June 12th, 2019

his friend Jesus

Why we do it that way

I mentioned to our Scout Camp Director that I had to spend the rest of this week doing Annual Conference. He was surprised. "I thought you were retired," he said. I explained that clergy were members for life. He asked if that meant that I still had to go. Well, no, I said, but this is an election year for General Conference, and it matters.

For those of you who ponder the inequities in our system: why the clergy get half the votes in our Conference system, while remaining only an elite minority within the whole membership of the denomination; why Local Lay Pastors (LLPs) have limited voting right vs. clergy who are ordained elders and deacons (Full Members); here is a brief summary.

The Conference was the name of John Wesley's gathered preachers in England. It was his way of ensuring quality control and making appointments. It was a separate thing from the United Societies, which was the system of Classes, Bands, and Select Societies in which the Methodists expressed their belonging to the movement. The whole system was transplanted to America in 1766.

After the Revolution, Wesley helped the American Methodists set up an independent church, the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Conference (there was only one) was entirely made up of preachers, now clergy within the usual meaning. The Conference elected bishops, approved candidates for ordination, and received their appointments annually from the bishop(s). The preachers were free to travel and attend the conference, which at first was the whole USA. It was several years before a second, Western Conference, was set up for the Methodists across the Appalachians. (The creation of a delegated, General Conference came in 1808.) And the Conference functioned mainly for clergy concerns: credentialing, ordaining, appointing. Laypersons were members of Societies (which vanished with the frontier) and local congregations, whose pastors were appointed by the bishop from the pool of available clergy.

Eventually, congregations became strong and settled enough, and the denomination began addressing more issues than merely preaching and church planting, that the laity began demanding a voice in its governance. Resistance to change was a thing, of course. Eventually, there was a schism, birthing the Methodist Protestant Church, which rejoined the larger branches of Methodism in 1939, long after the ME Church and the ME Church, South, had also admitted Lay Members of Conference.

In any case, the clergy were there as Members in their own right of what is, in effect, the congregation of the clergy. When I was ordained, my membership was transferred from Terre Haute First UMC to the South Indiana Annual Conference, and I haven't been a member of a local church since 1977. The laity were at first called "delegates," since they were elected from the pastoral charges, but were eventually named "members" as well, though their membership is only for the term of their election.

Methodism always encouraged lay preaching, and lay preachers served under the direction of ordained clergy from the beginning. Many were appointed to pastoral charges, as a kind of apprenticeship; however, there eventually arose a kind of "minor league" system, in which some congregations were always appointed lay pastors (now "Licensed Local Pastors") and were never served by elders. So instead of LLP being a transitory stage on the way to ordination, it became a career in itself, especially after Methodism began requiring seminary education of its ordained clergy, and the fluidity of transition from lay preacher to Probationary Membership and finally Full Membership and elder's orders broke down.

In recent quadrennia, the LLPs have agitated for full recognition of their clergy status. They can now be retired, for instance. They have voice and vote in the Annual Conference, except for matters of clergy credentials, election of General Conference delegates, and constitutional amendments (all prerogatives that go back to 1784-1808). Recent GC legislation has given some LLPs the right to vote for GC delegates. They have to have completed the Course of Study or an MDiv degree and have served for at least two years under full-time appointment (or four years under part-time appointment).

If this all seems like a hodge-podge, it is. Nobody planned this out; like Topsy, it just grew. There are some inequities (if not iniquities) in it, but they all have historical roots.