Archive for the ‘Methodism’ Category

A few weeks ago United Methodists from around the country gathered together for Jurisdictional Conferences.  Their main task was electing new bishops to serve in their jurisdictions.  Since I knew nothing about the process I followed a lot of the balloting using a livestream and also followed conversations on Twitter.

A lot of the discussion on Twitter centered around the minority candidates and how important it was to elect bishops who brought diversity, including gender and racial diversity.  I found myself of two minds on the topic.  So, since I don’t always know what I think until I speak or write my position, here goes.

1) On the one hand, Strong leaders should be able to lead regardless of gender, ethnicity, etc.  Professionalism and spiritual leadership are what we need most as bishops.  Presumably any candidate who reaches this point would make for a good bishop.  Hopefully our episcopal leaders can represent all of the people in their conferences.  The Body of Christ is diverse, which is a wonderful thing, and that means not everyone can be lead by someone who looks or sounds like them.

Furthermore quotas, or even the appearance of quotas, can raise questions.  I’ve seen leaders both in and outside the church who were ineffective.  Regardless of why they were appointed or hired, people whispered that it was only to fill a quota.  Even if they were actually effective, those whispers undermined their authority.

2) On the other hand, a lack of diverse leaders will undermine the leadership of minority leaders.  That was an awkward sentence but hopefully I can explain.  When minorities in particular professions do not seem leaders who represent them, they can subconsciously feel at a disadvantage.  It’s called “stereotype threat.”

Take a woman professional a in science field.  There is an unfortunate and erroneous stereotype that women are bad at math.  A female scientist doesn’t see very many other women in her field and so that seems to validate the stereotype. When in conversation with other male scientists she then can sound less confident, less sure of herself, which the people studying this phenomenon think may be attributed to an internal struggle within her subconscious to “prove” she belongs..  (For more information, check out this link: http://www.npr.org/2012/07/12/156664337/stereotype-threat-why-women-quit-science-jobs)

I have little doubt that similar phenomenon occurs in the ministry field.  The ministry is still seen as a male profession in many circles.  I know female clergy face a number of additional challenges that I, as a male, do not.  The space feels different.  Some of them may never had a female clergy mentor or even seen a female minister growing up.  That lack of visibility makes the calling to ordained ministry that much harder for women to answer.  I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to my friends who are African-American in the UMC (which is predominately white) but I imagine their experience is similar.

So if we don’t have diverse leaders in the highest positions, does that send a subtle message to potential new clergy that we don’t want them?  Or, at the very least, that their presence will be more difficult?  By continuing to elect bishops who look like bishops have always looked, are we hamstringing future leaders in the church?  I know my own jurisdiction (the Southeast Jurisdiction) did a fair job of electing a diverse group of bishops.  But even still, the North Alabama Conference is receiving its first female bishop and I’m sure there are other annual conferences that have never been served by a woman.  To say nothing of African-American, Asian-American or other racial minority bishops within our jurisdiction.

At the end of the day, I’m still torn on how to respond.  But I think it is wise to recognize that “stereotype threat” doesn’t affect me in the same way it affects other clergy.  As a white male, I don’t have to struggle against a stereotype in my calling to ordained ministry.  I don’t know what that feels like.  And no matter how hard I work to support my colleagues in ministry, I cannot be a visible minority presence.  So perhaps, for the good of the church and her future, we need to think more deeply about who our leaders represent, less we discourage gifted candidates from entering or completing the process.

What do you think?


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Great post on how to be in prayer for the United Methodist Church as we prepare for General Conference.


Direct link to the 50 days of prayer resource: Take the Fifty Day Journey.

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Comics and Itinerancy

As I listen to friends talk about comic books and authors, I’m struck by some of the similarities to the Methodist itinerant system.

My friends don’t like particular authors.  Sometimes it’s writing style, dialogue, character development, or something they just can’t quite put their finger on.  They just don’t gel with all authors.  There’s nothing wrong with that; you can’t please everyone after all.  So my friends run into a problem when an author they don’t like is picked to work on a story for a character or team they love.  When this happens, they have two options.

#1) Buy the book anyway.  They tell themselves “I love (Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Alpha Flight, etc) enough that maybe things will be ok.”

#2) Wait until a new author picks up the book.  “This author is so bad even seeing my favorite character can’t dull the pain.”

Option 2 might surprise you.  If they love that comic title so much, why wouldn’t they buy every issue?  Why would a fan ever consider skipping an issue?

They can do this because they know comic book authors rotate.  With the major labels like Marvel and DC, authors move from title to title.  So often if they’re willing to wait on their favorite title, the author they don’t like will leave and a new one will come.

A similar phenomenon happens in the United Methodist Church.  Since Methodist pastors move around, you can count on them not being at one church forever.  Several years ago Methodist pastors moved like clockwork every 3 years.  The denomination is moving to longer tenures but clergy still move regularly.  What this can mean is that church members who have a problem with the current pastor will leave until a new pastor comes and then return.  (I’m sure this happens in other denominations but I can only write what I know.)

It feels like the same theory as the comic books.  And in some ways it is.  However, there’s one major difference.  Comic book readers can only make their voice heard through sales.  Church members have the opportunity to voice their concerns and try to work out solutions with their pastor.  It’s not a perfect system but it’s certainly better for the health of the church.

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The United Methodist Church recently completed another season of Board of Ordained Ministry interviews. Those persons hoping to serve as ordained clergy in the church had to prepare responses to a number of questions and then be interviewed by the board. This is always a difficult season as people who feel they have a calling to ministry may not have that call recognized by the church.

