Most 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?