May 2, 2012 Tom Berlin

No Guarantees

I lost my guaranteed appointment Tuesday at General Conference.  It was there one minute and gone the next, like the car keys I misplaced a few weeks ago.  It happened during the morning consent calendar.  The consent calendar is where petitions that pass through committees and have no financial implications go for approval.  You pass them a bundle at a time unless a group of people sign a form to remove one.  The guaranteed appointment, which had been discussed broadly for months before General Conference, which many felt could never be changed because it was just a part of you as a UM pastor, like the Bible you received at ordination, or your first set of liturgical stoles, was casually dropped into one of these bundles where no one bothered to look.  It was not deceptive.  No one looked because typically you can trust that someone more focused than you will look very closely, find the important ones and pull them out to show the rest of us.

Now, the guaranteed appointment has historically been a very important thing for UM pastors.  When the Methodists merged to include African Americans, and the U.S. was still in the fog that followed everything from the Civil War to Jim Crow laws to segregation, the big question was whether white Bishops would even work with these pastors, much less place them in cross –cultural appointments.  When women were ordained, over 50 years ago, the question was whether they would be appointed at all.  Bishops in those days sometimes abused their power by refusing to appoint racial minority persons and women.  The General Conference limited the authority of these Bishops by guaranteeing the pastoral appointment to ordained clergypersons of any race and gender.  A lot of good came from the guaranteed appointment.  It changed the culture of the UMC.  While there are still churches so simple minded to attempt to refuse a pastor based on race or gender, there are no current Bishops that I have ever heard of who think that way.  The UMC has become a place where there is a strong value on racial and gender inclusion, and that is in large part due to the security of appointment pastors were given decades ago.  That is not something you misplace easily.

The difficulty with the guaranteed appointment, however, is that it was guaranteed.  That has some unintended consequences in a shrinking church.   It did not matter how little fruit was borne in the years of a pastor’s ministry, it didn’t matter how poorly he or she performed, that person was always given a church. It was 100% guaranteed. It is a lot like having tenure as a professor without having to spend all that time getting a PhD.  In recent years, many have said that the leadership culture had changed enough that security of appointment was no longer needed for the historic reasons.  It has also been said that there needs to be some way to help ineffective clergy find a new vocational path.  The concern wasn’t just for the church.  It was for ineffective pastors.  When people have to move from church to church, when they are finding more disappointment than accomplishment, life gets hard. Pastoral ministry can be difficult.  It should not be hard because you are just not good at it.  However, when your job has the level of security ours has enjoyed, there is very little incentive for a person to pick up their briefcase and step into God’s future.  This may not be fun, but it is secure.  Humans love security.

Tuesday morning, all that security slipped from a committee’s pocket, landed inside a legislative bundle and was voted into oblivion.  Apparently a group of people tried to pull it out, but there was a technical problem with their request.  An attempt was made to reconsider the vote, but in a moment of unusual decisiveness, the General Conference voted it down.  And that was the last anybody saw of my vocational security.

I have to tell you that as I closed out my day, and considered all the hours I have spent with my guaranteed appointment, and how it’s gone now,

I feel…



Truly, I feel lighter.  Buoyant. Here is the reason: for the first time, if the church wants to, they can (after a bit of a process) release me into an unknown world called what I did after I was a pastor.  If they can get rid of me, that also means that if I’m still waking up a pastor every day, it’s because they chose me. They are not stuck with me anymore.  Like me, dislike me, love me, leave me, it’s all a choice now.  We are choosing each other, me and the church.  I am not stuck with them, and they are not stuck with me.  I feel like a guy who just attended marriage encounter and realized that he loved his wife, and better yet, was loved BY his wife.

A friend of mine says that the problem of the UMC is not one you can organize or legislate.  It is a theological and biblical problem.  The problem, he says, is that we don’t live biblically or agree on the salvation of the gospel, that we are loved by God, wooed by God and then formed by God’s love in our relationship with Christ.  He thinks we preachers need to shake it up, and be shaken up.  I thought about that on Tuesday, and I think he is right.

Here is the thing about a biblical life: it is full of risk.  Those disciples had no guarantees.  They had no regular wage, no pension plan, no health care, and no benefits other than the promise of Christ love and a future in the Reign of God that was full and endless.  For this, they gave their lives.  They offered themselves willingly and abundantly.  They took the risk of hardship, peril, shipwreck, and imprisonment.  Their only guarantee was that it would be difficult.  That has always been the way of Christianity as a movement: no security, lots of risk.  It was true of the great reformers.  It was true of the circuit riders.  It has been true in every period where being a Christian involved great courage and deep dependency on Christ.  The only time Christianity offers a lot of security is when it has turned into an institution, and that is typically the worst of all scenarios, when the once vital body of Christ has little more than a faint pulse.

I am already feeling better.  Nimbler. Security, it seems, was bringing me down.  I will keep the salary and the insurance and the pension.  I do appreciate all of that security and the justice that undergirds it.  Let me add that if that church releases you unjustly because of your race or gender, it didn’t deserve you in the first place, and it will die from the blessings God will withhold from it as a result.  Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.  But if a pasty white guy like me is released into God’s future by the UMC because I am not good for the church, then I shall be in God’s hands, and isn’t that where I said I wanted to be the whole time?

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Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.

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