Two weeks ago, Bishop Bledsoe invited the clergy of the North Texas Conference into dialogue.
Yesterday, he announced his retirement.
With Annual Conference starting tomorrow, I find myself deep, deep in prayer for all of us in the NTAC.
I am in London on a three month Sabbatical that is also a journey of healing, both physical and spiritual, as I work on a project I am calling The Sustainable Church.
I have learned this from my time in London: time after time, this historic city has seen devastating fires and mass destruction from invading forces, the most recent being WWII. So much of this place has been destroyed and yet . . . there is a deep resilience that says, “We can and we will rebuild.”
London, this ancient city, thrives. I believe it thrives primarily because of one overarching ethos: a willingness to honor the past, to hold onto a few essentials of identity (i.e., the monarchy, which serves as a powerful emotional glue here) and a willingness to continually recreate the future with new structures arising from the ashes of the old ones.
Those times of destruction ended up giving life here.
It seems to me that the General Conference, and the continuing fallout from it, will be seen in hindsight as the turning point for The United Methodist Church. It will mark our moment of destruction, when the old can no longer serve us, for the fire was too intense.
I shall be in prayer for all in North Texas during the next three days. On Sunday, I shall start those prayers while in worship at St. Paul’s Cathedral, another structure rebuilt from fire, and which today serves as a beacon of hope and faithful worship.
Sunday afternoon, I shall do my part to observe the Queen’s Jubilee as I watch a 1000 boat flotilla come down the Thames in her honor, and I shall pray that we, too, will find our center in the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, and hold fast to that truth.
Below are the three questions I asked Bishop Bledsoe after his invitation to conversation. Although we had a phone conference a few days later, I did not receive answers to those questions.
They are just three among hundreds that must be asked openly and explored honestly as we go forward.
Questions for Bishop Bledsoe:
First, how exactly are you going to define an “effective” clergy person?
This blog post more fully asks that question. Effectiveness judged by numbers is highly contextually defined, and may have much less to do with the numbers that appear on various dashboards than they do with a fortunate demographic, some deep pockets in the congregation and a compromise of the message of the gospel and of personal integrity. Those numbers may have little to do with the calling, character, or missional fruitfulness of that clergy person.
To date, I have yet to see one comprehensive statement that clarifies what an effective clergy person looks like.
Also, while I understand the Bullseye measurement system now required as part of the consultation process is supposed to emphasize narratives not numbers, the system itself appears to give numbers only the large visual prominence highlighted by colors on quick glance. Those initial impressions are rarely easily erased by reading smaller type-face explanations.
One more factor here: I have heard several times that you and members of the Cabinet consider one third of the clergy in the North Texas Conference as “ineffective.” Have you let that third know of that such designation is attached to their name and record? How about the clergy deemed “effective?” Do they know?
To use a business analogy: if ⅓ of a given workforce is not doing their job, and if that significant portion of the workforce is never informed of the problem nor given opportunity to see and address the evaluations, how will there be improvement? And if the other ⅔ are working up to expectation, but are also never informed of such fact, but only told that (undefined) incompetence or ineffectiveness is a huge problem, then fear and anxiety will rule. Rarely do such emotions produce more self-motivated and willing work environments.All clergy in this conference need to know how they have been classified (effective or ineffective; fruitful or unfruitful, or the latest terminology) and the reasons for that decision.
Second question concerns the issue of covenant.
I understand that the ruling at GC means that clergy can be placed on transitional leave for no reason other than a lack of missional appointment. That means up to two years with no pay, no health insurance, no pension contributions, and, particularly for the more itinerant-in-practice clergy, no place to live. What plans are or will be in place to deal with this, especially the prohibitive cost of health insurance, or even its availability at all with certain pre-existing conditions? Just saying, “oh we can buy in to the current system” is of little help because of the expense. I assume very, very few long-term clergy are going to find decent paying jobs in other fields immediately (if ever). Our training is uniquely specialized.
I am in favor of the elimination of the guaranteed appointment. The church is not here to serve the clergy–it is very much the other way around. It’s a rough and scary world with no guarantees for anyone in terms of employment security. We signed on for this work. But with the removal of the guarantee, we also must continue to go where ever you as Bishop with your Appointive Cabinet decide, and I see considerably lessened reciprocal covenantal responsibility now. There are clergy killer churches. The most talented clergy person in one environment could be a dismal failure, i.e., “ineffective” in another. What are your plans to deal with those kinds of churches?
Third, the question of a possible double standard.
The Bishops are exempt from the loss of guaranteed appointment. No matter how poorly a Bishop may perform (and I have yet to see effectiveness standards for Bishops), the Bishop’s appointment, housing, pension, and health insurance are not put at risk. Yet, as Bishops, you and your colleagues may now tell others to do what you yourselves will not do. I can see little difference between that situation and that of members of our US Congress who enact burdensome laws on the public, but exempt themselves from following them. Most people find that full of questionable ethics.
I am not a schoolchild crying out, “Not Fair!” Life never has been fair. This is a deeper question: how does the Council of Bishops justify such privilege in the church that says we all are follow Jesus all the way to the cross?
I also say this: I’m tired of talking about all this. In my current Sabbatical, I’m opening my eyes more fully to the utter indifference most people have to the good news of Jesus, God among us, offering redemption and reconciliation. I see almost no awareness of the pervasiveness of human sin or the demanding holiness of God. We have lost the winsomeness of the power of the love of God to radically transform the world, both on an individual and a societal level. Our insider language is nearly incomprehensible to the average person and our petty squabbles distasteful.
We have work to do. I want to do this with within the group called United Methodist because I believe it is the best theological and connectional system available. But no matter what happens to this connection, or what decisions are made about my place, or my not-place, within that connection, I will proclaim that Gospel. I will live it, breathe it, preach it, and serve it in all I say or do. For this, I am called.