United Methodist News Service Photo by Jill Shirley, Minnesota Annual Conference.
The Rev. Rufus Campbell (left) and the Rev. Judy Zabel assist in the ordination of the Rev. Katie Menne during the 2010 Minnesota Annual Conference meeting in Saint Cloud, Minn.
With all the hoopla around proposals to restructure The United Methodist Church, create a presiding bishop and do away with guaranteed clergy appointments, one study report that contains startling research about the denomination's culture and employment practices seems to be flying under the radar.
However, if its recommendations are adopted by the 2012 General Conference, the Church Systems Study may do more to revolutionize the United Methodist environment at the annual conference and local congregation levels than any other proposal under consideration.
The Church Systems Study had its genesis at the 2008 General Conference in response to 20 years of stress on annual conferences from constantly out-of-control insurance costs for United Methodist clergy. The rate of insurance premiums increase was exacerbated by two factors: longevity of retired clergy with their attendant health care needs, and the increasingly poor health of active United Methodist pastors.
A task force assigned to the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits conducted the Church Systems Study. While flashier projects such as Call to Action, Ministry and Global Church were gaining attention, Church Systems labored quietly gathering first-level research in the form of listening sessions and second-level research compiling statistics on clergy health and lifestyle practices.
Extensive field research
In contrast to other studies' fairly modest field interviews, the Church Systems Task Force held extensive listening sessions with interest groups around the denomination: four with clergy and laity in four different annual conferences; two with conference cabinets and other leaders; three sessions with ethnic/racial clergy; three sessions with groups from conference boards of ordained ministry; three sessions with directors from general agencies; and five sessions with representatives from groups such as annual conference treasurers, seminaries, conference pension and benefits officers and the Ministry Study commission.
In addition, more than 1,000 clergy were surveyed along with in-depth telephone interviews with 50 selected clergy.
Results of the study paint a disturbing portrait of The United Methodist Church as a workplace in which the negative effects of pastoral ministry almost outweigh the positive benefits of fulfilling spiritual call and serving others.
Listed on page 606 of Volume 2, Section 1 of the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, the collection of General Conference reports and legislation, the Church Systems study report identifies 13 factors that influence clergy health and consequently affected the cost of health care insurance for clergy and their families across the U.S. United Methodist Church. Following are verbatim descriptions of these influences.
Personal centeredness: Feeling a lack of control over one's life; ruminating about the past; difficulty experiencing the presence of God.
Eating habits with work that often includes food: Struggling to maintain a healthy diet with food available at church meetings, social gatherings and home visits.
Work/life balance: Having difficulty balancing multiple roles; feeling guilty taking time to exercise; avoiding health care because of time demands; struggling to achieve overall work/life balance.
Job satisfaction: Feeling dissatisfied with one's appointments; feeling isolated at work; feeling disappointed with ministry; wishing for a way to exit the United Methodist system.
Personal finances: High debt [often from educational loans needed to fulfill United Methodist educational requirements for clergy]; low income; few assets; little to no personal savings.
Outside interests and social life: A lack of hobbies, outside interests and/or participation in group activities for personal renewal; having few friends or people with whom one can share personal issues; feeling detached from one's community.
Relationship with congregation: Feeling judged rather than supported. Feeling the congregation's expectations are too high or do not match one's own beliefs about the appropriate pastoral role; feeling the congregation desires a clergyperson with a different leadership style; avoiding relationships with congregation members so as to avoid improprieties; avoiding health care for fear that parishioners might find out.
Stressors of the appointment process: Feeling stressed by the appointment process; feeling reluctant to tell one's district superintendent because of the power he or she holds over appointments; feeling resentful about being paid less than laypeople in similar professions.
Marital and family satisfaction: Low marital satisfaction among clergy with families; low appointment satisfaction among spouses and/or children.
Existential burdens of ministry: Feeling obligated to carry the weight of others' emotional and spiritual burdens; being overwhelmed by the needs of others and the sheer importance of the issues to be addressed in ministry; feeling expected to solve unsolvable mysteries.
Living authentically: Feeling unable to be one's "authentic self"; failing to live according to deeply held personal values and beliefs.
Education and preparation for ministry: Feeling unprepared by seminary for the everyday responsibilities of ministry; feeling one lacks the skills and training necessary to excel at pastoral duties.
Appointment changes and relocation: More frequent appointment changes; more frequent long-distance moves.
Seeking work/life balance
Using the results of its study, the task force drafted legislation for General Conference that follows the clergy career timeline from entering the ministry to guidelines for work/life balance, itinerancy and appointment-making, the supervisory system and exiting ordained ministry.
In addition to its extensive first- and second-level research, the Church Systems Task Force said that it was important to its members to give clergy the opportunity to voice their concerns directly. The task force reviewed transcripts from in-depth clergy telephone interviews and included quotes from these interviews in its report.
Realities of ministry: "Seminary prepared me for ministry very poorly. Ministry is not taught as a course of study. You learn history, theology, your learn polity, but as to the nuts and bolts and the reality of administration (we are the CEOs of the church), that is not talked about or taught."
Prioritize work/life balance: "Being a minister, it's hard to define what is work time and what is your own time in terms of doing things like going to the gym. You feel guilty if you go during the afternoon, but you have meetings all morning and all afternoon and into the night and the afternoon is when [you have time.]"
Longer tenure: "It takes six or seven years to really build up that deep trust that exists in a congregation. When you move your clergy sooner than—and it often happens much more quickly than that—you never build it."
Separate spiritual guide: "The structure of our Church says that the clergy's [pastor] is the district superintendent, but … the problem is the DS makes your appointment. The DS is in charge of judging you. The DS rarely becomes your support person, trainer or any of those things. It just doesn't work that way. The DS is the one person you can't go to when you're in trouble."
The Church Systems Task Force has made 11 recommendations in legislation to be considered by the General Conference. They include:
- A request for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry to study seminary student financial aid and indebtedness;
- Modifications in the Book of Discipline to set guidelines for healthy work/life balance for clergy, including regular vacations or time off, and swift resolution of parsonage issues affecting the well-being of clergy families;
- To foster longer-term appointments, remove the word "annual" from Paragraph 334.2 to shift expectation that appointments are only for one year. Church Systems consulted with the Ministry Study commission, but did not support or oppose the Ministry Study's recommendation to remove guaranteed appointment for clergy.
- Make retiree health insurance benefits portable, that is to have any accrued benefits move with clergy should they move to another annual conference or appointment beyond the local church.
- Redefine the role of the district superintendent, and provide other spiritual guides and vocational mentors apart from superintendents for clergy throughout their career.
- Create voluntary transition programs in annual conferences to provide "grace-filled" exits from ordained ministry.
The Church Systems Task Force report and recommendations will come to the floor of General Conference through the Financial Administration legislative committee.