A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, May 21, 2010

What About Mediocre Churches?

The United Methodist Church's Commission to Study Ministry has offered its report to the Council of Bishops, which it will also offer in final draft to the 2012 General Conference. The Commission will recommend dropping the guaranteed appointment for ordained elders since "'[g]uaranteed appointments' are a major factor contributing to mediocrity and ineffectiveness and emphasize the needs of the ministers rather than the mission of the church."

I concur. The practice of guaranteed pastoral appointments leads to mediocrity in much the same way as a labor union protects ineffective workers. Those who are being served are neglected in favor of protecting the guild.

But I would like for the Commission to consider an additional recommendation. Not only should the UMC not guarantee appointments for pastors due to mediocrity and ineffectiveness, neither should the UMC guarantee appointing pastors to mediocre and ineffective churches. More than a few effective pastors are struggling with low morale and depression because they have been appointed to churches that are more interested in self-service than service to the world. These are churches that say they want to grow but refuse to do what is necessary to evangelize. These are churches who want to simply be fed rather than feeding others in discipleship and in works of charity and service. These are churches that see the empty pews on Sunday morning and reminisce about the people who used to sit there, instead of being motivated to do what is necessary to put new people in those empty spaces. These are churches that cannot understand why people are not beating down the doors to get into the building since what they do at church works for them; therefore, it ought to work for everybody. These are churches who have such an "ediface complex" that they refuse to move beyond the church building walls in mission to the community and the world. These are churches who blame their decline on not having the right pastor, as if a pastor can revitalize a church all by herself.

So, I think it would be a good idea to say to mediocre clergy, "If you are ineffective, you will not be in a pulpit." At the same time, I think we should also say to mediocre churches, "If you are ineffective, you will not receive a pastor."

Actually, I have an even better idea-- let's appoint ineffective pastors to ineffective churches so they can enjoy their highest level of mediocrity together. And let's appoint only effective clergy to effective churches, so that they can pursue excellence in discipleship and mission. And let us also remember that there are effective and visionary congregations who end up with a mediocre pastor with little vision. Those churches get just as demoralized as the effective pastors serving ineffective congregations.

But what do I know? I have never been a bishop nor a district superintendent, nor would I ever want to be. I have been a lowly pastor for twenty-six years and whether or not I have been effective in my office, I truly have no idea.
Update: Matthew Kelley and John Meunier weigh in with their thoughts. Check it out.


Craig L. Adams said...

I think the idea of appointing ineffective pastors to ineffective churches has already been tried. And, its a bad idea.

Anonymous said...

How about ineffective bishops and district superintendents? What do we do with THEM? (not that I've known any or anything....)

Jonathan Marlowe said...

Very good thoughts here, Allan. The idea of putting ineffective pastors with ineffective churches is one that has been recommended to our cabinet by consultants. Seriously. It is the only way the church will ever wake up the reality of their situation. I don't know if they have ever intentionally done it yet or not.

Craig L. Adams said...

Pairing ineffective pastors with ineffective church has been done - it just isn't officially acknowledged as being that. It's a matter of putting a person somewhere where it is perceived that they can do the least damage.

robert rogers said...

Great post; you raise some good points in which I am in total agreement. I believe that the medocrity of the UMC lies in its mediocre spiritual life of its members from the top level down to the pew.The denominational leaders need to bear some responsiblity since they have, at times, set up worldy ways of "being" and "doing" church, influencing the mentality of many pastors, leading to spiritual ineffectiveness, and therefore, ministerial ineffectiveness. I think your assesment is spot on when you state that most people want to be "fed" rather than make disciples. However, if they have been fed right, there would be a desire to make disciples; most lay spirituality will reflect that of the leadership. Emphasis on community and the classical spiritual disciplines, rather than denonminational programing will breed a growth through the UMC. Perhaps the UMC leasdership should step back and ask why their own denomination is declining while the Pentecoatal, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox churches are gaining membership. Maybe they should bear some of the responsibilty for church decline as well.

Kurt M. Boemler said...

I'm one of those depressed and demoralized pastors, and I'm not even commissioned yet. I was deceived regarding the health of the church I currently serve, and I have received no real support from the hierarchy to help me grow this church. As a SLP, I'm expected to baby sit this church--provide ecclesical hospice care, if you will. I'm afraid of my next appointment. I feel like this church has broken me in ways I don't quite yet understand and it will affect my effectiveness there. This commission report doesn't seem to take issues like that into consideration.

Eric Helms said...

Many good points--While ineffective pastors need to not be in ministry--measuring effectiveness is terribly difficult, especially when you are trying to decipher whether an effective church struggles due to an ineffective pastor or vice-versa, or both.

Another problem--nobody would admit that they are ineffective. Is that the bishop's discretion? What if the bishop is wrong; or simply has a bad history with a particular pastor having nothing to do with ministry effectiveness?

If you do away with guaranteed appointments, what does that do to women and minority pastors who serve in areas of the country still dealing with patriarchal and racial issues?

