Archive: What You Need to Know About the Appointment of Your Pastor

A church is not likely to rise above the effectiveness level of its minister. That’s why pastoral selection, continuation and/or replacement is a vitally important decision affecting every member and the future of your whole congregation.

What can you do, as a member of a United Methodist Church, when it comes time, for whatever reason, to change pastors? Is the appointment of your pastor solely the prerogative of your bishop? Do you have any say? Suppose your bishop sends an undesirable preacher. Or suppose he refuses to move a pastor whom you feel must be moved for the good of congregational life. Or, again, suppose you want to retain your pastor, but the bishop decides that a change is advisable. Is there anything you can do?

The Discipline, the “rule book” of our church, makes a number of statements setting forth policies governing these matters. To be an intelligent and effective United Methodist you need to understand what the Discipline says. Otherwise you will be ignorant concerning the rightful authority of the bishop, and rights of local churches in the pastoral appointment process.

Itinerancy, the assignment of pastors on an annual basis to churches, is as old as Methodism. Our present church constitution, adopted in 1968 when The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church joined to form The United Methodist Church, preserves and continues the authority of bishops to appoint ministers to their charges (churches) “after consultation with the district superintendents” (¶59, 1976 Discipline, pg. 37).

Fortunately, some safeguards are built into what could (and sometimes unfortunately does) become an autocratic system. Bishops are instructed to consider “the gifts and graces of pastors” as well as “the needs, characteristics, and opportunities of congregations” (¶527, pg. 228). However, bishops are to disregard “race, ethnic origin, sex, or color” in making appointments (¶527).

The Discipline lists criteria to be used “to achieve an effective match of charges and pastors” (¶530, pg. 229f.). Factors regarding congregations include size, financial condition, quality of lay leadership (¶530.1.a) and ministry and membership stability, etc. (¶530.1.c).

Of supreme importance is another criterion, “The convictional stance of the congregation: theology; prejudices, if any; spiritual life” (530.1.b). This provides significant leverage for the church that seeks an evangelical pastor. In spite of attempts by some to claim that “all our pastors are evangelical,” the truth is that prevailing United Methodist pluralism has created a spread of 180 degrees in pastors’ theology. Which means that ordained clergy sent to your church can be anything from evangelical to humanistic. If a church agrees to accept a pastor whose “convictional stance” is other than Biblical,[1] the church will surely flounder.

It is sometimes said that a congregation ought to accept a theologically unsound pastor in order to minister to that pastor. Of course, every congregation does minister to its pastor in many ways. Nevertheless, the true pastor is called by God first of all to be a shepherd to lead the people in God’s direction. Each pastor’s prime responsibility is the spiritual leadership and development of the congregation. These vital functions are not likely to be carried out successfully by a pastor who lacks deep and genuine love for Jesus Christ, and a mature sense of Biblical authority.

True, God has sometimes used a congregation to bring its pastor to conversion. But this represents a dramatic reversal of roles and should, therefore, be viewed as a miraculous exception. Jesus warned, “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully taught will be like his teacher.” (Luke 6:39, 52, RSV)

The bishop has a nearly impossible job in making pastoral appointments. He is required to appoint every conference member in full connection, the able and the incompetent, the evangelicals and the liberals, the energetic and the lazy, the men and the women, and even the clergy couples. Furthermore, as the church becomes more pluralistic and the clergy more heterogenous, the more difficult it will be to make appointments. The number of “square pegs” and the number of “round holes” are increasing, but the bishop must somehow make the jobs and the ministers come out even at each annual conference.

Furthermore, there is great pressure on the bishop to move the pastor at an increase in salary (or at least the same salary). Thus in looking for a pastor for a specific church, the bishop will tend to consider only persons in a fairly narrow salary range. Salary is probably a major factor in determining appointments, and thus greatly complicates the matching of ideologically compatible congregations and pastors.

In the United Methodist system, some church gets the pastor who is a dud. The UM minister, unlike the Baptist, cannot be unemployed. We may come to that point some day soon, but are not there yet.

To assist in wise appointment-making, the Discipline provides for consultation between local church and annual conference. Th Discipline defines this process as “conferring with the parties affect ed by the process of appointment making [including congregation and parsonage families]. Consultation is not unilateral decision making or notification” (Italics added) (¶528).

