The Flipside of Accountability

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The General Conference has decided to end what is commonly called the “guaranteed appointment” for ordained elders in the United Methodist Church. The over-simplified nutshell explanation is that clergy who are judged to be ineffective no longer must be given an appointment. The first waves of reaction are coming from a kind of suspicion of authority common to so many these days. And I find it ironic.

Irony is rife in this decision, and in the reaction. One of the emphases of the UMC is attracting more young people, and the best way that happens is through vital and vibrant congregations. Young people are in general rather postmodern in their thinking. Postmodern people are (stereo)typically wary of big, institutional authority. So, some of the postmoderns who are already in the church, who are similarly prone to suspicion of authority, are reacting to the effort to bring new young people into the church by voicing their suspicion of authority, authority that is being wielded by the institution in an effort to bring more suspicious young people into the church by creating vital local congregations! Ha! I love it!

More seriously, though, the question that many clergy are asking is, “What definition of ‘effectiveness’ will be applied to me?” There is a fear that, even though I may believe that I am working faithfully, proclaiming the gospel, and bearing fruit for the kingdom, my DS or Bishop might not see it that way. And now that I am not guaranteed an appointment, they may apply their different definition of effectiveness to my ministry and ask that I consider another vocation.

Another perspective might call this “accountability,” in that pastors are being held accountable with more purpose than before. There was a process by which ordained elders could be removed from service before this decision was made. Now however, the accountability piece is closer to the surface.

Look, it’s all going to be fine. It will require pastors to effectively describe the fruitfulness within their particular context, and continue to maintain a healthy relationship with their DS. That’s all. No need to panic, everybody. It’s all good. Just be ready at a moment’s notice to lay down the dozen or more most fruitful moments that have happened in the last month, and share them with as many people as you possibly can.

No, the conference isn’t going to guarantee your appointment anymore—you are going to have to guarantee your own.

What I haven’t heard so much about is the flipside of accountability. I have heard an awful lot about how conferences will deal with ineffective pastors; I haven’t heard a bunch about how conferences are going to be supporting the effective ones. What new things will the conferences be doing now to support, encourage, inspire, refresh, renew, and affirm pastors who ARE effective?

Accountability has a flipside, and that’s where I’d like us to focus.

  • If an ineffective pastor is going to be encouraged to another vocation, how is an effective pastor going to be encouraged?
  • Should our Annual Conferences expend all their time and energy concentrating on what isn’t working well and just leave “well enough” alone?
  • Should the primary task of Conference staff be to guide ineffective pastors out of ministry and just assume that the effective pastors are doing fine?

I don’t fear the end of the guaranteed appointment. I’m going to preach the gospel, serve God faithfully, and work to change the world for God’s sake. I will have eyes that are open to notice fruitfulness in all of its diverse varieties. And I’ll be able to describe them to anyone who asks. I’m just wondering now, what will accountability look like from the flipside?

Not that I need an “Effective Pastor” plaque to hang on my wall or anything. I am an itinerant preacher in the United Methodist Church because I believe that’s what God wants me to be, not so that someone will pat me on the back and say “Good job, dude.” That’s not my point.

My point is simply that accountability is more than just addressing what isn’t working well. Accountability also means supporting what is. 

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