Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
The Methodist tradition is distinct among streams of Protestantism in practicing ministerial appointment. Appointment means that bishops (in the UMC; other titles apply in other Methodist bodies), in consultation with others (the cabinet, ministers, and congregations), assign ministers to serve congregations. Both ministers and congregations get input in that process, but the ultimate decision of which ministers serve which churches is up to the bishop and her cabinet.
This appointive approach contrasts with a call system, which is employed by most Protestants with a primarily congregational polity (such as Baptists, UCCs, and Presbyterians), in which a congregational committee puts out a job posting for a minister, screens applicants, and ultimately decides whom to hire. There are modified call systems, such as those used by the Lutherans and Episcopalians, in which bishops help connect churches looking for ministers and ministers looking for churches. Nevertheless, in these modified call systems, congregations still make the final decisions about who to hire as a minister.
There are good and bad aspects of all these systems of matching pastors and congregations. One of the positives often touted about the Methodist appointment system is that it allows for a more “missional” approach to deploying ministers. In the words of the Indiana Conference:
“We believe that missional appointments will be strategic in attempts to match the characteristics of the congregation and community with the gifts and strengths of the pastor to maximize our fruitfulness in the transforming work of reaching people with the Gospel and leading them to become and live as disciples of Jesus. We will expect to be very intentional to pair our brightest and best pastors with churches that have demonstrated a high degree of readiness to make disciples.”
To ensure that pastoral gifts and ministry contexts match, the Book of Discipline (¶ 427) states, “Appointments shall take into account the unique needs of a charge, the community context, and also the gifts and evidence of God’s grace of a particular pastor.” The goal is for the church and ministry context to which a pastor is appointed to fit “with gifts, evidence of God’s grace, professional experience and expectations, and the family needs of the pastor” (BOD ¶ 428.5.a).
In the United States, there is one important criterion in pastoral appointments that is not explicitly spelled out on this list: finances. The BOD mentions the “financial condition” of a church as a sub-point on a list of relevant information about congregations (¶ 427.1.a), but that underscores the role of congregational finances in the appointive process.
In the United States, United Methodist clergy are predominantly paid by the congregation they serve. Health insurance, pensions, and other benefits are usually pooled through the annual conference or denomination, but take-home pay comes from the congregation. Most annual conferences have equitable compensation funds that can supplement the amount a congregation pays so that clergy are still paid the conference minimum salary. Equitable compensation funds, though, tend to be used in limited situations rather than as a main means of funding pastoral payrolls in US annual conferences.
Thus, because pastors are paid by congregations and because not all congregations can afford to pay their pastor the same amount, the cabinets of US annual conferences must take finances into consideration when making appointments. In general, pastors are not given pay cuts when they are assigned to new congregations. Thus, pastors are only assigned to congregations that can pay them as much or more than their last congregation.
This creates a career ladder system within the US apportionment system that introduces a variety of considerations other than missional fit when making apportionments. Cabinets must consider pastors’ previous salaries, churches’ ability to pay, and where pastors could go in future appointments. Pastors have a financial incentive to seek appointment to better-paying churches, since that will impact their income potentially for the rest of their careers. This also puts pastors in competition with one another, since the number of high-paying churches in any given annual conference is limited.
These additional factors limit cabinets’ abilities to make appointments based on purely missional reasons. If there is a church and ministry context that would fit very well with a particular pastor’s ministry skills, but that congregation can only pay the minimum salary, and the pastor currently makes more than minimum, it is highly unlikely that she/he would be appointed to that church, regardless of how well her/his gifts fit the missional opportunities present.
Moreover, while one of the benefits of the appointive system is that it ensures women and racial and ethnic minorities are given appointments, the congregational payment system can lead to compounding systemic discrimination against women and minorities in their income. If white men are given better churches early in their career, whether that is because of unconscious bias by congregations or cabinets, gendered assumptions about the need for men to be primary breadwinners, or because some churches “just aren’t ready for a woman/minority pastor,” that is a financial leg up that will continue to boost that white man’s earnings above those of his female and minority colleagues for the rest of his career.
Thus, the two main benefits of the appointive system—missional fit and ensuring the rights of women and minorities—are undermined by the congregational payment system used in the US church.
The congregational payment system, however, is not required. Nowhere is it prescribed in the Book of Discipline, nor is it the only option under US law. Indeed, several branches of United Methodism outside the United States have adopted a different system, in which the annual conference, episcopal area, or central conference pays all pastors out of a central pool of money. This centralized approach to paying pastors has the potential to overcome the problems outlined above with a congregational system of payment.
In the coming weeks, UM & Global will profile two examples of centralized systems of paying pastors: those used in Germany and in Zimbabwe. These two examples, which will be written up by the people running those systems, are offered up as model for the US church to learn from and to potentially consider for their own adoption.