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!