May 28, 2013
It’s on the lips of every United Methodist clergy every year. “How long, O Lord? How long am I going to remain in this appointment? Could this be the year?” The cry is often a lament because we don’t want to move. But it could also be a plea, “Please, Lord, get me out of here!”
At the same time it’s on the lips of every United Methodist layperson unless they come from another religious tradition and don’t yet understand the system. “How long, O Lord, will you leave our beloved pastor here?” Or “How long, O Lord, will you afflict us like this?”
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalm 13:1-2a)
It’s annual conference time around the United Methodist connection. We’ll be inspired by guest speakers, vote on constitutional amendments and other legislative items, reconnect with friends, and watch our bishops set appointments of clergy for the coming year. Some clergy are grateful to be moving while others are upset at being uprooted from a congregation they love. What we all hold in common, however, is a vow to be itinerant, to go where we are sent.
John Wesley used an appointment system to deploy clergy in order to spread scriptural holiness across the land, make disciples, and start new churches. In America this system was highly effective as our country moved west and Methodist circuit riders fanned out across the wilderness.
(Circuit Rider: Illustration from Harpers Weekly, October 12, 1867)
Clergy were appointed to circuits that might have up to eighteen societies or churches. They were expected to visit each church at least once a year. The role of the pastor was to preach, administer the sacraments, and train laypersons to do the work of ministry by forming class meetings, which were small groups that worshipped, studied, served, and witnessed to their faith. After a relatively short stay clergy hopped on their horses and headed to the next church on the circuit. Circuit riders never asked, “How long, O Lord?” because they expected to stay in their appointment for just a year or two before moving on.
When our country began to “settle” in the early twentieth century, so did the clergy, who began to assume responsibilities that were formerly done by laity: visiting the sick, leading class meetings, and evangelizing. Congregations gradually grew larger and more stable, and circuits became smaller.
Today we emphasize longer term appointments in The United Methodist Church in the belief that clergy can do their most effective ministry after four to six years. It takes time to develop relationships between clergy and laity so that congregations can be equipped and empowered to foster holistic growth and effective outreach. Pastoral stability is often a sign of vitality and health.
At Plainfield UMC, one of the churches I am currently serving, the pastoral record began in 1879. For the first twenty years the tenure of the clergy was 6 months, 1 year, 1 year, 1 year, 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 1 year, 1 year, 4 years, 1 year, 1 year, 3 years. For some unknown reason W.E. Frye hit the jackpot and stayed four years.
Despite occasional remarkably long tenures, short term appointments were commonplace into the 1960’s. Over the years I’ve heard elderly clergy reminisce about the good old days when they would not know what their appointment was until annual conference. When the bishop read their name and the clergy found out they were moving, they’d call back home and say, “Guess what, honey? Pack your bags. We’re moving again.”
Life is different in 2013, and the needs of families in the twenty-first century are an important consideration in appointments. Spouses often earn a higher salary than the clergy. Teenagers may not want to leave their high school. Frequent moves are not helpful to congregations or clergy families. The itinerant system is not for everyone. Yet “How long, O Lord?” is on every United Methodist clergy’s lips because we are still appointed for only one year at a time.
“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? (Habakkuk 1:2)
Even today clergy occasionally stay for only a few years in an appointment for various reasons. After serving appointments of 3 ½ years, 4 years, 4 years, 13 years, and 6 years as a superintendent, surprise! I find myself serving only one year in my present appointment, just like so many of my circuit rider predecessors.
My circuit consists of just two churches, but I have discovered that positive, transformational ministry can take place in very short appointments as well as quite long appointments. Here’s what I’ve learned from my one year appointment.
· Because clergy never know the answer to “How long, O Lord?” effective short term clergy quickly discern the state of the church, gain a good grasp of current reality, and use their time in a way that will best benefit the needs of the congregation.
· Effective short term clergy gain trust early on by building primary relationships with lay leaders, who help clergy establish priorities while they do the rest. Identifying, cultivating, training, and encouraging lay leadership bears fruit in every congregation, especially in brief appointments where the imprint of effective clergy will be found in leaders who will carry on ministry for years to come.
· Effective short term clergy know that the conventional wisdom to wait a year before initiating any change does not apply uniformly in every situation. Comprehensive transfer of information before an appointment begins can prepare clergy to hit the ground running. Sometimes immediate change is essential and welcomed.
· Effective short term clergy thoroughly review the mission, strategic plan, and systems of a congregation to determine how they can build upon the church’s strengths at the same time as they address weak links that threaten to derail ministry.
· Effective short term clergy nip conflict in the bud by practicing open and honest communication and self-integration.
· Effective short term clergy usually don’t have time to sweat the small stuff, play on the church softball team, or lead the breakfast club because they are spiritually preparing the congregation for growth, health, and the next appointment, which will hopefully be a longer tenured pastor.
· Effective short term clergy focus their best effort on energetic, creative worship that connects people with God and each other, inspiring them to reach out beyond the church in ministry to the world.
· Effective short term clergy can make a huge impact in a brief time by the witness of their life as well as the sound of their words. They model faithfulness by their encouragement, gentle persuasion, positive attitude, and unquenchable hope.
· Five or ten year guaranteed contracts are not offered to clergy in The United Methodist Church. Therefore, because short term clergy don’t have an answer to “How long, O Lord?” unless we are specifically designated as an interim pastor, we must rely on the intuition of the Holy Spirit to custom make our ministry in every location.
The most important lesson I’ve learned over the past year is to live and serve fully in the present moment because that’s all we have. It doesn’t have to take thirteen years to leave God’s mark on a congregation through your ministry. In fact, in a span of thirteen years during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, A.D. Newton, S.G. Warner, J.P Force, A.J. Russell, H. Borgelt, L. Dodds, W.M. Puffer, D. Kronk, A.J. Wheeler, and W.D. Frye all served Plainfield UMC, most of them for one year. And what a legacy they left!
Some clergy and congregations can accomplish more for the kingdom of God in one year than other churches can do in fifty years. God redeems everything, even short-term appointments. We never know who will be touched by our ministry, brief as it may be. In the twinkling of an eye, lives can be changed, congregations can be turned around, the Holy Spirit can set a church aflame, and ministry can be revitalized.
“How long, O Lord, will you look on?” (Psalm 35:17) I never dreamed that God would look on my appointment as a one year adventure of faith. But I thank God for the opportunity to impact the life of two congregations in a short term way that will lead them into a bright future. Most of all, I am grateful for the long term joy and hope that two congregations have given to me. “How long, O Lord? Never mind. However long you wish. Where you lead, I will follow.”