Lots of things happen in the spring. In the natural world, new bright green leaves appear on the trees, flowers begin to bloom, the birds start singing in earnest, and of course pollen coats the ground. In the church, we’ve just begun the season (yes it’s a season) of Easter – our celebration of resurrection, new life, and the triumph of life over darkness.
If you’ve been around the United Methodist Church for a while, you may also know spring as the season of appointments. No, not doctor or dentist appointments (though if you haven’t scheduled that check-up, now would be a great time to do it), but the appointments of pastors to churches.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the vagaries of the UMC, it may surprise you to know that United Methodist churches do not pick their pastors. They don’t write up job descriptions and solicit applications. They don’t have hiring committees or interviews. Instead, pastors are appointed to churches by the bishop of their Annual Conference.
See, the United Methodist Church is a connectional church. That means that every UMC in the world is connected to every other UMC. This is lived out through things like our General Conference, which is the decision-making body of the church as a whole, is made up of both clergy and lay people who represent the church around the world, and meets every 4 years to discuss and decide how our church will live out our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
On a somewhat more local level, the church is divided into Annual Conferences – geographically defined groups of churches that are overseen by a bishop. Decatur First UMC is part of the North Georgia Annual Conference and every year, all the clergy in the conference and an equal number of lay people get together to worship, meet, discuss, and discern how we live out our mission and our place in the UMC here in North Georgia.
In addition to these meetings (United Methodists love meetings!), part of how we live out our connection is in the way that pastors and churches connect. Each year, our bishop (currently our bishop is Rev. Michael Watson) gets together with the appointive cabinet, which includes the District Superintendents of all of the districts within the North Georgia Conference (we’re in the Atlanta-Decatur-Oxford District (ADOX) and our District Superintendent is Rev. Sharma Lewis). The cabinet meets multiple times and looks at every single church in North Georgia and every single pastor in North Georgia and works to match them up such that the needs of each local church are matched with the gifts of a pastor to serve them. Or as the United Methodist Book of Discipline puts it, appointments are made “with consideration of the gifts and evidence of God’s grace of those appointed, to the needs, characteristics, and opportunities of congregations and institutions”
Every year, this process happens, and every year, churches wait to hear who will be appointed as their pastor that year. We are in the midst of that process now. The bishop and cabinet are meeting over the course of this month and determining whether pastors are staying at their current churches or moving to a new church. This year, the announcements will be made on May 1.
For folks who are not steeped in the traditions and foibles of the United Methodist Church, this process can seem bizarre, but to me it is one of the things that makes our UMC great. The bishop and the cabinet do not work in a vacuum – they are in conversation with churches and with pastors – but more importantly they are steeped in prayer and discernment. I believe the Holy Spirit works powerfully in this process.
The appointive process has been a powerful force for justice and change in the church as well. When women were first ordained in the United Methodist Church there were many many churches who would never have considered interviewing a female minister should they have an interview or call process, but through the appointive process, women have been given the opportunity to pastor, grow, and serve these churches. The same is true for minorities and people of color.
The appointive process serves pastors and the church by providing both accountability and protection, by allowing exchange of ideas and recognition of change, and by encouraging the laity to take ownership of the ministry of their church. It helps maintain the connection of the church and lessen the chance of fragmentation, as pastors are accountable to each other and the church as a whole rather than to the good graces of their individual congregation.
Appointment season can be a weird and nerve-wracking time in the life of a church or a pastor. As Decatur First, David, and I all wait to hear whether our appointments will change or stay the same this year, we trust that God works powerfully through this season and through this process.
If you have any questions about the appointive process or anything else in this crazy tribe called Methodism, feel free to email me!