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.

17 thoughts on “An Ignored Injustice Within the UMC

  1. Good insight. My husband and I served as LPs, he was later ordained as Associate Member and I an Elder under the 1992 Discipline. We were always told that we would never serve a large church, we were invited to leVe a new church development clas, after we had been invited to come, because we were then LPs. Every church we served grew. We both led building campaigns that resulted in new sanctuaries. Yet we were not good enough. We chose to serve God and not the UMC.

    1. Thank you very much to you and your husband for serving the church and for your faithfulness. And thank you for contributing to the conversation.

  2. I am a fellow pastor with you in KY. I am a FLP with 33 years under appointment. I completed my COS rather than going to seminary because by the time I graduated college I was married with 3 kids and $20,000 in student loans ( that I am still paying on).
    When I reached my 20 years of service, I found out that I was not going to be recognized with the Elders and Deacons who had served the same amount of time. The excuse given was that, as a local pastor, it was too difficult to keep up with my years of service (although they are in each year’s pre-conference journal). It was at that point that I experienced the discrimination of being a local pastor.
    Thank you for the article.

    1. I am very sorry to hear that this happened to you. Indeed, this is a major injustice in of itself. You are no less a servant than any other pastor. Thank you so much for your years of kingdom work and for your addition to the conversation.

  3. First, I have been an Full Time Local Licensed Pastor for 17 years with the last 9 years as an Associate Member. I agree fully with 99% of what you say but I disagree on one point. You argue that LLP’s who have finished Course of Study should be equals with ordained elders and deacons. (I get a sense that you would say that LLP’s who have not finished CoS are on par with provisional elders and deacons.) But then you turn around and say that we shouldn’t be able to vote for provisional status or approval of ordination for elders and deacons. Yet, on the flip side, elders and deacons vote for LLP’s being licensed and approval of AM status. In short: your plan is still not equality. Thanks for the great article.

    1. Gary, thanks for your comments. You make a very valid point that I hadn’t considered. Do you feel that each type of clergy should only vote for their fellow licensed/ordained clergy or for the entirity of the clergy session?

      My biggest concern is in how LLPs are allowed to participate in deciding how the church itself is governed, specifically with constittional amendments and JC/GC representation.

      Thanks again for your comments.

  4. You have said everything I have wanted to say. My laity at AC couldn’t understand why they could vote, and their pastor could not.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your words. I’m glad even the laity notice that this does not make sense!

  5. The really ridiculous thing is I was allowed to vote on the GC items this year because I was still in my role as a district lay equalization rep. My appointment starts 7/1 so next year’s AC I won’t be eligible to vote on such things. And yet, I’m the same person with the same education (although I will have a couple of COS classes under my belt next year)
    Oh and the youth laity reps could vote too, I believe. Yeah, that makes sense.

  6. I agree with you whole hartedly. How ever you need to know that Local Pastors who finished the Course of study do have the right to vote on delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference.
    Also, the National Fellowship of Associate Members and Local Pastors has and is working on getting legislation passed that would allow Local Pastors and Associate Members the right to vote on constutional amendments.

  7. Let me make 2 brief comments because there are pages that can be written: 1. At every General Conference petitions are submitted to change the issues dealt with here. Many incremental steps have been accomplished (we didn’t used to be “clergy” and we weren’t admitted to clergy session at all). But there is surely much more to do. It is a General Conference problem. 2. The issue in Clergy Session and GC delegates isn’t an ordination problem, but rather a membership problem. Only full members of the conference can vote on many things and serve as GC delegates. Ordained pastors from other denominations cannot either and the list goes on. There is one organization that has consistently advocated for LLPs and that is the National Fellowship of Associate Members and Local Pastors and almost none of you belong. Get your own priorities straight and we can be a force to reckon with.

    1. I am finishing my first year of being appointed as an LLP. I start my COS this July, I’m very new, and still learning. Can you email me information about these organizations? Thank you

  8. I appreciate your insight as I am also appointed LLP. My Lay Leader remarked that having more LLP’s may be a political move. When you want to stack the vote on an issue, you control who can vote. By in large, licensed locals tend and trend in a different direction on the future of the church than most church administrators. This particular congregant also observed that like most corporate entities, the UMC can save money by utilizing lower-paid and part-time workers. Both practices bring up some serious ethical questions. From what I understand, even LLP’s can submit a petition to GC if we want to take up the point. Right now, there is not a lot of advocacy for our position.

  9. Do not discount the formative aspect which Seminary (and CoS I’m sure) is supposed to have on those who attend. This is the reason for the 1/3 on campus requirement, I believe. I’m sure the degree of formation that actually takes place varies between seminaries (and CoS providers), but whatever can be had, should IMO.

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