Called and Gifted? How about Called to Circuits?

Called and Gifted? How about Called to Circuits? April 24, 2013

The blogging world of United Methodist Clergy has exploded recently with the revelation that the Texas Annual Conference is floating a document that appears “ageist” in its suggestions as to who might or might not be encouraged to seek ordination there. I want to thank Jeremy at Hacking Christianity for this post which exposes the possible plans in the Texas Annual Conference for discouraging older people from entering the ordination process.

Now, there are lots of comments flying around. One, from someone who was part of creating the proposal, reminded us that we live in the real world and that, among other things, older clergy add to the health insurance burdens of all us the rest of us. This, of course, assumes that no younger clergy will find themselves in the midst of a horrific disease and will run up giant medical bills in response to it, a rather naive assumption.

But others are saying, and in my opinion more rightly, that just because someone senses a call to the ministry of the ordained doesn’t necessarily make them one of the chosen for this very complex and draining profession. Age, gender, able-bodiedness, race, etc. are not the issue.

Giftedness Must Match the Call

The issue is giftedness for the profession.

I wish that every person sitting on the various gatekeeper boards (SPRC’s, District Board of Ministries, Conference Board of Ordained Ministries), would take the time to read this compelling little novel called Cosmas or the Love of God.

Here’s a review:

Devout, sensitive, young Cosmas believes that he has a vocation to become a Trappist monk, but the reality of monastic life disappoints him deeply. Fellow monks are hard to live with. The life of the monastery seems worldly. He is disheartened by his own shortcomings and appalled by the weaknesses of others. If he can’t live the life, does that mean God isn’t calling him to it? What should he do? Many people—single, married, vowed, ordained—ask these same questions. Pierre de Calan explores them all in this exquisite tale of a man who learns that sanctity does not mean perfection.

Now, that statement in the review, “the reality of monastic life disappoints him deeply,” struck a nerve with me. The reality of the life of one in the ministry of the ordained surely has disappointed everyone to some degree.

Frankly, fellow clergy are hard to live with. The nature of the “career ladder” for pastoral moves, and a highly limited number of prime appointments makes us all competitors with one another more than colleagues in loving covenant.

“Worldly” is very much a word that describes The United Methodist Church. We are selling our souls down the river of numerical success. The “making of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” be damned. The process of discipleship simply gets in the way. It is too slow, too cumbersome, without glamour, and not at all remunerative. Seriously, no really effective discipler is going to make Time Magazine’s “25 Most Influential Christian Leaders” list.

We’ve Already Tried This

But none of that is the point. Here is the point:

The young, hotshot (male) clergy that the movin’ and shakin’ Conferences want and are actively promoting to prestigious pulpits look like clones of the very people who helped bring The UMC to the point where we are now: laboring under giant, smothering, expensive infrastructure that says, “More is better!” They are the ones who have proudly brought us to a situation where we are crushed under bureaucracy, burdened with an unworkable, impenetrable Book of Discipline, and dismayed by the fact that apparently only 15% of our churches can be labeled “vital.”

Now, time for a serious disclaimer: Every Christian generation does what seems right at the time in their call to serve the church and to love God and neighbor. Those men, and a few women, who came into clergy ranks 35-50 years ago were doing exactly what the conventional wisdom of the day said to do, and they did it with the best of intentions. Many have persevered through years of heartache, disappointment, and difficult appointments.

The Search for a Messiah

Nonetheless, we as a denomination are in a bad place. So we, in our very human state, start looking for a Messiah. But we don’t want a Messiah like Jesus, who died alone at the cross, pretty well disappointing everyone who wanted to restore “success” to the Jewish nation. No, we want a messiah like Moses who will lead us to the promised land, flowing with milk and honey, or in our case, full offering plates and stuffed worship centers.

Our current hopes as those who will be our Messiahs? Young, gifted, good-looking male pastors. There are solid reasons for this. Frankly, the ones I know that fit the description have simply an astounding level of talent and also come to their calls to the ministry of the ordained under powerful leading from the Spirit of God.

