Ministry Study Commission Drafting Legislation for General Conference 2012

Article by Vicki Brown*

The Study of Ministry Commission has mapped out changes that include a shift away from security of employment for elders, a move to group candidacy mentoring, and separating ordination from full annual conference membership.
“The 2008 General Conference asked us to streamline the ordination process and make changes that would move us to mission-oriented rather than a clergy-oriented church,” said Bishop Al Gwinn, chair of the commission.
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“We can’t expect the 2012 General Conference just to trust us, so we want to continue the conversation with the church and its bodies regarding our work as we determine the legislation that needs to be written to accomplish the things we need to do to have a healthy church,” Gwinn said.
However, Gwinn said action must be taken. “If we do not choose in 2012 to fix the situation in a way to make the church healthier and to have a more missional stance, finances are going to fix it for us,” he said.
“For example, if we have five more clergy than we need, we put them in churches that can’t afford it. Furthermore, those churches then get behind in pension and insurance and the annual conference has to take money from resources to make up the pension and insurance those churches couldn’t pay,” Gwinn said.
Eventually, he said, the annual conferences cannot afford to make up the difference.
Several members of the Ministry Study Commission led a discussion on the proposals during the General Board of Higher Education’s fall meeting in Nashville in October.
Culture of Call
Although there are too many clergy in some areas, commission members expressed concern about the still low numbers of young people entering ministry and the decline in the percentage of middle-age clergy poised to assume leadership in the church.
The Rev. Meg Lassiat, GBHEM’s director of Candidacy, Mentoring, and Conference Relations, said that while the percentage of young clergy has increased, the numbers are still alarmingly small – just 946 elders and 89 deacons were under age 35 in 2010.
And she said there are fewer middle-age clergy positioned to assume executive or
large-church clergy leadership positions.
“Clergy age 35 to 54 now make up only 45 percent of elders. In 1985, 65 percent of active elders were in that age group,” Lassiat said. To address the continuing small percentage of young adult clergy, the commission calls on conference Boards of Ordained Ministry to give strategic leadership to annual conference, districts, congregations, campus ministries, camps, and other appropriate ministries to create a culture of call among youth and young adults.
The commission has three proposals aimed at improving the candidacy process:
·         Having a vocational discernment coordinator on the Board of Ordained Ministry in each annual conference
·         Requiring a ministry prep school for all elder, deacon, or local pastor candidates immediately after certification as a candidate.
·         Moving to group candidacy mentoring.
Bishop Grant Hagiya said that lack of access to trained mentors has been “one of the huge bottlenecks.”
In addition, commissioning will be dropped. The practice of commissioning has not been well understood or accepted by the church, causing confusion and diminishing the nature of the gift of ordination, several members said.
“The Boards of Ordained Ministry will oversee candidates earlier, and ordination will replace commissioning in the process,” Hagiya said.
Ordination and provisional membership could occur as early as the completion of educational requirements, and would be separated from full conference membership, he said.
Security of Employment
The Rev. David Dodge said that the commission believes security of employment, commonly called guaranteed appointment, has been a barrier to fulfilling the church’s mission.
“It results in caring for the needs of clergy rather than the needs of the church. It restricts flexibility and is not sustainable,” Dodge said.
“Our vision is fruitful congregations that are transforming individuals and communities served by effective clergy undergirded by a system that is itinerant, open, flexible, and responsive,” Dodge said.
The commission affirmed the practice of itinerancy as effective and responsive to the covenantal obedience to call.
In order to accomplish the shift away from security of appointment, Dodge said the commission calls on the general church to determine limited and standard fitness assessments, and if necessary, revise transitional leave policies.
Annual conferences, Boards of Ordained Ministry, cabinets, and bishops will need to determine a clear definition of and method for evaluating clergy, as well as coordinating with the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits on resources, methods, and practices for voluntary separation of employment and employment transitions.
Bishop James Swanson expressed concern that the role of the candidate’s home church and home church pastor is being reduced.
“In the move to expediency, some are moving away from the candidate’s meeting first his or her own pastor and having the opportunity to preach, do Bible study, and practice what it really means to be a pastor,” he said.
The possibility of discrimination against women and racial-ethnic clergy was also a concern.
Hagiya and Gwinn said the commission had asked for input from the Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the General Commission on Race and Religion about how to protect women and racial-ethnic clergy from discrimination when the church moves away from guaranteed appointment.
“There also must be a process by which clergy can appeal if they are not appointed,” he said.
Sacramental Authority
The Rev. Ianther Mills reported on the commission’s recommendations concerning sacramental authority, expressing concern that ministry is becoming isolated rather than collaborative.
“Sacramental authority extends through the bishop to the Order of Elders and sacraments should be available to the whole church, with authority given to deacons for missional purposes and local pastors when an elder is not available,” she said.
*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.