A recently-published series of articles on UMC.org describes how the use of local pastors in the denomination has been on the rise over the past five years. This increased reliance by the church on local pastors demonstrates some of the tensions between the UMC's nature as a missional movement and its nature as an established institution.
As the articles make clear, the use of local pastors has been very important especially in missional settings that involves reaching new or marginalized populations - in Hispanic outreach in the US, in growing areas of the Central Conferences, in new church starts among all groups in the US, and in small, rural churches that lack resources, but which the church is committed to serving. Local pastors can be developed and deployed more quickly and more cheaply than elders, which make them ideal in these settings.
Nevertheless, the expanded use of local pastors also creates or enlarges problems in terms of the UMC's institutional structure. It raises questions about our theology of ordination, especially when local pastors itinerate in the same way as elders. What exactly does ordination mean if non-ordained local pastors fill most of the same roles as ordained elders? These questions can be particularly thorny when it comes to ecumenical relations with church bodies that have stronger theologies of ordination. The distinctions between local pastors and elders also create questions surrounding equity in terms of pay and representation in church decision-making. Do the distinctions between local pastors and elders in effect privilege those with the financial wherewithal to obtain a seminary degree? Do they privilege conferences with the means to pay the higher salaries of elders?
There are no ready solutions to these problems. Indeed, it is probably best to think of these not necessarily as problems, but as tensions - tensions between the need of the church to maintain flexibility for the sake of missional outreach and the need of the church to develop fair, consistent, and theologically-grounded systems and structures. We as United Methodists need to learn to live with these tensions. Fortunately, living with tensions should be part of our Wesleyan heritage - the tension between movement and institution, between divine and human initiative, between head and heart. It may not be easy, but it may also be necessary for our future.