An Ignored Injustice Within the UMC

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818If you follow my social media, you may know that I have just completed the 2017 edition of what I have dubbed the “Tour de Annual Conference,” where I attend sessions of the Mississippi and Kentucky annual conferences. I feel that since Mississippi is giving me financial aid for seminary it’s vital that I continue to participate in the life of that conference. Likewise, as I am serving in Kentucky I am there to represent my congregation and to participate in the conference which is allowing me to serve.

Just as other annual conferences have done/will do, Mississippi and Kentucky took up the proposed constitutional amendments that General Conference passed for affirmation or defeat by the annual conferences. Both Bishop James Swanson (Mississippi) and Bishop Leonard Fairley (Kentucky) issued a reminder that while the ministry of licensed local pastors is important, they are not allowed to vote on these amendments. I do believe that their words were sincere but it was also a reminder of a major injustice that has been allowed to take place in the United Methodist Church that has been mostly ignored.

In a nutshell, licensed local pastors are not treated as equals.

Currently, I am a licensed local pastor (LLP). I became licensed during the 2013 session of the Mississippi Annual Conference, the last class of new licensees to be part of Mississippi’s Ordering of Ministry service (the explanation is that LLPs are not actually licensed until they receive an appointment, so now they are recognized and presented their licenses once appointments are set). I affirm this vital part of ministry because I am doing it now, but I do intend to pursue ordination after I complete seminary.

For various reasons, some LLPs – either by calling or their life circumstances – choose to remain as LLPs for their ministry careers. In order to do this. LLPs are required to complete the prescribed Course of Study (which takes several years) and to participate in continuing education. Under our current polity, LLPs are not ordained and can only perform the duties of an Elder within the parameters of their appointment. Elders are always Elders but one is only an LLP as long as they are under appointment. No appointment, no license. In that vein, LLPs are also not guaranteed an appointment.

Most of the LLPs I have had the pleasure to know are committed to their church. While some, like me, are not cradle Methodists, LLPs are no less committed to their church and have invested much time and energy into becoming better pastors and in serving their congregations well. Most participate in the life of their annual conference and districts.

And yet, LLPs are not allowed to vote on constitutional amendments or to serve as delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference.

Increasingly, the United Methodist Church is having to rely more and more on LLPs in order to ensure that as many congregations as possible have a pastor, lest we return to the circuit rider model where a pastor may oversee many churches at once, often serving the sacraments and preaching at each congregation once a quarter and utilizing lay preachers to fill in the gaps. The numbers from the Lewis Center tell the story. Here’s a quote from an article that United Methodist News Service ran about the rise of LLPs that uses numbers from GCFA and the Lewis Center:

The denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration reports that from 2010 to 2015, the number of ordained elders and provisional member elders serving churches dropped from 15,806 to 14,614.

Though the denomination was shrinking in the United States, local pastors appointed to churches climbed from 6,193 to 7,569 in that time. Both full-time and part-time local pastor numbers grew, with the latter growing faster.

The Rev. Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center, has long followed United Methodist clergy trends. He notes that in 1990, elders outnumbered local pastors 5 to 1. That ratio is roughly 2 to 1 now, and drops further when looking just at those in church appointments.

Conferences vary widely in clergy makeup, but the West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma Indian Missionary and Red Bird Missionary conferences had more local pastors than elders serving churches as of summer 2015, according to GCFA. Some other conferences, such as Upper New York, East Ohio, North Alabama and Missouri, are close, and still others acknowledge they are highly dependent on this growing category of clergy.

In other words, the ranks of the ordained are shrinking and the ranks of LLPs are growing. It seems fair to speculate that this trend is not going to change anytime soon.

Other research which has been widely publicized indicates that the numbers of bi-vocational pastors are going to rise to the point that there will come a day where one who is truly in full-time pastoral ministry will be limited only to the largest of congregations.

There are all sorts of reasons why one would choose not to attend seminary but one is certainly the cost (even with financial aid, students often come out of seminary with a heavy load of debt). There also has to be consideration given to the number of people who are coming into pastoral ministry as second or even third career persons.

