Punitive Appointments

excellent-silhouette-of-a-man-walking-george-f-mobleyMost United Methodist pastors who have been around for a while can tell a story or two about a colleague (or themselves!) who has received a “punitive appointment.” This is an appointment to a church that is less desirable or has less potential than the one you are currently serving, or that requires you to take a substantial cut in pay. It may be an appointment that is farther from family or that requires a spouse to quit his/her job with little prospect of finding a new job closer to the new appointment.

What makes it a “punitive appointment” is not that it requires hardship or sacrifice — many United Methodist clergy willingly offer themselves unreservedly for ministry, despite the challenges. Sometimes we pastors knowingly make the sacrifice, and other times we find out after we get there that we made a sacrifice unknowingly.

No, what makes an appointment “punitive” is the REASON for that appointment. Rather than being made because the bishop and cabinet believe one has the gifts and graces needed by a particular congregation, a “punitive appointment” is made as a form of “punishment” for some alleged wrongdoing.

Sometimes, it is a personality conflict with the district superintendent or with a powerful parishioner. Sometimes, it is because of a disagreement with conference leadership over some issue. Sometimes, it is because of what one believes (theology) and how one practices ministry.

Sadly, we have seen occasions over the years when evangelicals have been penalized — relegated to only small churches, low-salary appointments, places with little growth potential, excluded from conference leadership — by a “progressive” bishop and cabinet who want to marginalize evangelicals in their annual conference.

Let me be clear that I am not saying that appointment to a smaller church or lower salary is automatically a “punishment.” I accepted such an appointment and found it to be a place where God really blessed my ministry. But when evangelicals as a group are marginalized in the type of appointments we serve, it reveals a pattern that is harmful to the church, as well as to individual ministries.

Let me also be clear that I am not saying that all progressive bishops or superintendents act this way.

I recently received a call from a colleague who has served in ministry for many years and been effective. The story he tells is chilling. I’ll call him Gary.

Gary had been in this particular church for a number of years when he was preaching through a book of the Bible and came across a passage that dealt with homosexuality.  In his sermon, he defended the current teaching of the church in a winsome and compassionate way. Several months later, he was called into the district superintendent’s office. The superintendent proceeded to rebuke Gary for preaching as he did, referring to a letter from someone who had visited the church that particular morning and was very upset by the position Gary had taken. The letter said that Gary was hateful and homophobic, and that his sermon had brought great harm and pain to the individual who wrote the letter.

Gary was not allowed to have a copy of the letter. He was not allowed to know whom the letter came from (although the writer mentioned that he was in church that day because of some connection with a family in the congregation). The superintendent did not ask to see a transcript of Gary’s sermon or notes or receive a recording of the sermon, so the superintendent could judge for himself whether Gary’s sermon was hurtful. The superintendent did not talk to any members of the congregation to find out how the sermon came across to them. He did not talk to the pastor-parish relations committee (or even just the chair of the PPRC) to see if they had received any complaints about the sermon.  And in case you were wondering, there were no complaints from anyone in the congregation.  Gary was in fact commended by many parishioners for his faithful stance.

In other words, the superintendent took the word of one individual who had no connection to the congregation, who just happened to show up on the one Sunday this topic has come up in all the years Gary has served this church, and who disagrees with our church’s position on homosexuality, to reprimand Gary for his sermon. Gary also learned that the letter had been read by the bishop and the whole cabinet and discussed in their meeting, all without the benefit of anyone talking to Gary or a member of his congregation first. In fact, Gary subsequently asked for a meeting with three superintendents as a way for them to know him better and understand his gifts and hopes for ministry, in preparation for any future appointment. His request was disregarded. In fact, contrary to ¶ 426 in the Discipline, there was no consultation at all between Gary and his superintendent prior to a new appointment.

This one letter colored the cabinet’s impression of Gary and called into question decades of faithful ministerial effectiveness. The result is that Gary has been asked to move to a different church and take a $10,000 per year cut in salary.  When Gary asked two different superintendents if it was because of his sermon, neither superintendent would answer his question. When Gary asked if he had any other options, both of the superintendents told him he had to take this appointment if he wanted to continue to serve in ministry in that annual conference.  There were no other options.

This is not the way that clergy should be treated. Every elder should have a fair opportunity to answer complaints leveled against him or her, in line with the fair process requirements in the Book of Discipline. Defending the denomination’s stance on marriage and sexuality should not leave one open to a punitive appointment. Unfortunately, this is happening not just in the North or West, but even in some parts of the South. This is another sign of the deep division in our church over issues of theology. One expects persecution or opposition from the secular world, but to receive that opposition from the leadership of one’s own church is disheartening. If quality pastoral leadership is a key to turning our denomination around into one that is vital and growing again, we are shooting ourselves in the foot when we treat clergy like this.

Gary will accept his new appointment because that is what he promised to do when he was ordained, and he is a person of integrity. And we know that God will take this situation and work it for good—for Gary and for his congregations (both new and old).

But the fact that pastors are being blatantly mistreated because they AGREE with United Methodist doctrine and policy tells us just how far down into the rabbit hole we have fallen into this “Alice in Wonderland” world. We have given license to our leaders to undercut the church’s teaching at every turn, and we bend over backward to accommodate those who disrupt our meetings and try to intimidate us into letting them have their way. Yet we are unable to treat fairly people who serve faithfully and well. How can we continue to live together in such a dysfunctional system?