But here lies my great, huge concern: Too many of these young, gifted ones have not spent adequate time in the desert in order to competently deal with the huge pressure to succeed, i.e., save The United Methodist Church. How many of these will bring incalculable harm because their talents have not yet been joined by characters both tested and purified by fire? How many will end up like Walker Railey and Bailey Smith, just to name two of those whose talent levels were not matched with formed characters?

Moses was clearly called to leadership, to his own brand of messiahship, from birth. He was not gifted for the task until he lost everything and had to come face-to-face with his own soul in the wilderness.

Called to Circuit Ministry?

I want to make a suggestion here that I think might help: Let us consider returning to real circuit ministry. Our so-called “itinerancy” is simply a joke, a code for “some well-connected ones are going to make it big and will be powerful and famous but most of you are going to labor in near-poverty and great obscurity for your entire ministerial lives.”

It’s time to change this system.

I envision circuits this way: Churches are grouped geographically into a circuit with no more than one large membership church in any given circuit. Clergy teams are appointed to circuits, not individual charges. The teams consist of a mixture of young and energetic, middle-aged and experienced (especially those coming in as second-career pastors), racially mixed, older and full of wisdom, male and female, elders in full connection, provisional elders, local pastors and interns, some full-time, others part-time, gifted in multiple ways and with varying talents and theological viewpoints.

Clergy teams are charged with the spiritual health and well-being of their entire circuit, not individual charges. Together, they pray their way through the God-visions for the circuit. They rotate preaching, teaching, pastoral and administrative skills from charge to charge. They hold each other accountable in every area of their lives. They model for their charges the nature of kingdom of heaven living as they work out their conflicts and misunderstandings with each other. They know they are in this together and for one charge to benefit at the expense of another becomes anathema to them. Together, they seek the lost, the least, the last and the littlest, and never, ever poach one another’s “founds.”

A Common Pool for Compensation

Furthermore, all members of any given circuit share a common pool for their compensation, although it will vary among the team, factoring in experience, background and full or part-time status. The way clergy salaries are currently set should be a cause of public shame. To have it necessary for some clergy to have to enroll their children in Medicaid to get health insurance while other clergy are able to purchase lavish homes and enjoy country club memberships denies the very basis of Wesley’s understanding of itinerant ministry. At this point, the highest paid clergy may enjoy pay and benefit packages that could be as high as eight to ten times what the lowest paid clergy receive.

We are either in this together or we are not. Currently, I believe we are more “not” than “together.”

The challenge of the distribution of the compensation pool may be one of the toughest faced by each team, and certainly input from the superintendents will be mandatory.  If, however, we could do that and do it maintaining deep love and respect for each other in the circuit, then, and only then, do we evidence the spiritual maturity necessary to move into pastoral leadership.

Compensation is a very touchy and deeply personal issue.  The world tell us, “your compensation packages speaks volumes about your worth as a human being.”  But the church must say, “The love of God has already determined your worth as a human being.”  That’s what we call “grace.”

Could We Start a Conversation?

I know this is radical. I know the idea needs huge tweaks. It’s easy to start listing the issues with it.

But what if? What if we serve in life-giving connection with one another? What if we seek to honor the distinctiveness of the itinerancy by marrying it to the need for greater accountability because of our cultural context? What if we make the Discipline-mandated committee structure start working for us instead of against us, which is too often the case?  It would have to undergo giant change to make circuits work.

Could we at least start a discussion on it? Could we engage in a connected discussion where we explore whether the idea could be matured and shaped into something far healthier than we currently have?

