Theology for a Bad Appointment

April 14th, 2012
This article is featured in the Change (May/June/July 2012) issue of Circuit Rider

Eleven years ago, my appointment came as a complete surprise. I had talked with the district superintendent about the type of church I felt God was calling me to serve, and this one was the opposite. And it was in trouble. When asked to describe the congregation, he said it was “hemorrhaging.” By all appearances it was a “bad” appointment.    

How do you survive and thrive in an appointment you do not feel called to serve?

Itineracy as a Spiritual Discipline

The first (and hardest) step is to see the appointment process as a prudential means of grace and itineracy as a spiritual discipline. Believing this does not require you to passively accept every decision that the cabinet makes as the will of God. In fact, this spiritual perspective should foster a more radical critique of our current practices than any evaluation based on secular models. Regardless, after an appointment is set, we pastors must trust that God can make our system work for the renewal of our churches—even if this does not result in our personal fulfillment.

This spiritual perspective raises a more troubling question about the providence of God. We articulate the question this way, “What the *@#$&^ was the bishop thinking?” Is God at work in this process or not? If so, how do we square the belief that God is at work when it appears that the cabinet got it so horribly wrong? There are four temptations a pastor faces when he or she wrestles with this question.

The First Temptation: Resentment

An easy response to what we see as unjust treatment is resentment. We are tempted to misplace our anger toward the cabinet onto our unwitting parishioners. Or we are tempted to cop the cynical attitude that itineracy is only governed by power plays and paychecks. The net result is that the local church is denied our best energy.

Wesley’s understanding of the providence of God helps us resist this temptation. As Arminians we believe that God is responsive and flexible to our free will, including the foibles of a cabinet. God will accomplish God’s mission, but God will work in, through, and around our flaws and unfaithfulness. In other words, you do not have to believe in the infallibility of the episcopacy in order to affirm itineracy. After the last appointment is read at annual conference, we must trust that God can make all things (including these bad decisions) work for the good of those who love the Lord.

Thus, the key spiritual discipline is submission to God. I am strategic thinker, but this trait can get in the way of submitting to God because I want to plan my future. Ultimately, I cannot fathom the full workings of God’s mission and so I must surrender my second-guessing. Itineracy as a spiritual discipline forces me to empty myself and trust that God is in control of my past, present and future.

Wesley’s sermon “On Divine Providence” speaks well to the appointment process:

“It is hard indeed to comprehend this; nay, it is hard to believe it, considering the complicated wickedness and the complicated misery which we see on every side. It behooves us then to humble ourselves before God, and to acknowledge our ignorance (§ 13).”

“Considering the complicated wickedness and the complicated misery” the appointment process inflicts on congregations and pastors’ families, many have said that it is high time to abandon this outdated system. To be sure, itineracy must be reinvented, as it has been several times throughout our history. But notice closely, Wesley advises that we “humble ourselves before God,” not the bishop and trust that God can work through this fallible system.     

The Second Temptation: Sloth

Ironically, the congregation has responded positively to my leadership. This led me into the second temptation: sloth. Laziness is one of the great temptations in ministry because we are self-governed. The temptation of resentfulness may give way to laziness because it takes a lot of energy to ward off anger. Or worse, we vent our resentment through foot dragging. It is a short step from the assumption that we deserved better from the bishop to the conclusion that the congregation does not deserve our best.

Truth is, the congregation was not asking for much. They just wanted someone to like them, to do the basics, and not do anything stupid. Their modest expectations made it harder to lead them toward renewal. If no one is asking you to stir things up, why bother? It is very tempting to throw in the towel and slide by when the work of renewal is long and marked by more failures than successes.

The doctrine of sanctification challenges us to resist this temptation. Wesley defined perfection as “loving God with all the heart; receiving Christ as Prophet, Priest and King, to reign alone over all our thoughts, words, and actions [letter to Alexander Coates, 1761].” Sanctifying grace stirs in us a desire for something deeper and bigger than numerical growth or professional accolades.

Sanctification must become the goal that inspires our work of congregational renewal. Wesley knew this much: “Where Christian perfection is not strongly and explicitly preached, there is seldom any remarkable blessing from God, and consequently little addition to the Society [letter to George Merryweather, Feb. 1766].” Our congregations will never experience this unless we, the pastors, are earnestly striving after perfection in our own lives. We cannot expect our churches to become passionate if we are not passionately seeking to become partakers of the divine nature.

The Third Temptation: A Judgmental Attitude

However, the goal of holiness creates fertile ground for the third temptation: a judgmental attitude. It is tempting to point the finger at them instead of examining how our own sins and shortcomings have impaired the church.

Self-righteous indignation is even more tempting when they deserve it. There are some truly dysfunctional churches that will not embrace our good leadership. If you are in this situation, do not jump to the conclusion that God did not call you to take that appointment. God may have given you the same appointment God once gave to Isaiah: “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend….Make the mind of this people dull [6:9-10].’” It is a thankless but necessary task.

We are called to walk the fine line between challenging them and judging them. We are promised the spiritual gift of discernment to help us maintain this faithful balance. As we practice the spiritual disciplines, the Holy Spirit will develop good pastoral instincts in us.

The Fourth Temptation: Works-Righteousness

Underneath this third temptation is the fourth and final temptation: works-righteousness. We judge them because we are really judging ourselves. More than I care to admit, I worry that I am not a good pastor. The push for numerical growth promotes the ideal ‘turnaround leader.’ We internalize unrealistic criteria of the ideal pastor, and these ideal types intensify our anxiety because we are trying to do ministry based on a pastoral form of works-righteousness—a priestly Pelagianism of sorts.  

The only remedy for this temptation is a grace-filled ministry. Grace, according to Wesley, is “the continual inspiration of God's Holy Spirit: God's breathing into the soul, and the soul's breathing back what it first receives from God; a continual action of God upon the soul, and re-action of the soul upon God [Sermon 19, III.2].” There is no ideal or role model to live up to. Instead, we need to be filled with the presence of Christ who will empower and guide our ministry from within. In short, you have to be possessed to do this job.

Shut Up and Preach

One Sunday, these temptations nearly got the best of me. It was one of those Sundays when you are grateful that there are no visitors: low attendance, lousy anthem, pitiful singing. They even screwed up the announcements.

Even my chair was built for death. Hidden behind several flanks of modesty railings, it was narrow with high sides that rubbed my shoulders. It felt like a casket.

As the service limped along I became more resentful: “O God, this church sucks! My D.S. is a liar and the bishop is an idiot. These people will never change.”

At that moment I heard the voice of God: “Darren, who do you think you are? How do you know what I can and cannot do with this congregation?” My resentment was killing my trust in God. As the choir finished the anthem I heard God say one last thing: “Shut up and preach!”

When you get stuck in a ‘bad’ appointment, just “shut up and preach.” Sunday after Sunday, hold at bay the temptations. I do not have an answer for when you should leave your current appointment. Maybe you should leave next year or stay ten more. You may be surprised to learn that I stayed at that church for eleven years. Regardless of how long you are “stuck” there, trust God to preserve your calling through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

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