March 23rd, 2010

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Feeding the soul

My covenant group met in Indy today at a restaurant we favor. All clergy in the Indiana Conference are required to be part of a covenant group of some sort for accountability and support. Thankfully, we can pick our own groups to be part of.

My group consists of me, Curt, and Phred. Our group isn't exclusive, just small; besides being friends for over thirty years now, what binds us together is that we're not groupish people. In our time together, we don't follow an exacting or ambitious agenda. Not that we're just shooting the breeze, either. We talk about stuff. And we talk about it honestly.

We're not clones of each other, either theologically or politically. We talk about contentious issues, but we avoid debating them (at least, we try to keep the heat turned down low). We trust each other and respect each other. We love the Church, but we don't believe the hype that comes from headquarters. We love people, but we know what they're capable of -- we're capable of it, too. We've been around. And best of all, when we talk, we can cover the whole range of subjects from the bawdy to the arcane, without worrying about being indelicate on the one hand or talking over somebody else's head on the other.

It is a wonderful thing to spend two hours just being yourself with others, knowing that whatever odd enthusiasm has gripped you, it will be received with the same interest and courtesy that yourself is received. And even if the others don't share this particular enthusiasm of yours, they are capable of talking about it, of batting the ball back, of contributing something to the discussion.

We can't get together as often as we'd like. Phred lives way (waaay) up north, while Curt and I are down here in the southern hills. Which is why we tend to get together in Indy when we can. But then, Conference guidelines don't say how often or how regularly we have to meet, only that we have to. So, we make the most of our time when we can get together.

I really didn't have the time to go up to Indy and do this today. But I really couldn't do without it, either. Because I went, I'm way behind on all the stuff that I'm trying to get done -- but I came out ahead, overall.
how long

The clergy conundrum (UM shop talk)

Last Sunday afternoon, I attended a clergy meeting for the new West District of our Conference. About half the clergy were expected to attend. I was startled to see so many there. Is our District really that large? I wondered. Well, it is, but that's not all that was going on there.

Since it was a Sunday, the bi-vocational and part-time pastors, who normally can't come to weekday morning meetings, were out in force. It drove home to me how many of our churches are now being served by part-time local pastors and supply pastors.* These folks have minimal clergy education, most of them, and they are almost all unordained. They do a great job, mind you. But their success brings up the inevitable question, If they do such a fine job, what is the advantage of having a fully-qualified, ordained pastor? After all, we Elders are expensive beasts to keep.

One could say that there are things we can do that they cannot. But most of us pastor aging, shrinking churches, too. And truth be told, it mostly has to do with a congregation's self-image what they think they should pay for clergy ministry. Some would feel diminished if they didn't have a pastor with all the right credentials, while others don't care.

I was talking this over with a friend this week. By what standard should we judge the value of a United Methodist Elder? Not this Elder or that Elder, mind you, but any Elder as compared to any other category of pastor. What do we add to the mix that makes us so valuable? If an unordained local pastor can be licensed to do everything that we can do, then all of us are the same sort of worker, our fancy degrees and holy rubber stamps notwithstanding.

Take two clergy from other backgrounds. Pastor A is an entrepreneurial church-planter who has started a non-denominational community church. He's grown it to hefty size, and the congregation is thriving. He may or may not belong to a body that supervises him; his congregation may or may not belong to a body whose rules they are required to obey. Whether or not, take him for what he and they have done, this is still success. Pastor A has grown a church. You can quantify his achievement. How many of us can say that we add that kind of value to what we do?

Meanwhile, Pastor B has been ordained in a church whose body of doctrine includes a belief in the necessity of apostolic succession. Clergy are a necessary part of these believers' ecclesiology; without them, there is no one to supply the sacraments which are the life of the Church. Pastor B may not have a large congregation, but every time he shows up and does what he was ordained to do, he does what nobody else can do in that place, with those people. His value is obvious.

But what about Pastors C and D, both United Methodist pastors, one ordained and one merely licensed? On what basis will we compare their work to see who should be rewarded, and who should be counseled to seek another profession? Used to be, our standards of clergy value were, at least in part, similar to Pastor B's denomination. But now, it takes very little to qualify to administer the sacraments, at least in our smaller churches. But if we are looking for effectiveness -- that is, if we are to move over to something like the standard of value that obtains in Pastor A's world, then most of us are failures, and some of the part-timers are doing a heckuva better job than some of the big name Revs.

I think I can justify, at least for myself, the value I add through my ministry. But in these times of economic stress, I am uncomfortable attempting to articulate a standard that would say what a typical United Methodist congregation gets for its money. Would they get more if they paid more? No guarantees. Would they be better or worse off if they went part-time? Nobody can say. Would they get better theology if they went one way rather than another? That's a crapshoot among United Methodist clergy, though I'd have to say the odds are better they'll hear something that resembles John Wesley's theology from the unordained, though it might be somewhat unsophisticated.

I believe that The United Methodist Church has lost its way. We no longer believe in our core processes, including ordination. We have made of it a mere union card. Those who went to the trouble of getting the full boat of credentials have certain institutional advantages over those who did not. But are they better, as clergy? Well, by what standard? And if we can't tell the people who foot the bills what our standard of clergy value is, then how can we best advise them on what kind of clergy they should desire to have for their pastors?

There are 115 congregations in the West District. 31 of them are served by full-time pastors, of which about two dozen are served by Elders. Of the other 80-some congregations, there are four multiple-congregation charges, and the rest are solo appointments for part-time clergy of various sorts.