It occurs to me that the church seems to be suffering from what Amy Laura Hall calls an “ethic of scarcity” when it comes to ordination. Either the annual conference does not have enough elders and is concerned about filling pulpits or the conference doesn’t have enough jobs for those coming in. This leads to fear on the part of conference leaders or the Board withholding ordination from worthy candidates because they have no place to send them.

Hall’s response to an “ethic of scarcity” is to embrace God’s “ethic of abundance.” Throughout Scripture, we observe that where human eyes see little, God finds enough, even abundance. How would the church change the process to recognize God’s abundance in the church? Is there a better way to acknowledge the various ways that God calls people to a variety of vocations? Amidst the declining numbers of ordained clergy and those seeking ordination, can the church find a new way to see the leaders available?

Personally, I think our Methodist sense of connection provides one possibility. Why isn’t there a greater ability for elders to serve in other conferences “on loan” from where they were ordained? Once a conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry deems someone fit to serve, they should be able to serve anywhere. Instead of denying or putting their ordination on hold, assuming they don’t have issues they need to work on, why not allow them to serve in a conference that needs elders? Obviously not all of those up for ordination would want to choose this option. But for some, the choice between not serving or serving somewhere else would be an easy one.

What would you change to help the United Methodist Church (or church universal) see God’s abundance?

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Like any system, the itinerant system is not perfect.  Especially as family and economic systems change, our system has not changed completely with them.  There has been some change.  In years past, Methodist pastors moved every three years without fail.  Now tenures are increasing.  Also, in the past, Methodist pastors tended to be a two-for-one deal.  Pay the pastor’s salary and the church gets his wife’s labor for free.  As more women are ordained and more families have both spouses working, this trend is no longer reasonable.

Having two working spouses raises considerable questions for pastors seeking placements.  Does their spouse have a job that is easily moved?  If not, how do they respond to placements that move them further?  The growing trend of clergy spouses further complicates the process.  How far apart are bishops willing to place them?  Can they be placed in the same church and if so, what does that dynamic look like?

Unfortunately, one of the major reasons pastors move is tied to salary concerns.  As pastors gain experience, they move up the ladder so to speak in terms of what salary they earn.  This often means that pastors must move to larger churches or at least make lateral moves (to a church of comparable size) as they continue in ministry.  While not a bad thing in and of itself, it does raise concerns about whether all moves are for the benefit of the church and pastor.  Perhaps that pastor is not suited to large church ministry but would prefer to remain in smaller churches.  That may not be possible without willingly taking a pay cut.

One solution to this would be to have pastors paid through the conference rather than the individual churches.  If pastor salaries were a part of the apportionments that all Methodist churches are supposed to pay, then pastors could be paid by their experience level rather than the size of the church.  This would offer the bishops more freedom in how they appoint pastors.  On the other hand, if churches did not pay their appointments then pastors would be out their salary.  I don’t know if this method changes pastor’s tax status, which would be something else to consider.  Current pastors I know have suggested that this model would reduce a drive for pastors to succeed and be moved up in the system.  As I’ve said before, no system is perfect.

What do you think?  Is the current system fine?  If not, what changes would you recommend?

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As I shared in my last sermon, knowing the Methodist practice of itinerancy was one of my largest struggles with ministry. After getting over the initial shock of the call and putting aside my feelings of inadequacy for the task of shepherding God’s people, I wrestled for a long time with itinerancy. Could I handle moving that much when I’ve never moved before? (College doesn’t count. I still keep a lot of stuff at home.) Could I trust the system with my ministry?

One pastor’s outlook on the system helped me a great deal early on. In today’s economic system, job opportunities can move people across countries, even continents. Methodist pastors never leave home. You just have to expand your definition of home. Hearing from families looking back on the experience has also been enlightening. Most, if not all, admit that moving is hard in the moment. Not everyone was ready to move each time. But many expressed their appreciation for what the system brought them as well. For example, loving friends and extended “family” in several places around the conference.

I still wrestle with itinerancy, albeit differently. It’s my elephant when considering conferences, relationships, and ministry. Would I be comfortable moving around a particular conference or do I feel tied to one specific area? What does this mean for my goals of a spouse and family? How much of a role does the system play in who I date? How on board with itinerancy do they need to be beforehand? What does my ministry look like in this setting? While not entirely up to me, what kinds of appointments might I look for? Do I want to start as an associate, learn the ropes under the tutelage of another? Is preaching so central to my call that I would rather start in a small rural church?

In one sense, I’ve quit worrying about itinerancy. I know I can’t get rid of it and I’m not entirely sure I would want to even if I could. So I’ve accepted it. But the questions remain. Like Jacob, I’ve wrestled with God over this. Now I can only hope and pray that like Israel, God will bless me for it. Hopefully without getting thrown out of joint.

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        After my last sermon, I’ve been thinking more about the itinerancy system in the Methodist church.  So here’s a two-part reflection on the system that may expand to three depending on how I feel. Part one is a general reflection. Part two will be a more personal look at the system. If there is a part three, it will include some suggestions for changes.

         Itinerancy is certainly one of the elephants in the room when talking about the Methodist church, especially for entering clergy.  Although I don’t know any studies, I imagine the lengthy ordination process, concerns over student loans, and itinerancy round out the top three concerns.  They likely vary in importance depending on the individual but I bet all three are there.
        Itinerancy is a tricky thing.  On the one hand, it’s an honored tradition of the Methodist church, hearkening back to the days of the circuit riders.  It emphasizes the biblical model of apostleship, that leaders are sent rather than called to places of service.
        On the other hand, it can be difficult on clergy and churches alike.  We see the good that can come from an established pastor; how much they can lead and grow a church.  We see families and churches struggle with moving day, especially when one or both parties feel a move is a mistake.
        So is it worth it?  How do we look at it faithfully?

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