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‘What do you mean, we’re getting a new pastor?’

When it comes to deploying pastors to United Methodist churches, there are many theories as to how it is done. Ideas about a "good old boys" network or a "sidewalk cabinet" of influential pastors can be debunked, but mystery often surrounds how a United Methodist congregation receives its next pastor.

"Unlike a congregational system, in which individual congregations determine who their pastors will be, we rely on our bishops, working with their cabinets, to determine the placement of our clergy," explains the Rev. Myron Wingfield, interim associate general secretary, Division of Ordained Ministry, at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

United Methodist elders vow at their ordination to participate in the itineracy – to move from place to place as appointed by the bishop of the annual conference of which they are members.

Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Area is clear: Bishops make appointments, and the mission of the church comes first.

"The call to United Methodist ministry is different than a call to congregational ministry," says Schnase. "It's not ‘where do you want to go?' but, rather, we adapt ourselves to the mission field, to where we are sent."

A pastor in the Southwest Texas Conference before his election to the episcopacy in 2004, Schnase says he had to stretch himself many times over more than 25 years to adapt to where his bishop sent him. From learning about ministry in a rural setting to learning to master Spanish, he had to grow and change continually.

"At its best, the itinerant system enables bishops to deploy the clergy in response to the needs of the mission field – the ‘fields of labor' – and highlights the inclusive and prophetic nature of the pulpit," Wingfield says. "When the bishop, not the congregation, decides who is in the pulpit, there is greater freedom for the pastor to speak truth to power, and that is in keeping with the core of our Wesleyan tradition."

Consultation is key

In Missouri, Schnase spent 50 minutes during the 2014 annual conference reviewing the appointment-making process step-by-step. "It's about gifts and fruits, not about who you know or about tenure," he says.

While bishops make appointments, they incorporate a consultative process outlined in The Book of Discipline.

Wingfield describes consultation as "ongoing conversation between the district superintendent and/or bishop, the pastor and the committee on pastor-parish relations for each pastoral charge." It becomes "more intentional ... whenever a pastoral change is being considered." Then they share the responsibility of developing a profile – which advises the bishop on the local church's mission and ministry needs – to be used in appointment making.

The district superintendent — who, the Discipline says, is the chief missional strategist for the district — is "responsible for considering each church's profile, each pastor's profile and the community context, along with other criteria that will influence the bishop's decisions about appointments," Wingfield adds.

"The consultation doesn't begin with the phone call" to tell a clergyperson he or she is moving, Schnase says. "It's not a call to say, ‘Would you like to go to this church?' The phone call is the culmination" of the prayer, deliberation and discernment that happened as the decision was made.

Can a pastor say "no" to a new appointment? "It depends," Schnase says.

In Missouri, "If the congregation or the pastor requested the move, then there is no ability to say ‘no' to this appointment," he explains.

"On the other hand, if the pastor has been doing great work, did not request a move, is happy to stay, and the church would love to have the pastor back and there's good things going on, it's like the pastor has earned the right to say ‘I really don't think this is best. I will go where sent, but I would prefer not to.' We'll honor that about 99 percent of the time."

Not an easy process

Regardless of what sparks a change of pastors in a local church, seldom is only one congregation affected. Chains of appointment changes often start when someone retires, creating a domino effect with subsequent vacancies to fill. Other factors can also lead to a change of pastors.

"Every clergyperson may certainly discuss the possibility of an appointment change with the (district superintendent) or bishop," Wingfield says. "Sometimes the clergyperson is ready for a new challenge or a factor in the clergyperson's family — say a family member who needs special medical care — might lead the clergyperson to request a new appointment. And, as much as the bishop and cabinet work hard and prayerfully to make good appointments, there are factors or changes that cannot be predicted that result in less-than-ideal appointments."

In Missouri, a conference with about 850 churches and 300 full-time appointments, only three or four clergy are moved every year against their wishes, says Schnase. "These are moves usually created because of effectiveness issues."

"The pressures on the itinerant system are many, varied and often overlapping or interconnected," Wingfield says.

He lists economic stressors including "the shrinking value of the dollar and the resulting need for both clergy and their spouses to have paying jobs; seminary debt, in particular; clergy debt, in general; the cost of clergy healthcare; and patterns in apportionment giving, just to name a few."

Home ownership is another tension on clergy moves, as are requests from clergy to live near elderly parents, or from clergy who have children enrolled in high school who do not wish to move when they near graduation.

A new stressor in appointment making, Schnase says, is younger clergy who ask, "'Why would I make a commitment to serve the rest of my career in Missouri?' The concept of doing something like that is strange and foreign to them."

"Bishops and cabinets must also take into account what they have available in the body of clergy members – their gifts, strengths and limitations – as well as the compensation schedule based on years of service and local church budgets, the congregation's level of commitment to outreach, and much more," Wingfield adds.

"All this is taken into consideration," says Schnase, "but we don't bend very far on the first principle. The mission of the church comes first.

"We'll try to accommodate, of course, but we have to ask: ‘Who is the best person to go to this church?'"

While changes in appointments for pastors and for local churches "don't always come when and where we prefer," Wingfield says, "pastors and congregations alike will report that they have had some good appointments, some not-so-good appointments and, overall, most seem to work out fairly well."

Watch Bishop Robert Schnase's 2014 presentation on appointment making

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