Here is protection for the local church against overweening episcopal power. Let it be repeated for emphasis: “Consultation is not unilateral decision-making or notification.” Gone are the days, the Discipline guarantees us, when an autocratic bishop may make an appointment unilaterally, without heeding significant input from others who are involved.

How should this vitally important consultation take place? Paragraph 529.1 spells out the process. It gives the right to initiate it to the pastor, the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, the district superintendent, and/or the bishop. “When a change is imminent, consultation shall take place (italics added) involving the pastor, district superintendent, and the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, as well as the bishop” (¶529.2).

Note the Italics. They are very important. Appointments made without due regard for this provision are improper and may even be illegal. Congregations need to be aware of their rights in this matter. Because the spiritual welfare of the Body of Christ is at stake, churches have a serious obligation to insist on those rights—even to the point of taking appropriate legal action if a bishop should neglect to consult properly with the local church in advance of appointment (¶2520, pg. 565f.; 2542.1c, e, pg. 577).

Excessively arbitrary bishops have been known to consider “consultation” as, “I tell you whom I am sending to be your pastor.” Any church which acquiesces to that kind of injustice does the whole church a disservice.

Many UM congregations are unnecessarily passive participants in the appointment process. They simply accept whoever is sent—often without question, deliberation, or objection . But in the final analysis, considerable power does reside at the local level. As a voluntary organization in a day of declining authoritarianism, the entire church wounds itself when its leaders arbitrarily impose unilateral decisions upon the laity. Besides, if the laypeople leave, who then will pay the light bills, pastor’s salary, and the apportionments?

The current oversupply of clergy in many annual conferences is a factor which the laity needs to recognize. No longer are many conferences in a position to threaten a strong-minded church by warning that no pastor will be sent until the church behaves. Now the tables have turned! Now the local church is doing the conference a favor by providing a place for an appointment out of increasingly surplus pastoral labor force. In today’s overflowing clergy market, with church membership declining and many churches closing, conferences urgently need places to send and support ordained clergy. So it is a buyer’s market for the local church, in many annual conferences.

The oversupply of clergy presents the UM Church with some unique problems. An annual conference cannot have an oversupply of clergy because the number of ministers and the number of jobs must be in balance. We will shut off entrance to keep the balance. This is why the boards of ministry are so crucial at this point in time. The question is whether the conferences will retain the incompetent clergy and restrict admission when there are plenty of qualified applicants.

If the due process of consultation breaks down, does the local church have any recourse? What if a bishop should insist on appointing a pastor considered unacceptable by a local church?

After every other course has been tried to no avail, one drastic final resort remains: to inform the bishop that although he does have authority to send a pastor whom the church does not want, the church will not pay the salary of an unacceptable pastor—or will reduce the salary to the conference minimum. This is a radical stance to take! But occasionally a congregation may be driven to this point.

In one instance, a bishop insisted upon a certain appointment which the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee resisted repeatedly. Finally the committee chairman yielded, saying, “All right. Send the man. But, bishop, you will have to pay his salary.” Confronted by such conviction, the bishop did not persist.

Pastor-Parish Relations Committees need to be sure they know what they are about when negotiating with the conference concerning pastoral appointment. That is, the committee must be sure it has done its homework thoroughly … that it truly reflects the heartbeat of the church … that it knows what the Bible says pastors ought to do … that it has carefully and deliberately thought through the matter of what kind of pastor the church wants and needs … that its actions are bathed in prayer.

Why is all this necessary?

The blame has to rest, first with the local churches themselves, and then ultimately with the conference Boards of Ordained Ministry, For years, many churches have carelessly endorsed for the ministry any interested person, with little or no regard for faith, gifts, and graces. Then, conference boards have often compounded the first mistake by admitting to candidacy, finally ordaining and continuing in ordained status men and women deficient in faith, leadership, and/or pastoral abilities.

Of course, mistakes of judgment are only human. Further, some promising ministerial candidates get lazy, lose their faith and commitment to Christ, or otherwise fail to develop.