Are the demands of itinerant ministry without the guaranteed appointment a fair distribution of accountability? Am I expect to go wherever the bishop sends me--even if to a dying church I am expected to turn around--knowing that if I fail it may be my last appointment? At least in a call system where this is neither guaranteed placement nor itenerancy, a pastor may determine that a church has a low potential for effective ministry under their leadership and not take the call.

Finally, there already exists a system by which a pastor can be brought up on charges of being ineffective. If ineffectiveness is demonstrable, they can be removed from ministry. This is already happening in New Jersey. To take away guaranteed appointments in the name of effectiveness is to say that we want to remove the burden from the cabinet of having to demonstrate a person is ineffective--they can simply not appoint a person without demonstrating a lack of effectiveness--that seems lazy and potentially unjust.

Craig L. Adams said...

Hmm. Maybe the itinerant system is currently encouraging some degree of mediocrity in both the clergy and the churches. Elders get a church. Churches get a pastor. Neither side needs to prove anything. And, if things don't go well they can blame each other - or the Bishop & cabinet.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Thanks for the comments one and all. This is a critical discussion so let's keep the thoughts coming.

Mark, you are polite not to say it but I will. I have known ineffective bishops and district superintendents and they can turn the local church into a mess when it comes to appointments. Of course, I have also known very effective bishops and superintendents as well. So, we need to pray that we elect spirit-filled and effective bishops and that the same kind of superintendents get appointed.

Eric, you make a good point. While I am sure the commission's motives are sincere, it is appropriate to raise the question as to whether such a change would make bishops and superintendents less accountable in deciding not to appoint an elder.

Let me add one more question to the discussion. If guaranteed appointments are no more, then shouldn't the itinerancy be abolished as well. We all know pastor's spouses who have given up good jobs which often pay more than their clergy spouses in order to be appointed to another church. Why should an elder be forced to move to a strange place to a difficult church, make sacrifices for the sake of the system, only to be told down the road that she or he is not going to be re-appointed due to ineffectiveness?

If guaranteed appointments go by the wayside maybe we need to transition to some kind of assignment system where the bishop requests that elders move here or there, but cannot enforce it.

What do you think?

Lauren said...

Great post. I agree with much of what you say. If we're going to evaluate the effectiveness of pastors in the appointment process, we need to evaluate the effectiveness of congregations as well. I know some conferences are already doing this to some degree, though I don't know how much it's affected pastoral appointments just yet.

I would agree with Craig above. Appointing ineffective pastors to ineffective churches has been tried (usually unofficially), and it doesn't seem to have worked all that well. If anything, it has contributed to the further decline of the UMC. It would be better not to send such churches a pastor at all.

I also think you are very right about the connection between guaranteed appointments and itineracy. It seems unrealistic to expect to maintain the one while disposing of the other. If we really expect pastors to make themselves available for an appointment anywhere at anytime, then we absolutely must provide an appointment for them every time.

Great discussion. Thanks for raising the question.

PamBG said...

I can totally see that pairing ineffective pastors with ineffective churches would be a bad idea.

As someone who has absolutely no ax to grind as I'm not a UMC pastor...I get the impression that in the UMC the pastor who is assigned to a Very Intractable Ineffective Church will end up labeled as an ineffective pastor. That bit bothers me a lot; it seems like a recipe for taking good pastors and chewing them up and spitting them out. I'm afraid that I think the denomination has the wrong benchmark here.

cspogue said...

There is NO guarantee for churches to get a full-time elder. Plenty of our churches get students, local pastors, retirees, etc. Also, there are more churches that are closed than clergy who have been charged with ineffectiveness.

There isn't another job (including clergy in other denominations) that carry a guaranteed salary. Itineracy has been part of Methodism from the beginning but more pastors are being allowed to stay in place for longer periods of time. Guaranteed appointment was added to the polity in 1956 to guarantee appointments for female clergy.

We do need to transition to a shorter (and less expensive) path for a M.Div and to consider whether second-career clergy should be ordained or whether they should be local pastors. Perhaps, one idea is to provide an appeal to the clergy session which should sustain the bishop's decision and would act as a deterrent to improper actions.

Chuck Tackett said...

Great posts. I would concur with the need to abolish itineracy if you abolish guaranteed appointments.

I would disagree with one point made by Robert above. The notion that a properly fed congregation should perform in a particular positive manner seems to ring false to me.

As a lay person I have seen a number of good pastors give all they have to congregations, including my own, only to achieve mixed results at best. It's too formulaic to say that if you just feed them right everything will work out.

There must be a genuine, spirit-led effort by the lay leadership, with the support and encouragement of the pastor, to to build an effective church.

I would be very interested to see what the criteria for ineffectiveness will be. From my standpoint the most important criteria would be how well a pastor fosters a fruitful lay leadership.

Eric Helms said...

Another thought on this...

"If mediocrity and ineffectiveness" is significantly increased by the guaranteed appointment, then we would expect to see less "mediocrity and ineffectiveness" in denominations where there is no guaranteed appointment. One would expect the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches abounding with effectiveness as Pastor's must competitively prove their effectiveness. This is not the case--Presbyterians and Lutherans, despite their lack of guaranteed appointment are in the same boat as the United Methodists.

