What Is the ‘Clergy Covenant?’ (Part I)

A recent post by Kevin Nelson on the Reconciling Ministries Network blog examined the issue of “covenantal harm” — the idea that United Methodist leaders are advocating disobedience to the Book of Discipline and thereby doing harm to our clergy covenant. Kevin looks through the Book of Discipline for the term “clergy covenant” and finds it only in ¶303.3, which he seems to think is not a very clear or full description of a clergy covenant.

It is a fair question to ask what we and others mean when we say that the clergy covenant is being harmed by the words and actions of some of our bishops, clergy, and other leaders. Although ¶303.3 is not the only place that the clergy covenant is mentioned, it is a good place to start.

“[Ordained persons] also live in covenant of mutual care and accountability with all those who share their ordination, especially in The United Methodist Church, with the ordained who are members of the same annual conference and part of the same Order.” (¶303.3) This sentence lays out what the covenant consists of, and with whom clergy are in covenant.

In this post, I want to talk about who is included in the clergy covenant.

United Methodist clergy are in covenant with all ordained clergy in the Church of Jesus Christ. We are part of the larger body of Christ that extends beyond our denominational boundaries. What we do and say as clergy affects the perception of all clergy everywhere, as the Roman Catholic sexual abuse scandal and the public moral failures of people like Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, and other prominent Protestant pastors demonstrate.

More particularly, United Methodist clergy are in covenant with all other UM clergy, as part of our connectional system. Methodism began as a movement led by preachers who were “in connexion” with John Wesley. It was a renewal movement that consisted of preachers and societies who were related to one another through their relationship with John Wesley. That relational element of our covenantal connection is present today, although the vast number of United Methodist clergy (over 30,000 in the U.S. alone) makes it difficult to maintain the personal relationship. However, I have seen an example of how this covenant functions effectively when clergy in different states join together to provide coordinated pastoral care for a parishioner who is away from home.

Practically speaking, the clergy covenant is most often experienced with the ordained clergy of one’s own annual conference and Order within that annual conference. My most immediate clergy relationships are with other elders in the Wisconsin Conference, where I hold my membership. That is my “church.” I am a member of the Order of Elders in Wisconsin, not a member of a local church. When we gather for annual conference, I renew relationships and engage in worship and discussion with fellow elders about the best way to pursue the mission of the UM Church in Wisconsin.

(Since bishops remain part of the Order of Elders, they are part of the same covenant connection as I am. However, their membership is in the Council of Bishops, which functions as their “church”—where they relate to one another and worship and strategize about the mission of the church.)

As a member of the Wisconsin clergy, I experience what Paul describes of the body of Christ: “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (I Corinthians 12:26). I don’t know all the 300+ active clergy in Wisconsin, but I know many of them. When one is going through difficult times, it affects all of us. When one experiences great blessing, it affects all of us.

When one of our clergy decides to disobey the Book of Discipline and foster division in the church, that affects all of us. In the aftermath of the DeLong trial and years of conflict over how our church can be in ministry with gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons, we are no longer able to talk to each other in Wisconsin about these things. Relationships have been broken and trust has been so eroded that people who disagree with one another know it is better just not to talk about it. The broken relationships and lack of trust spill over to affect many other aspects of how we do (or don’t do) ministry together in Wisconsin.

That is part of the harm that has been done to the clergy covenant. The entire web of our connection, both within and outside the UM Church, is affected by our words and actions. Next time, I will talk more about the content of the clergy covenant.

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