The Rev. Pam Estes has led a charge of three tiny churches in rural southern Arkansas and a small city church in Little Rock. Altogether, she has served Arkansas United Methodists in ordained ministry for 21 years, always going where her bishop sends her.
That is the covenant the church has had with its ordained elders: Serve where you are assigned and you always will have an appointment. Now that promise could be threatened: The denomination’s 2008-2012 Commission to Study the Ministry has made a preliminary recommendation of doing away with clergy job guarantees.
Estes worries about the uncertainty that she and other pastors will face if such a proposal is approved by the 2012 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body.
“What will happen if my next appointment doesn’t work out?” she said. “Would I just be let go? By 2012, I would be 60-plus years old, and I’m a single woman.”
Estes represents a number of United Methodist ordained elders who expressed deep misgivings about a preliminary recommendation to end “guaranteed appointments” for elders in good standing while retaining the ability of bishops to move clergy to different assignments.
Guaranteed appointments are a major contributing factor to mediocrity and ineffectiveness, the ministry study commission told the United Methodist Council of Bishops at its recent spring meeting. The commission’s recommendations are included in an interim report, but the group will not release its final report for the 2012 General Conference until next year.
United Methodist elders agree incompetent clergy should be removed from their ranks. But many say there is a process in place now for such action, one with rights of appeal.
They fear the commission’s proposal would leave them open to arbitrary dismissal, compromising their freedom to speak hard truths to troubled congregations. In addition, they worry that such a shift would leave women and ethnic minorities more vulnerable to discrimination.
“I have a healthy enough view of the sinfulness of the human condition that I have some angst about changes that open the door to episcopal action against the freedom of the pulpit,” said the Rev. Carl Schenck, senior pastor of Manchester United Methodist Church in suburban St. Louis.
“I wish to protect the church from laziness and incompetence,” he added. “But I also want to protect the church from discriminating against gifted pastors.”
Estes said she knows from experience that women still face resistance from some congregations.
“There are churches that don’t want pastors who are women, or only want pastors who are married,” she said. “If you happen to get a first appointment that isn’t a strong one, what happens then?”
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