.” So the pastor of a church is reduced in a fair number of cases from a Minister of Word and Sacrament to simply an employee, a hired hand, who must please the congregation or be shown the door.

You might be thinking, “are these problems really this bad?”  Well, I have known pastors personally who were voted out of their jobs just before Christmas at a vote of confidence and found themselves unemployed with no where to go.  I know a pastor who was fired and put out of the parsonage while he was on vacation.  Yes, while he was on vacation!

I know there are issues with our itinerant system. But from my perspective as one who chose to pursue UMC ministry and chose to work to be recognized as an Elder in Full Connection in the UMC, it is a superior system to call systems.  In fact, even if we did not have guaranteed appointment I would still consider itinerancy superior to a call system.

I fear that the itinerancy is being made a scape goat for some of the UMC’s problems. Yet the many denominations who have call systems are having almost identical problems with shrinking membership, gaining younger members, supporting ministry, finding young people to enter ministry, etc.  If the problem is the itinerancy why are all those call system denominations struggling just as we are?

Instead of resenting the itinerancy I have found it incredibly freeing.  I feel much more comfortable putting my ministry in the hands of a spiritually led cabinet with theological training and experience to pick the place of call then the random process of sending out resumes, hunting for a church, and going through interview processes which often do not lead to a good pastoral match of graces and gifts.

Are there any advantages to a call system?  Yes, but as I see it only a few.  It certainly does allow for greater pastoral mobility.  If you happen to be a well known pastor or a tall steeple church you get the advantages of going after the very best candidates from everywhere.  But over all the advantages are advantages for those who are already advantaged.

I’m very happy to offer myself without reserve to be appointed as my Bishop and his cabinet feel led by God to appoint me, not just for my good, but for the good of the entire connection.

The grass on the other side of the denominational fence most certainly is not greener!

8 comments

  1. People will not recognize us as United Methodists if we continue to disagree respectfully 😉

  2. Thanks Dr. Haynes for taking the time to comment. We probably are going to remain in different places on this. I have colleagues and friends in the Episcopal and Presbyterian systems, I think many of my concerns still apply. The more involved the Bishop is in the process the better outcome in my opinion. I also find the supervision of the Bishop and the DS to be a positive thing for clergy. Lone Ranger pastors can easily lose their way.

    Where the call system works best in the ABC/USA is where there is more oversight. Where it does not work well is when it is a free for all. My one hesitation in disagreeing with your post is that I usually agree with you and am really glad that you continue to write for UMR.

  3. I am so Neanderthal that I did not properly post my reply to Tim et.al.! Steve is correct and I obviously did not define projected paradigm very well. I would never espouse a congregational “call” system as free market oriented as the Baptists, UCC and other pure congregational systems. The bishop should have the “first word” in providing some profiles and the “last word” in making the appointment. I simply want more authentic input from the people who are most helped or hurt–the laity who pay the bills and occupy the pews and the preachers who fill the pulpit in a place that they feel suited to their gifts and present life needs. Yes, Steve is correct that my proposal has some kinship with the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Lutherans. We need to add “British Methodism” to that similarity list when the President and District Chairs have to approve an appointment in a rather “presbyterial” system adopted by Wesley’s next generation in England in 1832.

    Isn’t it refreshing to be debating something more crucial to our future than some of the topics about which we get, as the British say, “our knickers in a twist.”

    Don Haynes

  4. Steve, thanks for the comment. I don’t have the statistics in front of me but a much larger percentage of women serve as pastors of UM churches than women do of ABC, CBF, and SBC churches. So I don’t see how you can say there is no advantage. Nothing is a panacea for discrimination against women. But when I am sitting in a clergy cluster meeting in Sioux City and half the clergy sitting there are women, I can tell you that this is way different than when I severed either in the ABC or the SBC. Also, the ABC/USA has a modified call system in which materials are sent through the American Baptist Personnel Services via a denominational staffer who does some vetting of the profile. But that modified system still does not fix the problems of abuse of the call system regularly experienced in that denomination. Yes, Dr. Haynes is suggesting a modified call system. But I don’t see his suggestions making much of a difference to most of my concerns, including the disaster of confidence votes and the dangers of a “market system.” There are issues and concerns with the appointment system. Such needs for change won’t be met by adopting what is a poor system that causes many of the problems that are found in congregationalist polity. By the way, sticking to your original polity isn’t “fundamentalism.” Fundamentalism is a right wing shift away from the original polity of a denomination which can be noted by the fact that fundamentalism didn’t arise until the 19th century well after Wesley et al.

  5. I believe the article presents a false dichotomy.between the UMC’s top down itinerancy and the free for all call system of independent congregational churches. Dr. Donald Haynes proffered a modified call system as practiced by the Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians. The idea that woman benefit from itineracy, in my view, is a myth,. The United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Study (1999) shows that itinerancy is no panacea. What a shame “Send Me? The Itineracy in Crisis”, ed. Donald E. Messer (Nashville: Abingdon Pr, 1991) is no longer in print. Our polity fundamentalism is hurting our churches. Since we were unable to enact even a modest reform concerning security of appointment, I don’t see change until the crisis ripens into disaster.

  6. I agree John. For me my call to itineracy came later in the process of my call to ministry. But I most certainly see it has part of my call to ministry now. Another commenter on Facebook pointed out how difficult women and minorities might have it under a call system. It can be shown by statistics that we have more women serving as pastors in the UMC than churches with call systems. The ABC/USA is very open to women in ministry yet only about 10% of the pastors in the ABC are women and less have senior pastoral roles.

  7. Well said, Tim!

    Another issue, is that many of us have discerned our call to include the itineracy. If the UMC does what this commentator suggests and drops that system; what does that say about our call which the UMC has affirmed? By affirming my call and the call of others the UMC has said “Yes, we believe that God has called you into itinerant ministry”. So if we abandon that system; how do you reconcile affirming our calls? I firmly feel called into the itinerant ministry of the United Methodist Church. Not to preach in a UM pulpit (well, not that ALONE), but to go where the Bishop sends me.

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