Fear and loathing in the pulpit

As a part-time local pastor, I’ve never really had a full peek under the hood of the United Methodist Church’s clergy system. I’ve not been through the ordination meat-grinder, I’m not itinerant, and being bi-vocational means I often cannot attend or participate in the gatherings of other clergy to hear the coffee pot conversations.

But I’ve read a lot in the last few days that troubles me.

I get the impression there is a deep cynicism and lack of trust among the clergy and between the clergy and bishops and district superintendents. Some – I don’t know how many – fear reprisal and punishment for expressing disagreement or raising questions. Some have barely veiled contempt for fellow clergy or leaders. Some do not trust any change in rules that place more power in the hands of cabinets and bishops, because they are convinced favoritism will trump mission in using that power.

Given my position at the margins of the clergy system, perhaps I am only hearing a few marginal and disgruntled voices. But I do not get that impression. If it is a minority voice, it is not a tiny minority as far as I can tell.

If the clergy were a congregation, the leaders of that congregation would be concerned about ways to cultivate more healthy relationships and more open channels to express disagreement and then foster reconciliation within the group. They would be working to build a healthy a vital community of believers. They would understand that the congregation cannot be fruitful while plagued by division and distrust.

In the end, that final point strikes me as the most important. The denomination’s efforts at renewal and revitalization – it seems to me – are doomed if a dysfunctional and distrusting clergy are asked to lead these changes. If the clubhouse atmosphere is bad – to switch metaphors – the team is not going to play well on the field.

So, I’m curious. Am I picking up false signals in the news reports about the guaranteed appointment debate and in various conversations around the Internet? Are we healthier than it appears?

Do we have fruitful clergy communities across the denomination?


7 thoughts on “Fear and loathing in the pulpit

  1. I see alot of the same trends you see – the Facebook link you posted to earlier, for example, was both sad and eye-opening as I read many of those discussion threads. I have been an elder for 5 years now, and my experience seems so dramatically different, or I am very naive. Indiana may be a kind anomaly from the norm, but I generally get the vibe here that the clergy trust one another, the cabinet and bishop. Sure, people have had bad experiences in a given appointment (myself in included), but my DS is among the people I sought out for help because I trusted her. I will say that because we have a new structure here now, I wonder alot about how well the bishop and especially the superintendents will really know the gifts and graces of the clergy. With our former structure, things were small enough that I think the relationships and trust could be built with time. I hear from clergy friends in other conferences that they barely know their DS at all. If Indiana ends up in a similar situation, I wouldn’t be surprised to see trust break down.

  2. I am a lay person who participates frequently at the conference level.

    What I hear and see around the water cooler is as you state it. I see timid, fearful clergy (our spiritual leaders) who are isolated both by the structural nature of the denomination and by the nature of seperation between lay and clergy.

    What really alarms me is that I see this in residents who express concern about what they may say amongst their resident peers fearing that one day their peer will be their DS. I see safe ground sermons so that the pastors are not called to task by their congregations or by their clergy superiors. I see pastors who have the passion but fear they must keep the passion under cover.

    While I have the greatest respect for clergy I have concerns that our bishops and DS personnel have effectively weakened the leadership that clergy should be providing.

  3. In a word, no. We don’t have fruitful clergy communities. But I’m not convinced any other denomination does, either. This has as much to do with the fallenness of human nature as it does with the flaws in our (or any other) polity system. Clergy get caught up in temporal ideas of success- attendance, salary, etc., and we subscribe to a theology of scarcity that tells us there are only so many “good” appointments, so I’d better do whatever I can to make sure I have one of those. As a result, we mistrust one another because you never really know who you’re competing against.

    But regardless of what changes we make in the Discipline, the Spirit will continue to move. Sometimes it will be through our efforts, and sometimes it will be in spite of them.

    1. John–this is the problem I was alluding to in my previous comment on taking up the cross. I should be clear that I experience this as a young idealist clergy. When I receive an appointment, I do trust that the cabinet has put significant work into making a fruitful match. I generally don’t live in a lack of trust of other clergy, in part because I do not believe I have anything to hide from potential future Superintendents and Bishops. However, this kind of trust is not what I observe in relationships between older and more seasoned clergy. I do not know whether my desire to live with trust is a naivety that will either get crushed or get me hurt, or a Timothy-like quality of being a young leader with potential to be part of a beginning cycle of trust. However–I do not see how that cycle of trust can be built by placing blame for the challenges that our churches face on the backs of those clergy who inherit these challenges from previous generations–church dynamics are not created overnight.

      Further, if the problem is ineffectiveness, and we believe it is so widespread that we need to change the discipline to more easily get rid of ineffective pastors–then perhaps the more systematic question is whether or not we are training clergy properly. It does not seem likely that the average United Methodist Pastor could be ineffective unless we are training them to be ineffective in the seminary and ordination process.

      To ignore that possibility while making the simple change from shall to may with regard to clergy-in-good-standing-appointments seems lazy and damages the environment for trust all the more.

      1. Eric – Very well said. I also wonder if this attitude is shaped by either age and/or how long one has been around. I have only been ordained for 5 years and am considered a young clergy (under 35) and I just don’t see things the same way in terms of there being a lack of trust. Most of this distrust language seems to be coming from a generation that has been around the system longer.

        My clergy covenant group is with other elders who have all been ordained 5 years or less, and most of us are younger; I don’t get the sense from any of them of a deep distrust towards the bishop/cabinet and peers. We’ve all experienced some pain in appointments, but none us believes that its the cabinet’s fault.

  4. I’ve found this all very interesting and, combined with some conversations in “real life”, I’m very glad that I’m pursuing Chaplaincy rather than church ministry here in the US, although I am going to miss leading worship on a regular basis very much.

    I know that I seem to be in a minority of one but I continue to be absolutely convinced that church-going is in structural decline. That’s no reason to cease trying to preach the Good News or to cease evangelizing, but holding pastors to increasing membership as the primary criterion of “success” is simply going to result in pastoral burn-out.

    I’m also beginning to believe that the US system (not just the UMC system) of “career” pastors moving to increasingly prestigious congregations for increasing pay is a very bad model. If you all knew you were going to get today’s equivalent of $35,000/year for the rest of your working life, you’d eliminate a lot of folk who are in it for “careers” rather than for vocations.

    It seems to me that the bi-vocational pastor who is not paid can have the gumption to actually try to do what’s right. And he or she can always say “So fire me!” to the DS.

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