Any and all comments are both hoped for and welcome.  I will also be happy to take emails privately.  I just want to know:  could we even talk about this?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Don Wiley

    Christy…

    To blame male pastors for the decline of the United Methodist Church – “…the very people who helped bring The UMC to the point where we are now: laboring under giant, smothering, expensive infrastructure that says, “More is better!” They are the ones who have proudly brought us to a situation where we are crushed under bureaucracy…” is to ignore (1) The increasingly secular world we live in (2) pluralism in the United States and (3) an infrastructure that has grown so incredibly top-heavy and unwieldy because we cannot stop identifying one more subgroup or victimized population (with _no_ apologies to Dr. Katz – who would be stunned, I believe at the victimhood we in the UMC perpetuate) which needs representation, funding, and their their own “slice of the connectional pie”. We need only to look at the leadership of the North Texas Conference to see that as the numbers of women grew in ministry, women HAVE been empowered here – Pat Bechtel-Mahle, Dr. Clara Reed, Dr. Sheron Pattereson, Kathleen Baskin-Ball, Ouida Lee, Judith Reedy, Dr. Thalia Matherson, Mary Brooke Casad, just to name a few – all strong women in strong positions of leadership throughout the conference.

    I am hearing great frustration with what the process hath wrought, but I also think the Texas Conference is discussing an important issue. Let’s be frank: we have people going through ordination who will have orders for less than five years before retirement. We often devote significant scholarship dollars to their seminary education and receive a relatively short ‘payoff’/worklife for the investment. Would a local appointment be just as wise of a use of their gifts and graces? It is not a comment on their worthiness: it is an issue of stewardship.

    The insurance issue you make light of is not a reason to exclude someone, but the fact is an incoming 2nd career 45 year old in excellent health will still be far more likely to have health issues (and therefore higher premiums) than a twenty-something. Don’t ignore that fact at annual conference when you get a look at health insurance premiums for our annual conference, which is deacon and elder-affluent and increasingly elderly. That, too, is an issue of stewardship.

    It’s also an issue of stewardship for us to be looking to create more funds for mission – reaching out to and ‘feeding His sheep’. There are lots of churches that spend more on lawn and garden care than on mission…

    I’ll close with a question: is the record of women bishops – episcopal leaders at the top of the line in their respective conferences – significantly different than men in terms of how women are treated/advanced? Bishop Janice Huie was the leader of the Texas Conference for eight (8) years and President of the Council of Bishops; was her record significantly different?As the episcopal head of a conference, a bishop HAS the authority to make the changes, appoint women to higher level positions. Has the Texas Conference just pulled a complete 180?

    I think there are other factors at play here…

  • Don Wiley

    Christy…

    To blame male pastors for the decline of the United Methodist Church – “…the very people who helped bring The UMC to the point where we are now: laboring under giant, smothering, expensive infrastructure that says, “More is better!” They are the ones who have proudly brought us to a situation where we are crushed under bureaucracy…” is to ignore (1) The increasingly secular world we live in (2) pluralism in the United States and (3) an infrastructure that has grown so incredibly top-heavy and unwieldy because we cannot stop identifying one more subgroup or victimized population (with _no_ apologies to Dr. Katz – who would be stunned, I believe at the victimhood we in the UMC perpetuate) which needs representation, funding, and their their own “slice of the connectional pie”. We need only to look at the leadership of the North Texas Conference to see that as the numbers of women grew in ministry, women HAVE been empowered here – Pat Bechtel-Mahle, Dr. Clara Reed, Dr. Sheron Pattereson, Kathleen Baskin-Ball, Ouida Lee, Judith Reedy, Dr. Thalia Matherson, Mary Brooke Casad, just to name a few – all strong women in strong positions of leadership throughout the conference.

    I am hearing great frustration with what the process hath wrought, but I also think the Texas Conference is discussing an important issue. Let’s be frank: we have people going through ordination who will have orders for less than five years before retirement. We often devote significant scholarship dollars to their seminary education and receive a relatively short ‘payoff’/worklife for the investment. Would a local appointment be just as wise of a use of their gifts and graces? It is not a comment on their worthiness: it is an issue of stewardship.

