Licensed local pastors don’t get to serve as delegates to General Conference. So when they sit in the plenary hall, they’re way back.
“The bleachers,” clarified the Rev. Mike Mahaffey, past president of the National Fellowship of Associate Members and Local Pastors.
But he and the Rev. Tom Herring, legislative chair of that group, will mainly work the committee rooms, monitoring all legislation that could have bearing on local pastors.
“We definitely don’t want any privileges removed,” Herring said.
Ordained elders, who have earned a Master of Divinity degree and worked through provisional status, remain the pastoral leaders of The United Methodist Church.
But their numbers have shrunk in the United States, along with church membership and because of baby boomer retirements.
A handful of annual conferences have more local pastors than elders serving churches. And local pastors, who can enter ministry while still completing a required Course of Study, are seeing an expanded role in the denomination.
“Today, we’ve got local pastors on staff; we’ve got them leading good-sized churches; and we’ve got them in extension ministries,” Mahaffey said.
Local pastors have also gradually gained more authority in conference matters. Mahaffey describes as “a huge turning point” the 2008 General Conference’s decision to let local pastors vote in annual conference meetings – an amendment to the church constitution that won overwhelming ratification by annual conferences the next year.
At General Conference 2016, underway in Portland at the Oregon Convention Center through May 20, Mahaffey and Herring are monitoring about two dozen petitions.
Only one is what they consider hostile. It would let local pastors continue to serve on boards of ordained ministry and district committees on ordained ministry, but would remove their right to vote.
“We’ll be doing all we can to squash that in committee,” Mahaffey said.
Another petition, from the Upper New York Conference, would expand the rights of local pastors, allowing them to serve as General Conference delegates and vote on constitutional amendments in annual conference gatherings.
Mahaffey said the Facebook group of local pastors recently had its share of complaints that local pastors cannot be General Conference delegates. He is all for the rights of local pastors, but counsels patience and gratitude.
“Everything we’ve gained is because fully connected elders, deacons and laypeople, who have affirmed what we do, have passed these (General Conference) petitions,” he said.
General Conference 2016 will also consider petitions that would recognize a Master of Divinity degree instead of Course of Study as an educational option for local pastors; delete the phrase “five-year” from Course of Study descriptions to provide flexibility; and assign local pastors to a clergy mentor or clergy mentoring group whenever possible.
There has been talk in recent years of ordaining local pastors, but that question will not be broached formally in Portland.
While still on the periphery at General Conference, local pastors are feeling more than ever a big part of denominational life.
“We’re filling a need of the church, and that need is continuing to grow,” Mahaffey said.
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]