All of this is to say that the UMC must change the way it treats LLPs as the church’s reliance on LLPs increases. This is not to say that ordination does not still have a place (remember, I plan to pursue ordination) but we must start treating LLPs as equals. Currently, the Book of Discipline indicates that LLPs do not have a vote on constitutional amendments, can not vote for or serve as delegates to General and Jurisdictional conferences, and there is also virtually nothing that an LLP can vote on in the clergy executive session to which they are amenable to.

It should be noted that lay delegates to the annual conference have full voice and vote on constitutional amendments, lay delegates to GC and JC, and other matters not related to ordination and clergy connection. The LLP who potentially serves their congregation does not. If for no other reason than the equalization of clergy and lay representation, this issue needs to be addressed.

I also note that there is a disconnect between how LLPs are treated by leadership and the ordained clergy. I have not personally experienced this but I have heard from many LLPs that they feel very disconnected from the conference due to events and other matters seemingly geared more toward the ordained clergy. Some LLPs do not even feel obligated to participate in district and conference events or even Course of Study due to the perception that they are viewed as second class or that the leadership does not care about them. I have to acknowledge that this is sometimes due to the LLP choosing not to participate in the life of the connection but I also do not doubt that some have been outright mistreated. Conference and district leadership must begin to take LLPs seriously and to hold them accountable.

So I’ve given my thoughts on this topic long enough so now I would like to propose some changes that I would like to see made. I do not have all the answers. I also do not know how some of this would be implemented, but others do and I hope that they will be willing to take some of this on.

  • LLPs must be held accountable so that they finish their educational requirements, take continuing education, and participate in the life of the larger connection. With greater respect and responsibility comes greater accountability. This is probably one of the biggest issues with LLPs at this time. I know for a fact that there are LLPs who have been continued for many years and have made little to even no progress in Course of Study and do not attend anything dealing with the conference or district. LLPs must be connectional and must be willing to submit to fulfilling their educational requirements of they want to be treated as equals.
  • If an LLP refuses to abide by these standards, they should be discontinued. There is no reason to keep someone in an appointment when they refuse to be held to the standard simply for the sake of having a warm body. This does not serve the church or the Kingdom. LLPs who refuse to pursue their education, who refuse to participate in the connection, or who are found to have doctrine and practices that are contrary to that of the United Methodist Church should be removed. To do otherwise is unacceptable.
  • LLPs who have completed either Course of Study or seminary (some with seminary education choose to remain LLPs) should be given full voice and vote in the clergy session (except on matters directly dealing with granting probationary status or the ordination of Elders and Deacons), be allowed to vote on constitutional amendments, to vote for and be eligible to be elected as delegates to General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference. With the number of LLPs rising, it simply does not make sense for LLPs to not have representation.
  • Upon the recommendation of the LLP’s DCOM and approval of the Clergy Session, an LLP who is making satisfactory progress on their education should be allowed to vote for delegates to General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference (but not allowed to serve as delegates) and to vote on constitutional amendments. Again, a LLP who is serving and following the standards and rules should not be deprived of their voice and vote on matters that will impact them. This is not fair and, frankly, does not make sense.
  • Course of Study should be offered with the traditional classroom method along with the option to complete CoS online. This would give more flexibility for LLPs to complete Course of Study faster and in a timeframe and method which would be more conducive to their schedule. This is with bi-vocational pastors in mind but all LLPs would be able to potentially complete Couse of Study faster.
  • Those who pursue seminary should be allowed to complete their Master of Divinity degrees entirely online. Currently, one can complete 2/3 of work online with the remaining 1/3 being obtained in residential classes (often as intensives which meet for a week or two on campus). With modern technology, there is absolutely no reason why one should not be able to complete seminary online. The ability to complete the degree online should not be a replacement for the traditional classroom model but should be allowed to be an option for those who do wish to pursue a seminary education. Not only would this be a benefit to one who wishes to remain an LLP but would also be wonderful for those who wish to pursue ordination.

Licensed Local Pastors are vital to the ministry of the United Methodist Church. Licensed Local Pastors provide vital ministry to small rural churches, at least one megachurch in Texas, and in congregations in between. If current trends hold, LLPs will outnumber Elders at some point. It’s time for LLPs to be treated as equals but also to be held to the same standards of participation and sound doctrine as their ordained brothers and sisters. This injustice in the UMC has been ignored for far too long. It’s time for this to be made right.

And if others won’t work toward it, someday when I’m able… I will.