16 thoughts on “Punitive Appointments

  1. At what point will the Methodist church also take into consideration the churches that they are appointing some of these pastors to? At a small church we attended, a pastor, know for creating dissention, was appointed and when the DS was told by the PPR that we did not want him, told us “we need a place to stick him”. I would think that both the Pastors and churches are being hurt by “sticking ” them somewhere rather than addressing the problem.

    1. I agree, Elaine. Congregations are being hurt by not being effectively involved in the consultation process. The trump card that congregations hold is that they don’t have to pay the pastor that the conference sends. One of the primary reasons for the decline of the UM Church is appointments that don’t match well. It’s not always the bishop’s fault, but it is definitely a problem.


      1. I don’t see how a bishop could have the proper information to match up congregations . . . and neither District Superintendents. It’s really an unfair and unreasonable calling upon them.

        Also, the BOM’s are just as guilty in this process. People get through who shouldn’t be in any sort of ministry. I know because the strong and vital rural church I grew up was sent a basket case who cried in the pulpit and begged for more salary (no exaggeration). Afterwards, we were sent a female preacher who was an awesome preacher and teacher . . . but a large part of the church left because they were not comfortable with a woman pastor and their objections were met by the district with “Who cares, this is the way it is” instead of respectful listening and reasoning from the Scriptures.

        The Methodist system worked in early America – as in, it created disciple making, Spirit-filled communities among people who lived transitional lives. It worked because the circuit-riders, preachers, and lay leaders shared a common commitment to Christ, the Holy Scriptures, and the Wesleyan way. Today, we do not live in transition (we’ve been a settled country for a good while now) and we do not share a common commitment to those things mentioned.

  2. And I know of many progressives who have been treated virtually the same way. The system is broken, yes, but it doesn’t just affect evangelicals.

    1. Bryson, it would be helpful if you would list and give specifics of the many progressives who have been treated this way, in a strictly confidential manner, of course.

      1. TD, I doubt you get any name of a progressive treated that way. It is a shame that the UMC has so many progressives who have no problem going against the pledges they made under oath.

  3. Is it time to leave the itinerant appointment system behind and go to a ‘call’ system? I think so.

  4. As in many other similar cases where was due process? It seems until someone stands up and says ‘NO’ and demands that due process be followed scenes such as this one will continue. IMO one of the greatest problems within the more conservative side of the church is our tendency to be quiet. We don’t protest, make noise, and often times ‘fight’ for our rights. We accept things in a humble manner which is sometimes the correct way to do things but sometimes you also have to say “enough”. While I fully understand it’s easy for someone to say this from behind a keyboard, I would hope if ever put in the same position I would put my own security aside and stand up to what is in many ways injustice. Progressives and others will continue to push until someone stands up to their tactics and fights back.

  5. It reminds me of the recent case in Ohio of a pastor who was discontinued …It came before the judicial council in April (her objection was denied on grounds of the JC not having jurisdiction in this area) … And while admittedly I do not have all the facts to the case …reading the transcript raised concerns for me (similar to the concerns spoken of in this article.)

  6. Exactly,Allen C. Until orthodox Methodists stand up and say No More! the progressives will push, punch and use all techniques to get their way. Personally, I will discuss this no longer. I follow the Holy Scriptures period.

    In Christ,
    E.louise Parker

  7. Thanks, Tom, for your thoughtful comments and careful analysis. You probably don’t remember, but I contacted you when in the process of appealing my situation to Judicial Council. You said Good News would support legislation to correct the unfairness practiced in our system. I am glad you are speaking out, as well.

  8. Such a thing may have happened here or there, but almost always ineffective people blame cabinets for appointments they don’t like because it’s easier to blame someone else than take responsibility for yourself. If the cabinet has to appoint every pastor, and every church needs a pastor, when the cabinet is matching up clergy and appointments, why in the world would they put a pastor who has been asked to move and has seen a congregation decline in a place better suited for someone who has seen growth and fruit? It’s not about punishment, and it’s not punitive. It’s just plain common sense. And fairness. Also, if one of our ordination vows is to uphold the doctrine of the UMC, then why would the cabinet give larger influence and responsibility to a clergyperson whose teaching and practice is closer to Baptist or Pentecostalism than Methodism? That’s not being punitive. That’s taking responsibility for our ordination charge.

    1. Thanks, Nathan. I agree with you, except that is not the situation here with “Gary.” He has been effective and seen growth in his churches, and he is thoroughly Wesleyan, not Baptist or Pentecostal. The fact that the Superintendents refused to answer when he asked them if it was because of the complaint by the visitor seems to indicate that was the reason. That is punitive.

  9. As the founder of the Good News group in what is considered a conservative conference, I was never once “promoted” in 38 years of ministry in spite of the fact that every congregation I served doubled their attendance and in two churches tripled their attendance while doubling, tripling, and in one case quadrupling their budgets!

    Any “success” I enjoyed came from my own efforts and God’s blessing those efforts and not once from the appointment system.

    And I will admit, it’s a test of one’s faith to watch one’s efforts being ignored and go unrewarded while others receive large raises and larger churches without any reason related to the quality of their ministry.

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