This week, for the first time in 23 years of United Methodist ministry, I decided to write petitions to change the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church in favor of greater inclusiveness.
A Concern for Inclusiveness
Inclusiveness impacts participation in the life and governance of the church, the funding priorities of the church (equity and affirmative action), and the processes by which pastors are developed and deployed (open itinerancy).
Article IV of the UMC Constitution calls for inclusiveness on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, status, nationality and physical ability. Much of recent advocacy, controversy and conflict in the UMC has focused upon the status of sexual minorities (LGBTQ), currently the only identity group targeted with negative and exclusive language. As we look forward in hope for a more fully inclusive church, we must also ask how effective historic measures have been at securing inclusiveness.
The Discipline contains many paragraphs of inclusiveness policy, yet the UMC in the United States continues to become older and more white than the U.S. population.
This is not by accident. Inclusiveness policies express the aspirations and values of an inclusive church, but in too many instances, these policies and accountability structures are established within frameworks of entrenched privilege and language that undermine inclusiveness with loop-holes, contradictions, ambiguities, and conflicts of interest.
My initial impetus in preparing petitions was to address these contradictions. I loaded up the 2016 Discipline on my Kindle app and began searching. What I found was pervasive and significant, too much for one person to manage. I submitted only three that relate to the itinerant system and the status of licensed local pastors. (I share those at the end of this post.)
The process of critical reflection, however, did reveal much, and I share it here with hopes that others will join this cause.
The deadline for petitions to the 2020 General Conference is September 18. Petitions must be submitted according to the strict rules found here:
There are over 50 references in the 2016 Discipline to “racial and ethnic persons” or “racial and ethnic groups.” In almost every instance, this terminology signifies persons outside the white race and Anglo-American ethnicity.
The instructions to include “racial and ethnic” persons are therefore authored by and directed to an invisible, unnamed, yet normative and default white identity that needs no label. This reinforces the concept that inclusiveness is given to people of color by white people and does not challenge the white supremacist ideology of racism that justifies the use of “racial and ethnic” as outsider labels applied exclusively to non-white persons.
What transformation is expected when the church confronts racist political exclusion using paternalistic and Anglo-normative language?
No definition of the “Ethnic Local Church”
I am blessed, honored, and proud to serve as senior pastor of a bilingual, historic Hispanic congregation. I serve in a cross-racial, cross-cultural, and formerly cross-conference appointment.
Since the 1968 merger that created the United Methodist Church, many Black, Native-American, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander and other “non-white” congregations have understood themselves as “Ethnic Local Churches” with pride in ethnic and cultural history and identity.
Even though the Discipline mandates the creation of Committees on Ethnic Local Church Concerns, the Book of Discipline contains no definition of an Ethnic Local Church, again, begging the question as to whether 98% white congregations are also “ethnic” congregations. This is likely to avoid the use of the term “minority.”
An Ethnic (Minority) Local Church is a self-governing congregation that represents an ethnic group in minority status within its own conference or jurisdiction. It is this minority status that creates a warrant for specialized programmatic attention, equitable support, and organized advocacy.
The Book of Discipline provides several specialized committees to strengthen our commitment to inclusiveness and equality. The Committee on Ethnic Local Church Concerns, the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, the Commission on Religion and Race, and the Commission on Equitable Compensation are a few examples.
These exist at the General Church level and are mandated at the conference level.
At the same time, however, the Book of Discipline creates a loop-hole allowing conferences to replace these agencies at the Annual Conference level with an “equivalent structure” that can be of any size or definition. This allows the Annual Conferences to downsize them, consolidate them, weaken them, and undermine their access, influence, authority, and effectiveness.
One of the most prevalent modes of bias is found when women and persons of color are disproportionately sent to remote and economically distressed appointments. This creates social inequity among the clergy.
The Ally Bank ad below illustrates the idea of inequity.
One modest check against the inequity of this episcopal practice is the conference commitment to collectively provide equitable compensation. Equitable compensation impacts not only who is included in leadership but also who is reached by that leadership.
