By Woody Woodrick
Many United Methodists have sat in their pews listening to the new preacher and wondered: How do “they” decide where to send pastors?
Most folks know that bishops have the final say on clergy appointments, but few know the actual process. Some might imagine a hot room filled with a tired bishop and frazzled district superintendents making deals for pastors, wresting promises from each other as they try to claim the best clergy for their own.
Others might figure the names of clergy are dropped in a hat and names simply pulled out as conference leaders work down the list of churches.
How do “they” decide where to send pastors?
“We gather the wisdom of the local church through the voice of the staff-parish committee and of the pastors through consultation,” said
The Book of Discipline, the rule book for The United Methodist Church, details how the consultation process should work. A district superintendent meets with the pastor individually and with the staff-parish committee to try to determine the needs and gifts of each. From that consultation may come a recommendation, which is presented to the full Cabinet. The Cabinet then tries to match gifts and graces of clergy to the needs and goals of churches.
Ward said the Mississippi Conference follows that process, one that is both simple and complex. “Our greatest challenge in making and embracing clergy appointments is our continued strong commitment that every appointment is essential, important and a priority in God’s great purpose,” she said.
It sounds so simple, yet many factors go into the decisions. The Discipline spells out certain criteria for making appointments. Those are mixed with needs of churches, pastors and pastor’s families in an attempt to make the best match.
“We have a fixed pool of pastors, and we have a fixed number of places and communities,” said the Rev. David Price, superintendent of the
“I found the Cabinet to be a very genuine group of people,” said Price, who joined the Cabinet in 2002. “I found people to be a lot more honest than I expected. I found people wanting to do the best we could with the human resources we had to work with.”
The Rev. Vicki Sizemore Tandy, appointed to the Senatobia District in 2003, said she knew little of the process before joining the Cabinet.
“Prior to being a district superintendent, I didn’t understand the whole process, and I felt the people in administrative positions were picking on us pastors,” she said. “That’s not it at all.”
Price said he was impressed with the role of prayer in the appointment process. “I had expected ballgame-type prayers where we would pray at the beginning and the end,” he said. “We pray before, during and after each decision we make.”
Ward echoed that sentiment. “We pray for individuals, churches and situations,” she said.
“This is a serious thing, and we need God’s help in doing this,” Tandy added. “It makes you even more humble when you pray and ask for God’s guidance. I get so caught up in how I think about a person. Sometimes I need to get a different perspective on a person. We need God’s discernment.”
As for wheeling and dealing, Ward pointed out that district superintendents’ first responsibility is to look out for the good of the whole conference and not their “territories.”
Appointment making takes several months. During the fall, superintendents begin the consultations with pastors and churches. Then, in February and again later in the spring, Ward and the 11 district superintendents, administrative assistant to the bishop and Ministerial Services director meet for several days at a time to make the appointments for the next conference year.
“One reason we take large blocks of time is we don’t just jump up and do something,” Price said. “We have awareness that we have insights and a great deal of ignorance. When we seek to be open to God, we’re often amazed when we see things none of us can take credit for.
“And we still make mistakes.”
The Rev. Bill McAlilly, superintendent of Seashore District, said one of the difficulties is not always being able to meet the needs or requests of a pastor or church.
“The reality is that we can't always deliver on the requests churches and pastors make on the system,” he said. “From the viewpoint of the outsider, it's often easy to believe that a better plan could have emerged. No one person has all the pieces of the puzzle. Often, clergy feel powerless in the process, and sometimes churches don't feel that their needs have been taken seriously.”
Appointments are made official at Annual Conference. However, appointment making continues year-round. Sometimes pastors decide to retire following Annual Conference, face medical problems or accept jobs outside the parish ministry.
In general, clergy seem content with the appointment process. Responses to an informal, unscientific survey conducted by the Advocate were mostly positive.
“The process provides an amicable means for both congregation and clergy to express their preferences and concerns,” said the Rev. Steve Tillman, pastor at L.L. Roberts Memorial UMC in Bassfield. “It also holds both accountable for participating honestly and with kindness in this critical part of the ministry of the local church.
“I like the fact that this process requires pastor and pastor-parish relations committee members to first talk with each other about this matter.”
Dr. Wallace Cason III, pastor of the Nettleton-Shiloh Charge in the Tupelo District, also likes the process.
“The most likeable aspect of the appointment process is precisely the large number of checks and balances,” he said. “Consultations can and do include the spouse, the pastor-parish relations committee, the pastor, the district superintendent, the Cabinet and the bishop as a final arbiter; and even then the bishop can be brought up on charges just like anyone else.”
Cora Ford of Galilee Treadwell UMC said she likes “the interview with the congregations; it gives me a chance to see who the powerbrokers are.”
Those who responded said they believe God works through the process to connect pastors and churches at the right time.
“I've been serving churches since I was 19 years old,” said the Rev. Guss Shelly of Gulfport First UMC. “In every place that I have been appointed, I've found all the work to do that I could get done and more. I've never asked to go to a place but once and then chickened out. … Neither that year nor any other have I been disappointed with the decision of the Cabinet on where I was to be in ministry.
“I like the process because I know that a real effort is made to match persons and churches together for ministry. I know that from the experience of being appointed and being a part of the process of making appointments.
“Does it always work? No. Sometimes mistakes are made because we are imperfect humans working with imperfect humans. Sometimes what we may think is a mistake is a very good appointment.
“I do believe God is in the process as the bishop and Cabinet allow his leading.”
The Rev. George Buell of Ackerman First UMC expressed similar thoughts.
“It has been my experience since coming into the ministry that I have been appointed to the right charge at the right time in the life of the church or churches on the charge as well as the right time in mine and my family's life.
“I believe the appointment process genuinely works as it seeks to match the gifts and graces of the congregations and the pastors appointed to them,” he said.
However, those who responded to the questions also acknowledged that the appointment process has weak points.
“I dislike the human element, which has trouble believing in the supernatural intervention of Almighty God, who does indeed guide the appointment making,” Cason said. “Also, no doubt every veteran pastor has been abused by the human element in some way — by church members, PPR committee members, district superintendents and, perhaps, even by the bishop.
“There are some pastors, also, who harbor resentment and jealousy concerning who gets what appointment. They covet. Sometimes, too, it is the church which suffers. Not all appointments are peachy and happy. One must believe in God's providence before one can fully trust God in the process.
“Put another way, sometimes the appointment process is like a box of chocolates — you never know just what you are going to get, but if you like chocolate, it's going to be pretty all right regardless of what you get.”
Some said they would like to see appointments made for longer periods of time. The current system calls for one-year appointments.
“A few months after a new pastor arrives, the church is already being encouraged to think about the appointment process,” said the Rev. Gary Thompson of Biloxi First UMC.
“Several months of every year is spent in a mode that encourages people to be discussing whether the pastor will or should stay around for another year.
“Appointments should be made for more than one year at a time. I understand that some conferences now appoint pastors until the pastor or church initiates the process of considering a move.
“Some top church consultants now say that the seventh year in an appointment tends to be the best. The renewal that so desperately needs to happen in many of our churches does not happen in two or three years. It takes visionary, courageous leadership that is willing to stay with the task.”
The Rev. Elbrist Mason of Brandon Trinity said some pastors place too much emphasis on church size and salary.
“I dislike the idea that ministers are just looking for a larger church and more money,” he said. “Our system pushes people to acknowledge that we change or keep ministers for a variety of reasons. Yes, they may go to a larger church, but they also may go to where a ministry has long since died. Yet, go they must as an act of faith.
“The process often makes the minister look like a career mover rather than a shepherd going to whatever flock he or she is sent to by the leadership.”