Isolation, itinerancy, guaranteed appointments and the need for better evaluation of the effectiveness of pastors are among concerns lifted from a survey examining ministry in the United Methodist Church.
More than 550 survey respondents indicate that although there are issues surrounding ministry, people are largely satisfied with the orders of ministry the denomination established in 1996.
"I sense a feeling that it's time to get together and move on in order to fulfill the ministry of the church," said the Rev. Mary Ann Moman, a staff executive in the Division of Ordained Ministry at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry and a member of the commission studying ministry in the church.
The 2004 General Conference established the commission because of questions, concerns and uncertainty regarding the two ordained clergy orders - deacons and elders - and local pastors. The General Conference, which meets every four years, is the denomination's top lawmaking assembly.
Both the 2000 and 2004 General Conferences received a large number of petitions related to certified lay ministers, local pastors, deacons and elders. The commission was established to "theologically discuss and clearly define the ordering of our shared life together in the United Methodist Church."
Moman and the Rev. Robert Kohler, a division staff member, cautioned that current results are preliminary. But the survey, which is still under way through both online responses and focus groups around the world, indicates most people have accepted the roles of deacons, elders and local pastors.
Kohler noted there were few questions about sacramental authority for deacons. However, he said, there does not appear to be a consensus on the voting rights and responsibilities of local pastors at annual conferences.
In addition to the online survey, focus groups are being held in the United States and in the central conferences - regions of the church in Africa, Asia and Europe. One such group at United Methodist-related Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe, criticized the commission's methods. The group expressed its feeling that a few focus groups did not amount to true consultation or contribute to a deep, ongoing dialogue with the African church.
Moman said that is complicated, since central conferences can amend The Book of Discipline — the denomination's book of polity and law — to fit their particular circumstances. "We want to know how The Discipline is viewed; we do want a global perspective," she said.
For example, the church in Zimbabwe has not implemented the 1996 reordering of ministry and still practices a sequential ordination, under which a candidate becomes a deacon and then an elder.
Around the world, survey respondents saw the core functions needed to fulfill the ministry of the church as evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, mission and worship.
Itinerancy, a global concern
Respondents in the United States and a focus group in Harare, Zimbabwe, saw itinerancy as allowing a sharing of gifts and graces. In the United States, survey respondents said it brought new ideas to a congregation and allowed the congregation to continue its mission uninterrupted.
But the Harare focus group said congregations want more input in the appointment of their pastors. Survey respondents in the United States warned that itinerancy protects and hides incompetent clergy. Some wanted to eliminate guaranteed appointments and evaluate pastors based on their effectiveness.
Kohler said he agrees the church needs to address the ineffectiveness in ministry. But he said people need to understand the guarantee is not that everyone will be appointed but that the bishop will appoint all elders in full connection who are approved for an appointment by the clergy members of the annual conference.
"This rule was put in place to limit the authority of bishops to leave people without an appointment, a privilege that often led to women being excluded from the appointment process. What people do not realize is that the elimination of the guaranteed appointment will once again return us to a time when the bishop will decide who is qualified for ministry in the annual conference and not the annual conference itself through the board of ordained ministry," he said.
Both Moman and Kohler said some of the concerns about itinerancy may reflect the fact that deacons do not itinerate but do have full membership in the annual conference.
Other survey answers reflect discontent with the large number of churches under a single district superintendent and identify a sense of isolation among many pastors, particular of rural churches.
Moman said that isolation may be felt because many pastors who are not rural people are ending up in rural churches, where they lack a peer group, mentoring, peer supervision and other support systems.
More responses needed
Kohler said the completed survey will provide background for the commission's report on ministry to the 2008 General Conference, which meets in Fort Worth, Texas.
"The survey reflects the anxiety of the church around these issues. From my perspective, it's a good reflection of where the clergy are, but it doesn't address where the laity are," Kohler said.
Craig This, a research consultant who is compiling the survey results, said he would like to have 2,000 responses. That would be a large enough sample to develop some significant tests of the data, said This, an adjunct faculty member at the Center for Applied Social Issues at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio.
Kohler and Moman urge both clergy and laity to respond to the online survey at www.gbhem.org.
Of the survey respondents, about 68 percent are elders in full connection, while 10 percent are deacons in full connection and about 4.8 percent are full-time local pastors. By comparison, about 73 percent of the 45,175 United Methodist clergy are elders, 2.6 percent are deacons, and 14 percent are local pastors.
The commission's next meeting is April 20-22 in Nashville.
Both Kohler and Moman are encouraged that people have responded to the survey and engaged in conversation about ministry.
Said Moman: "The encouraging word from this is that people have seen the importance of responding and have for the most part trusted that it will make a difference in what we do."
*Brown is an associate editor and writer in the Office of Interpretation at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
News media contact: Tim Tanton, (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].