In the early history of the itinerant ministry, all appointments were two years and all salaries were standardized. As churches grew at non-uniform rates, economic diversity entered the appointment system.
Equitable compensation began as a temporary aid to assist pastors to transition from a higher to a lower economic station. Over time, the equitable compensation policy became a safety-net to provide minimum compensation and benefits, a fundamental right of all clergy reflecting an egalitarian principle of collegiality and connectionalism. This safety-net facilitated the availability of clergy to move within the itinerant system.
In other contexts, such as the former Rio Grande Conference, equitable compensation was considered “missionary support.”
Equitable compensation has become a source of increasing resistance and resentment among the most highly subsidized and compensated clergy (bishops, district superintendents, conference executives, large church pastors), leading to the effort to defame the “ineffective pastor” and abolish appointment security in 2012.
(Reference link: http://extremecenter.com/blog/why-willimon-is-wrong-about-small-churches/)
The language of the Discipline equivocates on whether equitable compensation is a responsibility of the conference to clergy or a subsidy to a local church. The Discipline also equivocates on whether the conference or local church bears responsibility for ministerial compensation.
The Discipline also allows conferences to use equivalent structures and downsize this important commission and to set their own equitable compensation policies and budgets, allowing the undermining of this important cause.
Even as the Book of Discipline allows conferences to systematically weaken important checks and balances for inclusiveness, it also weakens important policies intended to prevent grooming, unmerited privilege, cronyism, nepotism, and other practices that, in a white dominant context, exacerbate systemic racism.
Grooming is the practice of pre-selecting who will receive privilege, affluence, and advancement then crediting only their exceptional character for any success they experience. Grooming makes privilege self-justifying.
One bishop has stated his commitment to grooming this way:
“We actively plan intentional leadership development for high-potential, gifted pastors for the long-term good of the mission of the conference. Gifted, high potential pastors receive intentional consideration.”
To the ears of those on the margins, “high potential” sounds and looks, time and time again, young, affluent, white, and mostly male, often the son or daughter of another beloved clergy member (nepotism).
The Book of Discipline speaks of an open itinerancy, but outside the action of the inclusiveness commissions and committees on episcopacy, makes no provision against such “rigging” of the appointment process and the intentional stratification of clergy into social and racial castes.
Term limits serve as a check against grooming and create opportunity for a more inclusive cabinet and open itinerancy.
The Discipline has long established an 8 year term-limit for clergy serving in the superintendency with a 12 year total lifetime term-limit.
Term limits are defeated, however, through the practice of shifting a term-limited superintendent to an extended cabinet made up of elite conference staff positions at cabinet-level salaries. This, combined with downsized alternative structures and the clericalization of many lay staff positions (such as treasurer), can quickly become an expression of bureaucratic oligarchy that further undermines both inclusiveness and the progressive distribution of connectional resources toward the front lines of Christian mission.
To be meaningful, term limits have to apply to all cabinet-level positions, whether they be on the appointive or extended cabinets.
Conflicts of Interest on Episcopacy Committees
The Conference and Jurisdictional Committees on the Episcopacy are charged with holding bishops accountable to the highest ethical and moral standards of conduct.
The Book of Discipline correctly prohibits members of the conference cabinet, staff, and their immediate family members from serving on the conference episcopacy committee but allows an exception if the member is also a member of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee where no such conflict of interest policy exists.
A member of the jurisdictional episcopacy committee could therefore help a bishop receive an appointment to his own conference, and in return, not only receive a choice conference staff position with generous compensation, visibility, and freedom to seek higher office, but placement on or leadership of the very committee that holds the bishop accountable for ethical conduct.
The jurisdictional committee exception needs to be eliminated. The conference and jurisdictional committees should follow the same ethical principles.
A Not-So-Open Itinerancy
The Discipline defines the inclusive character of the appointment system with the terms Open Itinerancy or Open Itineracy.
¶425 “Open itineracy means appointments are made without regard to race, ethnic origin, gender, color, disability, marital status, or age, except for the provisions of mandatory retirement.”
