Ending guaranteed appointment for ordained elders in The United Methodist Church was, like restructuring of the denomination’s agencies, a high-profile effort that passed at the 2012 General Conference only to be overturned by the Judicial Council.
And, like restructuring, it will be back on the agenda when the 2016 General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, meets May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon.
This time the push to end guaranteed appointment is coming from the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders.
“It’s a matter of accountability and a matter of empowering our bishops to do what they think they need to do with each and every appointment,” said Lonnie Brooks, lay leader for the Alaska Conference and legislative committee chair for the lay leaders’ association.
But the strategy for passage this time requires first changing the denomination’s constitution — a high hurdle. And the opposition has hardly gone away.
“There’s value in having security of appointment for all clergy, in particular for those who have been marginalized,” said Frederick Brewington, a lawyer and lay delegate from the New York Conference who successfully argued the guaranteed appointment case before Judicial Council.
Vote leads to review
The lead-up to the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida, featured much discussion about the need for change in the denomination, given declining membership in the United States.
The Study of Ministry Commission pointed to guaranteed appointment — also known as security of appointment — as a problem.
The commission, in its report, said job tenure for elders limited the church’s ability “to respond to the primacy of missional needs” and created a financially unsustainable oversupply of clergy in certain conferences.
Some commission members more bluntly said guaranteed appointment protected ineffective clergy.
In Tampa, the Ministry and Higher Education Committee amended the commission’s legislation to provide more oversight in appointments. But to the surprise of many, the final committee vote for ending guaranteed appointment was lopsided enough to get the petition on the consent calendar.
Efforts before the full General Conference to reconsider the item failed, and it passed in a group with other petitions that had enjoyed overwhelming committee support.
But General Conference also agreed to ask the Judicial Council — the denomination’s high court — to consider whether the legislation violated the church constitution.
An emphatic ruling
Trouble emerged before that review could even take place.
The Rev. L. Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist II, secretary of the General Conference, told the Council of Bishops in June 2012 that guaranteed appointment had not been eliminated after all.
He noted that while delegates had changed the language of Paragraph 337 of the Book of Discipline, requiring appointment of elders in good standing, they had left intact similar language in Paragraph 334.
Others disputed Reist’s interpretation, but the Judicial Council rendered all debate moot on Oct. 26, 2012 by declaring that the petition to end guaranteed appointment was in fact unconstitutional.
The council acknowledged that the denomination’s constitution didn’t directly state a right to appointment, but said the right was implicit in the constitution’s Restrictive Rules III and IV, which protect the “itinerant general superintendency” and clergy’s right to trial.
In The United Methodist Church, elders are itinerant — which means they go where their bishops appoints them.
The council also noted that church law apart from the constitution had spelled out the right to security of appointment since 1956, and described the principle as “historic” in Methodism.
To Brooks, the council’s linking of guaranteed appointment to itinerancy and right to trial was “just absurd.” He and others particularly objected to describing as historic a principle first articulated in church law in 1956, given that Methodism dates to the 18th century.
But the only option for fighting the ruling was to seek to change the constitution.
Accountability vs. justice?
The lay leaders’ association’s petition is nothing if not direct, seeking to have the constitution state that a presiding bishop “has the authority, but not the obligation” to appoint a clergy member, and that Restrictive Rule IV does not mean right of trial equals guaranteed appointment.
To the association, job tenure may work in academia, but it isn’t something a denomination declining in the United States can support.
“The church is not immune,” said Steve Lyles, lay leader for the North Alabama Conference. “There has to be some accountability.”
But others, like Brewington, see guaranteed appointment as a justice issue, providing protection for all elders –— particularly women and minorities — from capricious or otherwise unfair actions by bishops. (Brewington is married to an elder.)
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News — an unofficial evangelical caucus within the denomination — said ending guaranteed appointment would give bishops too much power and hurt recruitment of young clergy.
“There is already a process to deal with (clergy) ineffectiveness in the Book of Discipline, one that includes the safeguards of ‘due process,’” Lambrecht said by email. “I have heard that some consider the process ‘too cumbersome’ and hence will not use it. The process of safeguarding fairness and justice is sometimes more work, but is consistent with our Christian values.”
The Rev. Ken Nelson, coordinator of clergy services in the South Carolina Conference and delegate to General Conference 2016, said congregations are harmed when ineffective clergy are simply “passed around.”
But he believes the church has an obligation to work with clergy to increase their effectiveness in a fast-changing church environment, and often fails to do so.
While he would be open to ending guaranteed appointment if rock-solid monitoring guarantees were in place, to make sure no groups were being “exited” disproportionately, he’s wary otherwise.
“I am in support of security of appointment in the sense that I believe it was, in part, a tool that created opportunity for women and people of color,” he said.
Progress has been made on that front, but more needs to be done, Nelson added.
The Study of Ministry Commission leading to this General Conference did not propose legislation regarding guaranteed appointment.
Greater Northwest Episcopal Area Bishop Grant Hagiya, commission chair, was asked about that about that at the pre-General Conference Briefing. He noted that a lawyer for the Council of Bishops had advised that the Judicial Council ruling was too big an obstacle.
Hagiya added: “We did not know that the lay leaders were going to take it up, and we’re glad that they did.”
But changing the constitution requires at least a two-thirds vote of General Conference delegates. Then at least two-thirds of total voters across the annual conferences must endorse the change.
Brooks points out that the association’s petition would, if successful, only remove the constitutional barriers by the Judicial Council. More legislation would be needed to end guaranteed appointment.
“We’re just paving the way so that if that is the will of the church, it can happen,” he said at the briefing.
Brooks believes support for ending guaranteed appointment has increased since Tampa, but acknowledges that winning a super-majority on the plenary floor is daunting.
“I would say we have about a 50 percent chance,” he said.
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]