“Do you offer yourself without reserve to be appointed and to serve as the appointive authority may determine?” This question appears in ¶335c.1 of the Book of Discipline of the UMC as part of the paperwork candidates for ordination as elders must answer before their ordination to full connection. This is a question you are expected to answer “yes” to before you are ordained as an elder. The problem is, there is a huge, but unstated, asterisk in many Annual Conferences that I think is ultimately destructive of the very nature of itinerancy, one of the central pieces of our United Methodist polity. If you’re not familiar with United Methodist terminology, itinerancy is our system whereby pastors are appointed to churches, rather than called. Clergy are appointed by the bishop, and though congregations and pastors now are involved in the consultation process, it is still a consultation, and ultimately, elders covenant to go where they are sent.
One of the fundamental stated ideas for why we itinerate in United Methodism is that the gifts of pastors can be matched to churches by people who can see the big picture rather than being focused solely on the concerns and wants of a single church. In theory, we have “open itinerancy” in United Methodism, a concept which emerged when we were dismantling our segregated structures. Open itinerancy means appointments are to be made “with consideration of the gifts and evidence of God’s grace of those appointed, to the needs, characteristics, and opportunities of congregations and institutions… without regard to race, ethnic origin, gender, color, disability, marital status, or age.” In theory, it’s a force to be reckoned with, and if it were used the way it was written, I can imagine our churches could do some amazing things with pastoral leaders they would have never hired on their own. Instead of congregations always hiring people who look like them and think like them, they might be sent someone who will challenge them toward holiness and who might help them to see their ministry in a new light, and the pastor might be sent to a place where s/he is challenged in his/her own perspectives. There are times when that happens, and it’s wonderful to see. But the very nature of itinerancy is at risk because of a big, invisible asterisk after “without reserve.”
So what’s that big asterisk? Most of us clergy seem to expect that our next move will see a salary increase, or at the very least will not see a decrease. It’s expected that itinerancy will have us beginning in small churches and slowly moving up to more prestigious and bigger churches. And if the church were intended to function like a business, that would make perfect sense. You reward seniority, experience, and paying your dues by promotions within the company. Large churches pay lots of apportionments, and so since they generate the most revenue, they deserve the most experienced pastors, and large church pastors have the most experience and have to deal with a unique set of pressures, and so they should get paid the most. The capitalist in me likes it and thinks it’s logical.
But what if the church were modeling an alternate economy? What if the church isn’t called to be just another expression of American capitalism? What if we, on occasion, sent our most experienced pastors to small, struggling churches who have never seen a pastor stay for more than three years and thus have stayed in the cycle of being small and struggling? What if we decided the best way to support pastors was not by paying compensation packages that well exceed the median income of our communities, but instead was by providing support for regular sabbaticals, support for clergy families, and regular counseling and spiritual direction?
When itinerancy means you need a pay raise to move, itinerancy can become focused not on the needs of the churches and the gifts of the pastor, but the career needs of the pastor and the financial gifts of the churches. And I found myself greatly troubled by a proposal that came before my Annual Conference (North Georgia) this year. The desire of the personnel practices committee was to raise the superintendent’s salaries to 95% of the episcopal salary, which means raising cabinet-level salaries by about 4.5% over the next four years. (It did not pass – I spoke against the proposal at Conference partly on the basis that we as a conference aren’t paying our general church apportionments in full, and so to obligate ourselves to significantly higher salary costs would surely prevent us from meeting our obligation to the general church). The argument for this proposal is that the bishop needs superintendents’ salaries to be higher in order to offer a compensation package favorable to current compensation. And that troubles me, because it sounds like clergy have turned down superintendencies because the salary was not enough. I understand why – there are clergy in the North Georgia Conference whose base compensation even before housing and pension benefits exceeds $200,000 annually, so it would be a considerable pay cut for those clergy to be appointed as superintendents. But the problem is, our ordination vows never said every move would be a raise.
When our vows require us to submit to the authority of the bishop and offer ourselves without reserve, that has to include salary and prestige. I think ultimately every pastor needs to be willing to serve at the minimum compensation for their conference, and if we think that’s beneath us, we should consider many of our laity who faithfully tithe and make much less than us, who aren’t guaranteed an appointment and who don’t have a defined benefit pension or affordable health insurance. In spite of the recession, our denominational average compensation (which includes the value of our housing benefit) climbed from $56,044 in 2006 to $65,186 in 2012. In that same time period, median household income in the US has declined from about $54,000 to about $51,000. We’ve been blessed mightily, and perhaps it’s time that we earnestly reconsider how the church uses money. Do we really treat it as sacred to God and the poor?