In truth, the warrant for an appointment is rarely provided and decisions about appointments are made in secret.
In 2012, delegates to the General Conference passed legislation on a consent agenda abolishing the responsibility of bishops to appoint all itinerant clergy in good standing (security of appointment), effectively granting bishops the power to arbitrarily expel ministers without fair process.
In decision 1226, the Juducial Council ruled the General Conference action against appointment security and fair process to be repugnant to the UMC constitution and in violation of two restrictive rules.
In spite of this decision, the 2016 General Conference passed legislation allowing for “Bishop initiated” placement of a pastor into a compulsory part-time appointment “for missional purposes” again, without fair process.
Both of these policies were passed on consent agendas, receiving support from the most privileged lay and clergy members on both sides of the sexuality debate. Both actions undermine any form of accountability for equitable salaries or inclusiveness in the appointment process.
Leadership must recognize that such policies absolving bishops of checks, balances, and ethical responsibilities, only diminish confidence in the episcopacy and inject even greater anxiety into an organization that is already on the verge of schism.
Salary is not the only form of inequity within an appointment. Local church properties vary widely in their condition and quality, with some properties being distressed, obsolete, of inappropriate size or expense, and even dangerous.
Neglected, inappropriate, and obsolete church facilities are a major contributors to local church and institutional decline, yet the Discipline makes no provision for the conference trustees to regularly audit the stewardship of local church trustees and inspect the condition of local church properties. The Discipline also makes no provision for collective action to correct such neglect or relocate congregations.
Too many petitions!
As I continued searching and making notes, I realized that I could not reasonably submit 50+ petitions to deal with all of these concerns and be taken seriously within the process. An honored colleague suggested I limit myself to concerns with greatest impact on the community I serve. I chose the following:
Petition 1: Restore Open Itinerancy and Appointment Security
My first petition deletes the provision allowing for involuntary (coercive) part time appointment, added in 2016, and restores the voluntary nature of part-time service, appointment security, and fair process.
Petition 2: Pathway to Elder for Veteran Itinerant Local Pastors
A local pastor, is by definition, local, non-itinerant minister. In practice, many who are licensed as local pastors offer themselves as elders do, “without reserve” to serve within the itinerant ministry. These pastors receive their theological education through the Course of Study School and serve with effectiveness, honor, and dignity. Even still, those who do not possess a Bachelor’s Degree are prevented from moving forward to ordination after they complete the Basic Course of Study.
This is a form of socioeconomic bias that disproportionately impacts second career pastors and pastors coming from poor, retired military, and ethnic minority contexts who did not enjoy the privilege of college education early in life and find it impractical to do so while serving full time.
My second petition would allow licensed local pastors who have completed the Basic Course of Study and 12 or more years in itinerant ministry serving two or more appointments to enroll in the Advanced Course of Study and become eligible for provisional membership and the order of elder.
Petition 3: Eligibility to Enroll in the Course of Study
At present, a certified candidate who has completed licensing school is only eligible to enroll in the course of study school if he or she has been granted an appointment. This same standard is not in place for candidates enrolled in the Masters of Divinity degrees within traditional seminaries.
My third petition removes this barrier and establishes eligibility for enrollment in the Course of Study School for all ministerial candidates who have completed licensing school, allowing this candidate to satisfy the recertification requirement of advancing in education regardless of appointment status.
It is no accident that the UMC in the USA has become less and less ethnically inclusive since its formation in 1968.
The conflict of interest between seeking to preserve historic patterns of privilege and the apostolic and catholic imperative to reach the unreached without partiality is very real at all levels.
There are times when our rhetoric is contradicted by practice, and other times when our practice is undermined by our language.
At the same time, accountability structures, like the early Methodist conferences, classes, and bands, are useful but can only be as effective as our willingness to see such structures as means of grace rather than as annoying obstacles to our freedom, advancement, and privilege.
It is my hope all who read this can receive these insights in the spirit of that grace.