    The insurance issue you make light of is not a reason to exclude someone, but the fact is an incoming 2nd career 45 year old in excellent health will still be far more likely to have health issues (and therefore higher premiums) than a twenty-something. Don’t ignore that fact at annual conference when you get a look at health insurance premiums for our annual conference, which is deacon and elder-affluent and increasingly elderly. That, too, is an issue of stewardship.

    It’s also an issue of stewardship for us to be looking to create more funds for mission – reaching out to and ‘feeding His sheep’. There are lots of churches that spend more on lawn and garden care than on mission…

    I’ll close with a question: is the record of women bishops – episcopal leaders at the top of the line in their respective conferences – significantly different than men in terms of how women are treated/advanced? Bishop Janice Huie was the leader of the Texas Conference for eight (8) years and President of the Council of Bishops; was her record significantly different?As the episcopal head of a conference, a bishop HAS the authority to make the changes, appoint women to higher level positions. Has the Texas Conference just pulled a complete 180?

    I think there are other factors at play here…

  • You’re on to something — and that something ironically is patterened after the every-village has a (small) Parish Church with a Cathedral “seat” used for large Worship Events (including Confirmation by Bishops) prevailing in Britain………..a direct link to our Anglican Heritage.

  • You’re on to something — and that something ironically is patterened after the every-village has a (small) Parish Church with a Cathedral “seat” used for large Worship Events (including Confirmation by Bishops) prevailing in Britain………..a direct link to our Anglican Heritage.

  • SARA

    My hat is off to you Christy- for braving the blunt truth here. Don you need to read the retention studies of clergy women- talk to clergywomen about their appointment histories and your picture will change. The appointment system is not fair and we all know it. You are right Christy- as one DS told me some time ago- we just put people places in the end after the BIG churches get their pastors, who they want – we all know this. the larger churches with the larger apportionment pay out gets the main attention. and as one parishoner said to me some time ago- I know we just get whoever they have available. if we are going to live in this system- we at least need to be honest about it- if not to the church- to ourselves!

  • SARA

    My hat is off to you Christy- for braving the blunt truth here. Don you need to read the retention studies of clergy women- talk to clergywomen about their appointment histories and your picture will change. The appointment system is not fair and we all know it. You are right Christy- as one DS told me some time ago- we just put people places in the end after the BIG churches get their pastors, who they want – we all know this. the larger churches with the larger apportionment pay out gets the main attention. and as one parishoner said to me some time ago- I know we just get whoever they have available. if we are going to live in this system- we at least need to be honest about it- if not to the church- to ourselves!

    • Don Wiley

      As someone who has been a lay leader in both a small (<300) congregation and a regional church, you are kidding yourself if you think large churches simply get their desires met by a couple of well-placed phone calls. I have seen the 'dumping' phenomenon of 'difficult-to-place' clergy at EVERY large congregation. The rationale? – "you can afford it and you can find a place for them"… SARA, I DO talk with clegywomen, at both small and large churches, on a very regular basis. Their experiences and appointment histories are… unsurprisingly… mixed.

      I am just finding it curious that the appointive process is being approached as a social issue with entitlements. Call me naive, but I believe God works in the process. What I am hearing sounds nothing like the call to ministry.

      This is not corporate America: I hope you did not come into the ministry to pursue a "career track". If you are looking for seniority-based pay, a civil service type career growth track, and guaranteed 'pleasing appointments', you chose the wrong life work – you came to the wrong place. Yes, I am waaaaay out of touch… I know. I look to foundational documents, I go back to the basics when I am struggling with something…. like the vows of ordination, like Wesley's covenant prayer:

      I am no longer my own, but thine.

      Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.

      Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

      Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,

      exalted for thee or brought low for thee.

      Let me be full, let me be empty.

      Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

      I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.

      And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

      thou art mine, and I am thine.

      So be it.

      I do understand it is not easy to be ordained clergy. I also know from close working experience in the connectional church as well as my local congregations that the lives of men and women in ordained ministry in larger churches are not quite the lives some of their colleagues imagine… in many ways…