Guaranteed Appointments?

Bishop Paul L. Leeland


(Bishop Paul L. Leeland) - In preparation for making appointments of clergy to serve our 640 plus congregations, I received an invitation from a student at Huntingdon College asking me to participate in his research paper by responding to some questions he had regarding “guaranteed appointments” within The United Methodist Church. This student is taking a class on United Methodist Doctrine and Church Polity, and during this specific time of the year, he became interested in the conversation taking shape throughout our denomination regarding “guaranteed appointments.” 

I thought you might be interested in his questions, and in my responses. Here are his questions:
“The specific questions I would like to hear from you about are:
• Do you agree or disagree with the Judicial Council’s decision that guaranteed appointments are protected by our constitution?
• Do you think morally we should have guaranteed appointments in the United Methodist Church?
• Do you think having the assurance of a guaranteed appointment helps or hurts the morale of an Elder/the conference?
• Do you think if guaranteed appointments were removed that would help or hurt the morale of an Elder/the conference?”

Now this is a promising student.

The following insights were offered from my perspective as the Bishop of our Alabama-West Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church.

First, no appointment is “guaranteed.” This is a popular term used by clergy to identify the right of every ordained clergy member in good standing to be appointed if they meet the authority and responsibilities of an ordained elder within our United Methodist denomination.

The Book of Discipline 2012, which identifies our doctrine and polity, outlines these particular responsibilities in ¶334. It says, “Every effective elder in full connection who is in good standing shall be continued under appointment by the bishop…” Please note it says “who are in good standing.” What constitutes good standing? For one thing, there are no complaints or charges against the clergy person regarding their conduct or performance of pastoral responsibilities.

The professional responsibilities “that elders are expected to fulfill and that represent a fundamental part of their accountability and a primary basis of their continued eligibility for annual appointment shall include:
a) Continuing availability for appointment.
b) Annual participation in a process of evaluation with committees on pastor-parish relations or comparable authority as well as annual participation in a process of evaluation with the district superintendent or comparable authority.
c) Evidence of continuing effectiveness reflected in annual evaluations by the pastor-parish relations committee and by the district superintendent or comparable authorities.
d) Growth in professional competence and effectiveness through continuing education and formation. The Board of Ordained Ministry may set the minimum standards and specific guidelines for continuing education and formation for conference members;
e) Willingness to assume supervisory and mentoring responsibilities within the connection.”

Further, the same paragraph (No.4) says, “If an elder fails to demonstrate vocational competence or effectiveness as defined by the annual conference through the Board of Ordained Ministry and cabinet, then the bishop may begin the administrative location process as outlined in ¶360.”

This simply means when clergy are unable or unwilling to fulfill their responsibilities steps may be taken to change their “status” or to dismiss them from their responsibilities. Yes, there is process to do this.

In this sense there are no “guaranteed appointments.” One must meet the expected responsibilities in order to be recognized in “good standing.”

Now for his specific questions:

First, I do agree with the Judicial Council decision that appointments are protected by our Constitution and Church polity. These appointments are protected as long as the clergy are in good standing. When they are no longer in good standing, appropriate steps may be taken to change their relationship to the Church.

Second, this is not a “morale” issue. This is an issue of responsible accountability. The willingness to accept the appointment offered; the willingness to be supervised; the willingness to give evidence of fruitfulness; the demonstration of personal, spiritual, and professional growth; and the willingness to be mentored within the connection. Only when these behavioral responsibilities are met are clergy considered to be in good standing.

The third and last question, makes the assumption that clergy are “guaranteed” an appointment regardless of their personal or professional conduct. If this were the case, it would certainly hurt the morale of the Church. Yet, this is not the case. There are no guaranteed appointments without responsibility and personal fruitfulness.

In a sense, appointments may be expected and received as long as clergy fulfill these responsibilities. Only then are they considered to be in good standing.

One additional thought would be that from my perspective the primary issue around appointments is not whether we are demonstrating responsible ministry. The larger issue is whether we can find a quicker and more humane way of helping people to exit ministry who are unable or unwilling to perform their responsibilities. If we could affirm the work of those who are responsible, effective, and fruitful we would be serving the Church in a greater capacity. If we could, at the same time, help those who are not truly suited for fruitful ministry to leave in a manner that helped focus their attention in areas where they might be more productive and satisfied, we would also be benefiting the Church. This is always the creative tension in our appointment process – to identify those who are fruitful and affirm them, while identifying those who find it difficult to be fruitful and aid them in refocusing their energies into other areas.

Personally, for me, itinerancy is not about moving or appointments, it is a unique promise I have embraced through ordination to get my personal interests and desires out of the way, while saying to the Church, “I am willing to be appointed wherever the Church needs me," even in Alabama or West Florida. Itinerancy is not about moving; it is about obedience to the Church. This best captures my ordination; to make myself available wherever the Church feels I can best serve.

To God be the Glory.