Thus an incredible range of diverse theological and personal competence is represented in our denomination’s ministry. From the annual conference grab bag, a bishop may pull out a unitarian, a liberal, an evangelical … a competent or incompetent … each bearing identical, valid credentials as a United Methodist minister in good standing.

Taken together, the disciplinary provisions give to the local church a good deal of “clout”—more than most churches realize they possess. However, this power must be exercised with discretion, under the wise supervision of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise the appointive process can easily degenerate into bareknuckle combat between the local church and the annual conference. When this happens, all parties suffer, and the Body of Christ is usually harmed. All concerned need to exercise both power and restraint in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

It is usually unwise for a church to name names of acceptable or desired pastors to the bishop and superintendent. Requests should be made on the basis of principle rather than personality. That is, let the church make a reasonable case for the type of congregation it is, the types of needs it senses in itself, the type of pastor who could best help the church develop its ministry.

Recently a local church sought advice regarding a pastoral change because it feared getting a person whose chief qualification was that he fitted the right salary bracket. The church was urged to make its feelings known and to “beat on the bishop’s desk if necessary.” What happened? The church received the type of minister it wanted and needed. The committee chairman was astounded but pleased. “I didn’t think we could influence the appointment of our pastor,” be beamed, “but we did!”

The point to be remembered is that a congregation must know clearly what it wants and needs in a pastor. Then it must make the specifications known through its Pastor-Parish Relations Committee. Finally, the local church must persist without compromise on principles made clear in Scripture. This includes eventual submission to authority (Romans 13:1-7). Authorities, for their part, will be held accountable by God for their own decisions, which, if unwise, may result in permanent loss of unity, driving out faithful members, economic chaos, and setting an un-Christlike model.

Going for a personal visit with the superintendent and/or bishop often helps. In this regard, a word of caution: a congregation must speak only through its duly authorized representatives, the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee. This is not to muzzle the membership; it is a security measure protecting the church, the pastor, and the appointing authorities. Every church has its lunatic fringe, those perennial malcontents who act alone in contacting district superintendents and bishops with protests and demands that the pastor be moved. If a superintendent or bishop should be unwise enough to heed such “end runs” around the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, they would undermine the integrity upon which their leadership depends. Should this happen, the local church ought to object strenuously.

This, of course, underscores the vital importance of having as Pastor-Parish Relations Committee members people who are mature Christians, dedicated to the advancement of God’s Kingdom and the welfare of Christ’s Church above all other considerations.

This important committee has a number of significant responsibilities in its role as liaison between pastor and congregation. These are described in the ·Discipline, paragraph 260.2 and elsewhere. But pertinent to the appointment of pastors is paragraph 260.2.d.7, pg. 148. When it becomes “evident that the best interests of the charge and minister(s) will be served by a change of minister(s),” it becomes the responsibility of this committee to “cooperate with the minister(s), the district superintendent, and the bishop in securing clergy leadership. Its relationship to the district superintendent and the bishop shall be advisory only.”

The last statement should not discourage a committee from exercising its full responsibilities, rights, privileges, and powers as outlined above. Happily, conference officials usually desire to cooperate with congregations in providing the quality of pastoral leadership that will truly serve the best interests of all. To accomplish this requires that all concerned participate in a careful, responsible manner to make the consultative process work. Much prayer, by everyone, is needed if the final results are to please God.

When the bishop, “basing his judgment on the information and advice derived from consultation, makes the appointment,” (¶529.5), the parties involved “shall be” notified “before a public announcement is made” (¶529.6). Thus the congregation, as well as the pastor, is to be accorded what may be called generous consideration, given the nature of the episcopal system and the itinerancy, under which all clergy “in full connection” are subject to annual appointment by the bishop-and under which every church is guaranteed a qualified pastor.

We welcome comments on this article, and especially encourage Good News readers to furnish helpful examples of how the appointment process has functioned in your experience. The Editors.

[1] Since many claim their “convictional stance” is “Biblical,” it should be explained that by this term we mean (1) regarding the Bible as prime authority for faith and life; (2) the main business of the church is winning the lost to saving faith; and (3) facilitating growth toward Christian maturity, viewed as the perfect pattern of Jesus Christ.


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