The churches in the United Methodist Church operate in a connectional system: this means that pastors are assigned to churches, much like a Catholic priest is assigned by the regional bishop. This is the opposite of a call system where churches select their own pastor, such as Baptists and United Church of Christ. There’s also some mixed systems like The Episcopal Church where the Bishop and the congregation form a slate together.
I’m a big fan of connectionalism because I believe it overcomes Christianity’s ghettoizing tendencies, binds people of difference together to learn to live together, shares learnings, and transforms the landscape for women and persons of color to serve as clergy.
The Bigger You Are…
However, it seems that some churches that inhabit the upper echelons of United Methodism do not think they operate under the same system that the rest of us do.
The most recent example of this sentiment is Mount Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia. If that name sounds familiar, they’ve been featured before on HX due to their withholding of apportionments (church tithes to the denomination) in protest of LGBT Inclusion–which they had attempted decades before as well.
Well, they’re in the news again for a similar type of challenge to connectionalism. On March 22nd 2015, Mt. Bethel is holding a townhall meeting with their congregation to discuss recruiting a new senior pastor. Yes…recruiting!
Here’s the text (bolds are mine):
We are pleased to announce that we have retained an executive recruiting firm to help in our search for a senior pastor to follow Randy’s retirement. The Dingman Company (recruiting firm) will be holding two Town Hall meetings to introduce themselves to the congregation and to discuss:
• Who The Dingman Company is and why they are well prepared to assist Mt. Bethel in this recruitment;
• What The Dingman Company needs to know about Mt. Bethel’s theological position, history, passions, character, etc.;
• What the Mt. Bethel membership needs in their next senior pastor; and
• How the search and selection process will work.
To any business or non-profit board, hiring a recruitment firm sounds typical to help a board sort through the candidates.
However, in a connectional system, there’s only one person who makes this decision: The Bishop, in this case, Bishop Watson of the North Georgia Annual Conference.
So why are they hiring a recruiting firm?
…The Larger the Gall.
The biggest negative I can see from this situation is the expectation that the church can choose who their senior pastor is. They can’t. Every single pastoral transition I’ve been a part of, the sentiment has been “what can our church provide for the Bishop so that s/he understands our needs?” It is unheard of for smaller churches to be allowed to submit a list of names or hoped-for pastors. Now if a pastor is sent for a introductory interview and it is an epic fail, then there’s been changes. But for this large church–the 14th largest in United Methodism (by attendance)–to publicly refute connectionalism is to intentionally set up a collision with the denominational leadership.
Because seriously: What if the Bishop discerns a pastor who is not on their list or does not have all the litmus tests checked off? How much damage to the pastor’s credibility will there be at the outset? How much distrust of connectionalism is that?
The biggest positive I can see from this is the firm helping the church identify their needs and give that list of qualities as suggestions to the Bishop. Every United Methodist Church fills out a church profile which articulates gifts, challenges, the neighborhood, and expectations of staff/clergy. It may be that Mt. Bethel hasn’t filled this out for some time, since Dr. Mickler has been there for 26 years, so it may be out of date and they need professional help. So maybe they will help the congregation come up with these lists of qualities hoped for in their pastor. I would think that would be okay.
But even in the most positive situation, there’s a problem. Using language of “recruitment” and “selection” and “our search” is to publicly negate that the only person who can make this decision is the Bishop, who is not beholden to any of their efforts. To attempt to bind the Bishop to a certain pool of candidates or litmus test of qualities betrays a lack of trust in connectionalism in general, and the Bishop in particular. It’s not like this Bishop doesn’t know them: he’s presided over North Georgia since 2008 and would be the one to pick Mickler’s replacement.
In short, this is not a United Methodist way of doing things.
Clarity is needed
I admit that I might be naive…this might be typical for larger churches. Large churches in United Methodism have certain privileges that the rest of Methodism don’t have. Multiple-clergy appointments lend a certain amount of veto-power to the senior pastor when it comes to associates coming to their team. So maybe this is how things are done on the other side of the appointment table.
So we need some clarity in this situation for the rest of us at smaller churches:
- If a church offers suggestions of names or litmus tests in this way, does the Bishop limit the pool to the consultant’s suggested pool or litmus test? If so, how does “discernment by the Holy Spirit” factor in when the list of acceptable (let’s be honest: male) names is submitted?
- Do Bishops work with a headhunting firm or an advisory committee beyond the Cabinet to find the large-church pastors? If they do, how large does the church have to be to merit outside involvement beyond the appointed cabinet of a clergy’s peers? Why doesn’t every church get the same treatment?
Regardless, I hope someone attends this Town Hall so we can better know how exactly they are depicting recruiting as working, and whether we need to continue to worry that connectionalism is eroding at the upper echelons of United Methodism even as they point their finger at others in blame of the same.
Prayers for this congregation that is mourning the loss of their longtime spiritual leader, and encouragement that they choose the most Methodist way of receiving their new one.