The message given in the Wheatland Parish Sunday, August 31, 2014. The Bible verses used are Luke 10:1-11.
Today we come to the end of our sermon series, “Why Do We Do That?” We’ve talked about a lot of stuff so far. We’ve talked about why we allow for so much difference of opinion within the United Methodist Church. We’ve talked about why we take communion and why we offer it to everyone. We’ve talked about why we baptize people, and why we allow for infant baptism. Last week we talked about why, as United Methodists, we’ll perform a funeral for anyone who wants one, with no questions asked.
So this week, as we conclude our sermon series, we’re going to look at an issue that’s very important to me personally. Why, in the United Methodist Church, are pastors appointed to churches by the conference?
It would not have to be that way, of course. As you know, there are denominations in which the local church is in charge of hiring its pastor. In fact, there are denominations right here in town which do it that way. In those churches, the pastor stays as long as both he or she wants to stay there and the local church wants them to stay there. And if either the pastor wants to leave or the church decides it’s time for them to leave, then the local church has both the right and the responsibility of finding their next pastor.
That’s not how it is in the United Methodist Church. The churches of the Wheatland Parish did not hire me. Wanda and I might never have come here if the churches of the parish had gone out and had to hire someone. We are here because we were appointed here by the cabinet, the District Superintendents and the Bishop, of the Dakotas Conference. And we will stay here until the cabinet of the Dakotas Conference decides to appoint us somewhere else. That could be a long time, and we certainly hope that it is, but neither you nor we have any guarantee of that. All assignments, for all United Methodist Churches, are made on a year-to-year basis. We are guaranteed to be here through June of 2015. Again, we hope to be here much longer, but no one, not even the conference, knows for sure whether we will be. We all just have to wait and see.
Now, I don’t want you to take that the wrong way. These appointments are not made arbitrarily by people just acting on a whim. The cabinet asks my opinion about whether I want to stay or move, and my opinion is taken into consideration. The cabinet asks the parish’s opinion, too, through the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, and their opinion is taken into consideration as well. But the cabinet is not bound by anyone’s opinion. It still has the final say.
So why do we do that? Why do we assign pastors on a year-to-year basis, rather then letting the local church hire them?
Well, one reason we do that is that we’ve always done it that way. The United Methodist Church came from the Church of England, which came from the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church appoints priests. So, when Methodism was started, that was the method that was used.
There’s a lot more to it than that, of course. We can point to a Biblical basis for it. That’s why we read the passage from Luke today. When Jesus sent out the seventy-two, Jesus did not say “Go wherever you want to go and stay as long as you like.” Jesus sent them to specific places to do a specific job. Once they had done that job, it was time for them to move on. You could say that the appointment system started with Jesus himself.
There are practical reasons for it, too. By using an appointment system, the United Methodist Church can guarantee that every church will have a pastor. We could not do that if each church had to find its own pastor. And that especially has implications for a parish like this, where we’re in small towns in a rural area. There are a lot of pastors who would not like coming to a three-point charge in a rural area.
Don’t get me wrong, as I said, Wanda and I love it here and would like to stay a long time. But if, for some reason, this parish had to go out and hire someone on its own, it could be quite a while before someone was found. You’ve probably seen that happen in some churches. In fact, that’s the reason I was a pastor in the United Church of Christ is Wessington Springs for two years before I got my first United Methodist appointment--they had a pastor leave, and they had a hard time finding someone who wanted to come to a small town in a rural area. After I got my first appointment, it was six more months before they found someone. That can leave a church in a tough spot.
There’s another thing that can happen in small town churches that have to find their own pastor. Sometimes, a church is not particularly happy with the pastor they have, and the pastor is not particularly happy to be serving that church. But the church knows that if they let the current pastor go, they may have a hard time finding another one. And the pastor knows that if he leaves, he may have a hard time finding another church to serve. And so it becomes kind of like a bad marriage, where neither side is happy but neither side wants to leave. That’s not a good spot for either a church or a pastor to be in.
None of those things will happen in the United Methodist Church. Each church, as long as it’s paying its apportionments, is guaranteed a pastor. And each ordained pastor, as long as he or she is in good standing with the conference, is guaranteed an appointment.
Now, that’s not to say that our system is perfect. It’s not. No system designed by humans is perfect. The cabinet does its best to make good appointments that will be good for both the parish and the pastor, but they’re human, and sometimes they make mistakes. And sometimes, there just isn’t a really good match to be made. Sometimes there just aren’t the same number of round pegs as there are round holes. It would be a tough job to make all these appointments. The cabinet does its best, but that’s all it can do.
And of course, from a pastor’s point of view, the appointment system sometimes means you have to leave a place where you’d like to stay. Sometimes it means you have to go to a place you’d rather not go. And sometimes you have to stay in a place you’d rather not stay. I know pastors who’ve had all those things happen. Again, the cabinet is trying to do its best, but sometimes there are situations where there just are not a lot of good options at the moment, and it’s not possible to make everyone happy. That’s just the way it is.
But there’s another aspect to this, too. It’s something you’ve probably heard many times, but I don’t know if you’ve thought of it in this context. It’s the fact that sometimes, God does not give us what we want. Instead, God gives us what we need. That’s true for pastors, too. And it’s also true for churches.
Wanda and I would love it if it worked out that we could stay here the rest of our careers and retire here. Some of you have been kind enough to say that you’d like us to stay a long time, too. But that may not be what God has in mind. It may not be what’s best for us, and it may not be what’s best for this parish.
Since I got out of school, I’ve lived in a few different places. I’ve lived in Pierre, where I met Wanda. We’ve lived in Wessington Springs. We've lived in North Sioux City. And now, we live here.
Each time it came time to move, even if it was our choice, there was a part of us that did not want to go. Because everywhere we’ve been, we’ve made wonderful friends. And everywhere we’ve been, we’ve been very happy. And everywhere we’ve been, we’ve had the thought that we’d be happy to stay there the rest of our lives.
But so far, God has had a different plan. And every time we’ve moved, God moved us to something better. And every time we’ve moved, it led to something better for the people and the churches we left behind, too. Wanda and I did not get to have what we wanted, but what God had in mind turned out to be better for everyone concerned.
Now, of course, the cabinet is not God. But the cabinet is made up of good people who pray and do their best to serve God and do God’s will. And God can certainly act through the cabinet to put people in places where they can best serve God. And God can also act through the cabinet to send to churches the pastors they need.
The appointment system is not a perfect system. But why do we do that? We do it because, despite its flaws, we believe it is the best way to get pastors in the places they need to be and to get churches the pastors they need to have. What we need may or may not be what we want at the time. But if we pray and rely on God, it will be what’s best.