This is the last in a series of three posts attempting to describe what we mean by our clergy covenant within The United Methodist Church. In my first post (here), I talked about the fact that our clergy covenant connects United Methodists with all ordained clergy of any denomination, but is most practically experienced as our personal partnership in ministry with those of our own Order in our own annual conference. In my second post (here), I outlined some of the content of that covenant—what we promise to God and the church.
In this third post, I want to explore how we exercise our covenant. ¶303.3 in the Discipline describes the covenant as a “covenant of mutual care and accountability.” So we exercise our covenant in two ways: caring for and supporting one another in ministry and holding each other accountable to the promises we made when we were ordained.
There are many ways that we can express mutual care for one another within the clergy covenant. In the “old days,” the annual conference session lasted more than a week, since it took so long to get there, and it was the only real opportunity that clergy had to see each other during a year. Annual conference was a time of worship, fellowship, prayer, preaching, and theological discussion that provided a lot of the support and accountability for clergy.
Today, we are encouraged to engage in small groups of clergy in order to know and be known in a deeper way by some other clergy. The kind of small group discipleship that helps lay members grow in faith is just as valuable to clergy. In Wisconsin, we have been divided up into geographical clusters of three to ten clergy who meet monthly for care and support and to plan ways of collaborating in ministry together. Some clergy have formed a “support group” of clergy friends with whom they meet informally as a self-selected group. Other clergy have a mentor who can help support and guide them.
Whatever the mechanism, mutual support among clergy is very important, as we engage in ministry in a challenging time. We are swimming against the current of culture, and we need the support and strength and prayers of each other to avoid discouragement and continue growing in grace.
A small group of clergy colleagues can also provide accountability, if we choose to use the group in that way. We can ask one another hard questions about our relationship with the Lord and the exercise of our spiritual disciplines, as well as give feedback on the practice of ministry. District superintendents also exercise accountability, as they monitor our ministry settings and hold us to our ministry goals.
The least popular (and least used because it is a last resort) form of accountability is the complaint process, which can lead to a judicial trial or to engagement with the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry to rectify shortcomings. ¶363.1 of the Discipline states, “Ordination and membership in an annual conference in The United Methodist Church is a sacred trust. … Whenever a person … is accused of violating this trust, the membership of his or her ministerial office shall be subject to review. This review shall have as its primary purpose a just resolution of any violations of this sacred trust, in the hope that God’s work of justice, reconciliation and healing may be realized in the body of Christ.” Thus, the complaint process has a redemptive, rather than a punitive, purpose.
When informal accountability, through small groups, mentors, superintendents, and others, does not yield results, a formal process is available. This formal accountability needs to be in place, or the covenant promises we make eventually become meaningless—something we do only when it is convenient or when we agree that we should do them. Knowing that there is a formal process of accountability encourages us to keep the covenant intact without having to resort to that process.
Unfortunately, there have been more clergy trials in the last ten years than in many years prior. This is partly due to the breakdown of informal accountability. But mainly, it is the result of persons who have decided to intentionally violate the terms of the covenant and defy the “system” that they have pledged to support and maintain.
These complaints and trials are a test of our church—a test to see whether we are capable of holding ourselves accountable to the covenant we have made with one another. To the extent that we are not capable of holding each other accountable, the covenant itself is harmed and broken. Without that accountability, we become like the people of Israel in the time of the Judges, when each one did what was right in his/her own eyes. It is no coincidence that the period of greatest chaos and disregard of the covenant was one of the lowest periods of spiritual fruitfulness that Israel ever experienced. I pray that we will not learn that lesson the hard way in our current United Methodist experience.