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Ministry study: Accountability is crucial

By Laura Jaquith Bartlett*
April 18, 2012

The Ministry Study report to the 2012 General Conference contains nine proposals, including a renewed emphasis on developing a culture of call; methods for making the candidacy process easier to navigate, and clarification about the identity of deacons and elders, including new insights about how the two orders, along with local pastors, interact and work together.

These are significant changes! They do not, however, get nearly as much buzz as the two most controversial proposals from the study: “separating ordination from membership” and “eliminating guaranteed appointment.” I’ve used quotation marks because both of the phrases reflect the common shorthand method of referring to the proposals, but neither label accurately depicts the legislation.

In United Methodist polity, ordination and conference membership are already two separate entities. The proposal seeks to restore ordination to its pre-1996 time frame: at the point of provisional membership (although the proposed legislation would have all educational/candidacy requirements completed by the time of ordination). But what would happen to ordained provisional members who are not approved for full membership? The same thing that happened before 1996: Ordination and provisional membership certificates would be surrendered.

Those who believe ordination should be the “big prize” at the conclusion of the ministry-preparation process would do well to remember that in The United Methodist Church, ordination is not a sacrament and should not be treated as one.

The proposal to “eliminate guaranteed appointment” is actually a movement toward missional appointment making. In fact, the legislation would delete a key sentence from Paragraph 337.1 that reads, “Every effective elder in full connection who is in good standing shall be continued under appointment by the bishop.” However, it also instructs bishops to take one of two steps if the elder is not to be continued under appointment: Either initiate a complaint of ineffectiveness or recommend the elder to the board of ordained ministry for transitional leave.

Note that the bishop, cabinet and the board of ordained ministry all must approve the leave; it cannot be a unilateral move by the bishop. Moreover, a vote of the clergy session must confirm all voluntary leaves of absence. We have many opportunities to keep one another accountable in this process.

Part of our Wesleyan heritage

Accountability is crucial. The most compelling objection I’ve heard to the proposal is that it removes the appointment protection that dates back to 1956, the same year women were given the full rights of clergy membership. That security is also important for persons of color and for anyone whose prophetic witness might seem threatening to the power structure of an annual conference. Sadly, that one sentence in the Discipline has not protected women or others from discrimination, harassment or pay inequality.

Accountability, not legislation alone, will motivate us to speak truth to power and collectively to protect all our effective clergy from “appointment punishment.” Accountability is part of our Wesleyan heritage and is built into the Ministry Study proposals.

The missional aspect of the appointment proposal really excites me. The theme is an appointment system that is itinerant, open, flexible and responsive. The driving force would be the missional needs of each congregation — not the specific employment needs of the clergyperson. For too long, cabinets have struggled with trying to match up X number of bodies with X number of open slots. I realize that this is a bit hyperbolic and bishops and superintendents faithfully and prayerfully have done the best they can within the limits of the current system — often with fabulous results! And often with less-than-fabulous results.

What if our episcopal leaders and cabinets could send the best leaders to the congregations that most need their gifts? What if we had a system in place to care for clergy who were no longer appointed? And what if we all called forth our Wesleyan DNA of mutual accountability to protect those among us who are vulnerable to systemic discrimination? We just might end up with a denomination more able to respond to the ministry needs of our 21st-century world. I pray it will be so.

*A deacon in the Oregon-Idaho Annual (regional) Conference, Bartlett is head of her conference’s delegation to the 2012 General Conference.