The connecting factor between mediocre denominations? The process by which we train and receive new clergy. We have a highly academic education followed by rigorous denominational board interviews. Maybe there is something more at the heart of who we are as a denomination that contributes to ineffectiveness than whether or not clergy in good standing are guaranteed an appointment.

Allan R. Bevere said...


An interesting observation. My guess is that the deeper problem is that mediocrity is the norm. Another word for mediocrity is average.

PamBG said...

I have a very strange context at the moment and I give my context only because it explains my perspective.

As a British Methodist Minister (Presbyter, equivalent of "Elder") in associate membership in a UMC Church in the United States, I get invited to what I would call "clergy fellowship" events: study groups for the clergy, fellowship services for clergy, etc. I do not get invited to the more "official" events like Conference. From Sunday to Sunday, I mainly function as any other member of the congregation. And since I did not grow up in the UMC, I'm also still trying to figure out polity and "how things are run".

The message I'm personally getting from the pulpit - despite there always being genuine Gospel good news in every sermon every Sunday - is "You people are broken and need fixing". Which is also the message I'm getting from UMC blogdom.

Speaking with my "person in the pew" hat on...on the one hand, I know that I need "fixing", that I need sanctification because I'm a sinner. On the other hand, I'm not sure that feeling like someone thinks I need fixing week in and week out is actually the way that I'm going to get sanctified. It's like telling a child "stop misbehaving" but never telling him what he's expected to do to be "behaving".

It's all very discouraging. There is something very - the only word I can think of is - "satanic" about being constantly told "You need fixing but I'm not going to show you what 'fixed' looks like (because I don't really know either?)". I'm also getting the impression from blogdom that UMC pastors feel that they are getting told that they need fixing too?

I don't believe that people can be led by "negation"; we have to be shown very concretely what we are trying to strive for.

In the British Methodist Church, we beat ourselves up all the time about our declining numbers, but I think we also believe for the most part that a lot of "genuine Christianity" is happening at the local congregational level.

What I'm experiencing now in the UMC feels a lot more like hopelessness. I'll leave long-time UMCers to interpret my observations because I don't have the experience to do so.

Allan R. Bevere said...


You write, "What I'm experiencing now in the UMC feels a lot more like hopelessness."

I think you sum it up quite well.

What that all means, I do not know. I am also quite aware of the fact that I may be part of the problem and not the solution.

PamBG said...

I just said something quite like the following on John Meunier's blog. I've said it many times and I feel like I'm a minority of one, but I'm pretty convinced that this perception is in the general ball-park of having some accuracy.

I'm convinced that people in general no longer want to go to church.

What happened in the past was that people in general did want to go to church. If you were a reasonably good preacher, a reasonably good leader/manager and the congregation was reasonably functional, people would keep joining. I believe that the community and the congregation I now belong to still fits this model (I'm actually quite clear on why I think it does fit the model, but I won't go into that.)

So the church has leaders who are operating on three assumptions:
1) Any endeavor that is in a healthy state will grow;
2) When I was a parish pastor, I had no problems getting new people joining my church;
3) Therefore if a congregation isn't growing, the problem can't be exogenous demand but rather endogenous problems...most likely bad leadership on the part of the pastor.

I think we are at the turning point where "exogenous demand for church" is tipping into the negative and that this is not being fully recognized. If all the blame is going to be put on pastors for this, it's just a recipe for pastor burn-out. One of the greatest sources of stress is trying to change things that cannot be changed.

I can already hear the theological arguments too and I think they are an ecclesial version of prosperity theology: "But God WANTS people to come to his Gospel and a pastor who is really anointed by God will draw the crowds to him".

I genuinely feel that I've seen real, spirit-filled, passionate Christians come into ministry with this mind-set: "*I'm* faithful so if we pray hard enough, the people will come". And the people don't come so they either need to rethink their mind-set or they become discouraged. Of course, the counter to my argument is that I've got my perceptions all wrong and none of these people were actually faithful to God and that's why he's not honoring their prayers. But I really don't think so.

For whatever reason, God is allowing our society its own choices. There is plenty of biblical precedent for this. It's NOT an excuse to stop communicating the Gospel, but I do think it's a better perspective than thinking one is part of the problem. Even if we can't see the harvest of our planting, I don't believe that any faithful Christian is "part of the problem".

Mark Edwards said...

An effective pastor wont be in a inneffective church for long.
he will either leave...or better, transition and grow that church into an effective one. That is his job after all.

PamBG said...

If we accept that the definition of an "effective" pastor is a person who can transform any congregation, no matter how difficult and dysfunctional it has been in the past, then how can a pastor just leave and continue to consider himself an "effective" pastor? Surely, he'd have to consider himself a "failure"?

Eric Helms said...

I agree with Pam's sentiment above, but Mark's comment might suggest a grim reality that could exist and if it does must be addressed--that is an ineffective pastor in an ineffective church and both are okay with the situation, and happy to continue without change. The problem is, such churches often fly under the radar because they don't make a lot of noise--the Pastor and the church agree everything is fine despite doing nothing significant for the kingdom of God.