Graphic courtesy of MFSA
Current UMC StructureProposals to restructure The United Methodist Church are ignoring an impending wave of clergy retirements, says the Rev. Jerry Eckert.
The Call to Action and Plan B ignore an impending crisis among pastors available for appointment.
Between 1970 and 1980, around 5,900 full elders were ordained and entered annual conferences in the United States. Now, 32 to 42 years later, only somewhere near 2,500 have already retired. That means that 3,700 pastors will be retiring over the next several years, according to estimates I requested from GCFA. This in turn means that 60 fully trained experienced pastors on average will leave each U.S. annual conference over the next eight years.
That figure does not take into account the number of pastors who are second-career elders that entered with maybe only ten years to serve before reaching retirement age. It does not take into account the number of pastors being told by their Cabinets that they are not appointable, who will be forced out of ministry without Fair Process. It does not take into account the increasing number of pastors retiring early. It does not take into account the number of retirees who stay on to serve full or part-time.
With so many factors, most of which only add to the impending crisis, I challenge the General Conference to consider this issue very seriously.
Ah, but the wonderful emphasis on seeking young people to come into the ministry will surely more than fill in behind the retiring pastors to provide us with fully trained elders.
At the 2008 General Conference, students and pastors under 35 demonstrated as "Spotted Owls," an endangered species. Statistics bear up their assertion:
"The percentage of elders and deacons younger than 35 is too low to meet current and future needs for ordained leadership. The percentage of young elders increased to 5.47 percent in 2010, the highest in over a decade. Clergy aged 35-54 now represent 45 percent of elders, down from 65 percent in 1985. In 2010, for the first time, over half of active elders are age 55-72. Deacons show increasing age trends but still have only 9.56 percent under age 35." -- 2010 Clergy Age Trends Report, Lewis Center for Church Leadership
And what of the movement encouraged by church leaders to bring in more enthusiastic local pastors to replace the "professional" elders who are blamed for the decline in church membership?
Despite that emphasis since the 1980s, local pastors have not reversed the downward spiral. That could be because when a district superintendent is done with a local pastor, without warning the local pastor is never again given an appointment, invariably with no explanation.
Every pastor in the denomination is watching all these short-term, sometimes cruel, procedures. Morale in most conferences is lower than it has ever been.
The crisis is further complicated by the immediate problem cabinets face on the east and west coasts of the United States. Their churches are diminishing in size and closing at an alarming rate. Many of those conferences now have a surplus of pastors.
Unfortunately, cabinets are taking a short range view by, as I assert above, telling older Anglo pastors in some conferences and women and ethnic pastors in others that they are unappointable, have to go part-time, or are incompetent (allegations usually from prejudiced cliques known as "clergy killers" but who have to be accommodated because "the customer is always right").
Because of that short-range strategy of dumping elders who have higher salaries whenever they can get away with it, cabinets are seen more and more as toxic. And the families and friends of those pastors are often as devastated as the pastors themselves and tend to stop coming to The United Methodist Church.
I hope there have been serious discussions in annual conferences about negotiating equalizing episcopal and superintendent salaries with those of other pastors., facilitating transfers to conferences with pulpits needing to be filled, or other imaginative solutions. I have not seen any sign of such alternatives.
And now comes The Call to Action, basically the Council of Bishops through various agencies, asking for even more freedom to remove pastors. Granting the bishops such power will exacerbate the crisis of declining clergy numbers through retirement in the coming years. With unaccountable toxic cabinets and clergy-killer church members, we will end up with too few clergy and no one wanting to enter the awful workplace atmosphere we currently have. And that will add to the down spiral of our demographics, meaning even more churches will close.
The Call to Action fails to address the real problems facing our church. Among other things, it gives no heed to the coming crisis of clergy retiring and worsens the prospects of retaining competent clergy. Plan B avoids the pitfall of enhancing episcopal power over employment of pastors, but also fails to realize the coming sharp decline in clergy.
Have these two major options come close to dealing with the real issues facing the Church as we meet in Tampa? Are more important issues raised in other petitions (some of mine among them) going to be ignored in the episcopal-centered rush to control the outcome?
While I do not agree with every suggestion made by the Church Systems Task Force, please note that research has supported many of my assertions about the dis-ease among clergy and their families about being between groups not held accountable by anyone, Cabinets and local church antagonists. See Cynthia Astle's article on the Church Systems report (link below).
The Rev. Jerry Eckert of Port Charlotte, Florida, is a retired clergy member of the Wisconsin Annual Conference and a member of Associates in Advocacy, a volunteer organization whose members serve as counsel for pastors during the United Methodist "fair process" procedure. A version of this essay also is posted on the AIA blog.