One piece of clarity that came from the recent General Conference in Tampa is that almost everyone is ready for end of guaranteed appointments in the UMC. The vast majority of the UMC is ready for a renewed sense of accountability for elders.
A number of people have expressed concern to me about the implications this change will have regarding the appointment of women and people of color, including many at the Claremont School of Theology where I teach. In reality, guaranteeing appointments for Elders in full connection did have the effect of mandating some churches receive women and people of color as pastors who otherwise would not have hired them. But it also hindered accountability for elders. Ineffective elders kept receiving appointments while competent seminary graduates were often held back in the ordination process. Making accountability and effectiveness in church leadership the priority will, I think, actually make it easier for highly competent new seminary graduates (including women, people of color, and men) to receive full time appointments. Here are a few reasons why.
First, bishops will still make appointments. As many women and people of color are aware, racism and sexism are still alive and well in pockets of the UMC. My wife is an Elder and can attest to this. And yes, there are a few churches that prefer a young white male. But the majority of bishops have clearly demonstrated their willingness to lead in helping make the UMC clergy very inclusive of women and people of color. UMC bishops are (though some might cite a few exceptions) highly committed to a diverse clergy and will not stand for racist and sexist SPR committees. (See Bishop John R. Schol’s thoughtful letter to the clergy in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference regarding how he will lead.) If the UMC were a called system like most Presbyterian and Baptist churches I’d be very concerned for competent women and people of color. In called systems the local church has almost total say in who is hired. But with the UMC’s current bishops, and the new accountability built into the appointment process, women and people of color will be highly valued in appointment making.
Second, competence will now be the primary trait churches and cabinets look for, and they will not be forced to keep appointing clergy who have been ineffective for years.
This is important because recent seminary graduates. I’ve noticed that people on the Elder track who receive a “not at this time” from their Board of Ordained Ministry tend to respond in one of two ways. Students in annual conferences that are short on clergy know they have to take their contingencies seriously and tend to acknowledge that the issues they need to address are legitimate. On the other hand, students from annual conferences that have too many clergy, and which are having trouble finding appointments to all the existing clergy who are guaranteed an appointment, tend to respond much differently. They tend to believe, often errantly, that the reason for their “not at this time” has less to do with real issues they need to address, and more with a lack of appointments. The result is that they often don’t take their contingencies seriously, often to their detriment. With the demise of the guaranteed appointments applicants are assured that a “not at this time”, and corresponding contingencies, relate to legitimate concerns that must be addressed.
Third, while it is rare for an Annual conference to have a shortage of clergy, the need does arrive occasionally. Students who are willing to move to a new annual conference will have greater opportunities for appointment. Most noticeable is the Detroit Annual Conference that was looking this year and may be looking again for more clergy later this year. Getting rid of the guaranteed appointment will give effective clergy more incentive to move to seek appointments across conference lines that can use their specific gifts. Women and people of color, who are willing to move, will have greater opportunity than ever to serve in churches that need their gifts for ministry.
The picture that emerges then is not a perfect one for women and people of color, but is an improvement, especially for recent grads. All applicants will have to demonstrate competence and creativity as the UMC seeks its way forward. The demise of the guaranteed appointment is, however, a problem for one group of people. That group is Elders who have served ineffectively for years as senior pastors. Most of these persons happen to be white men. The current malaise and decline of the UMC will simply not support clergy who don’t demonstrate gifts for leading local churches, be they white, men, women, or people of color. But graduates and pastors who have gifts, and are willing to work effectively, will find plenty of opportunities to serve in a full time capacity for years to come.