Commentary: Appointment process is a 'task beyond mere humans'

Commentary: Appointment process is a 'task beyond mere humans'

It is appointment time again. As a minister and a preacher’s kid, I’ve lived with this annual anxiety for most of my life, divided roughly into four-year increments. When I was a child, my family expected to move whenever my father was in his fourth year at any church. Regardless of circumstances or “projections,” every year could possibly be the occasion of another move.

The prospect of moving always brought a mixture of dread and hope. The moving process itself was the dreadful part. Having to make new friends was difficult, but it was also an opportunity to reinvent myself. If I was perpetually the new kid in town, no one at the new school knew about my silly mistakes at the previous school.

Now that I’ve been under appointment for 17 years and am the father of two girls, I have more dread than hope this time of year. Early in my ministry, I still believed I could leave behind my silly mistakes and problems. I thought I could move on to greener pastures and start over fresh. I soon learned that every church has problems, and I will always make mistakes. These days, I would rather deal directly with the problems and live with my mistakes than go through the distress of moving my children.

Itinerancy is one of the defining features of the United Methodist Church. When I talk with members of other denominations, the phrase “You all move around a lot” comes up even before infant baptism. The traveling preacher was on every frontier as our nation was settled. The itinerancy system is designed to keep clergy fresh and allow us to be bold and prophetic without fearing for our jobs.

Our Methodist method has undergone adjustments in the last several years, however. New appointments are now made with the expectation of a five-year term. Unless there are major issues, the annual anxiety is expected to take a back seat to the regular concerns of ministry. I believe this stability will help both churches and pastors. Like Rick Warren said in The Purpose Driven Church, “A long pastorate does not guarantee a church will grow, but changing pastors every few years guarantees a church won't grow.”

Each year at this time, I have some colleagues who obsessively track the appointments – resulting in much criticism, bewilderment, and wonder. Aside from my own appointment and those of a few close friends, I honestly do not follow who goes where. I certainly do not angle for a new appointment just to get a raise. It is worth money in the bank not to have to pack! If I want a bigger church, I need to concentrate on growing the one where I am.

Without going into details, I was sorely disappointed when I learned of my latest appointment. I was so discouraged I penned a letter to the bishop that was never mailed. When it came down to it, my wife and I again surrendered to the call -- after many tears and prayers. Lo and behold, the church I serve has turned out to be a great blessing to my entire family, and I thank God every day I was sent here.

Do I ascribe this wonderful match to the unmatched wisdom of the cabinet? No offense to our leaders, but not really. The bishop and district superintendents must consider all variables, but the appointment-making process is a task beyond mere humans. I imagine appointing pastors is like assembling a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle in which the picture keeps changing.

Still, insofar as our leaders approach this massive undertaking humbly and with prayer, God can and does work through them. The cabinet is composed of people and thus subject to all of humanity’s frailties and failings. I forgive them of these… so long as they do not move me until I am ready.

The Rev. Doyal is pastor at Rutherford Memorial United Methodist Church in Knoxville District.