Why am I a part-time local pastor

by Teddy Ray*

I’ve been surprised by the number of messages I’ve received from people asking why I’m a local pastor — and why part-time. They want to know why I’m not pursuing ordination as an elder in the United Methodist Church; or if not an elder, why wouldn’t I be ordained as a deacon.

For me, making the decision to stop the process at licensed local pastor was a very intentional, theological, values-laden decision. Especially for those who are trying to discern their own place in this system, I’ll share some of my reasoning.

Why local pastor?

When Paul writes to Titus about appointing elders (presbuteroi — note that it’s plural) in every town, and when Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in each church, I suspect that those elders they appoint are existing members of those communities. What are the apostles doing, then? It appears that they are recognizing some of the people in those communities for their gifts and their calling to leadership within the community. Then they’re appointing leaders from within them.

I’m in a unique situation. The church I serve is the church I grew up in. That’s not really a coincidence so much as it’s an intentional decision. I’d go so far as to call it a very particular calling. As a lifelong member of First UMC Lexington, so much of my own understanding of ministry and calling has been to lead within my community. Not as a professional outsider, but as someone who might be similar to those presbuteroi whom Paul and Barnabas appointed.

Because of this understanding of calling and ministry, I haven’t been able to pursue ordination with integrity. Itineracy is at the heart of elders’ orders in the UMC’s current practice. For anyone who becomes an elder, it’s emphasized that they’re taking a vow to go wherever their bishop sends them.

I can’t vow with integrity to go where the bishop sends.

If the bishop came to me tomorrow and said, “I’m sending you to Owensboro,” I don’t think I would go. Yes, I’d pray about it. But that kind of role — going as an outsider to serve as a temporary chaplain — while it may be appropriate for many, just doesn’t fit my understood calling or function in ministry. Moreover, it doesn’t fit our family’s values.

Now I’ve heard more than a few dozen times that itineracy is a “consultative process”; that the bishop would not  just call me tomorrow and tell me I’m going to Owensboro. There would be several conversations — with me, with the church where I am now, with the church in Owensboro. I have seen that in action. I believe that is (mostly) true. But at the end of the day, it’s still the decision of the bishop. And if I say no, it’s me who broke my vow. I can’t deal with that kind of breach of integrity. The truth is, even with a consultative process, I’m just not sure I can vow to go where a bishop sends me.

My District Superintendent was quick to remind me that local pastors are still appointed and can be moved, too. My response: “But if I choose not to accept that move, I won’t have broken my vow.”

The question that follows: “Is this an issue of submission? You’re unwilling to submit to the bishop?

No, that’s really not it. I do submit to my bishop. But my submission is about whether or not I’m allowed to lead my community. My bishop can come at any point and remove me from my position. I know that. And I submit to that. I’ve been reminded by several people that one of the downsides to being a licensed local pastor is that you can have your appointment removed at any time.

So in a peculiar way, I see my submission to the bishop as opposite that of ordained elders. An ordained elder with guaranteed appointment submits to where (s)he will serve, but not whether (s)he will serve. My submission is more similar to what I think was happening in those communities where Titus and Paul and Barnabas appointed elders. I don’t think Paul would have ever gone into Ephesus and told one of its elders to go be an elder in Corinth. But he may have gone in and removed an elder. So I’m submitting not to where, but to whether I will be an authorized pastor in my community.

And the one other question that I hear: “Why not be ordained as a deacon? Deacons don’t itinerate.

No, they don’t, but their ordination is also quite different. Deacons are ordained to word, service, compassion, and justice. Elders are ordained to word, sacrament, and order. I understand the latter to be my primary calling. I find the sacraments and ordering the life of the church for ministry right at the heart of my calling, so to be ordained as a deacon just doesn’t  work. Fortunately for me, the UMC recognizes the licensed local pastor as one licensed to word, sacrament, service, and ordering the life of the local congregation. That fits.

To be clear in all of this, I believe the UMC’s system of itineracy and appointment is workable and faithful. It’s not that I don’t believe it’s a right way. I just don’t believe it’s the only way – or that it’s the way for me and my family. Serving as a local pastor has allowed me to find a place in the UMC.

One final reason for being a licensed local pastor is that I’m able to be classified as “part-time.” That proves to be a big deal…

Why part-time?

A number of others have asked why I’m designated as part-time. (My job description lists me as full-time, and I work full-time, but I’m listed with the conference as part-time.) This is a much easier question to answer: I’m part-time because of money.

If I were declared full-time, it would cost my church $19,000 to bring me up to the minimum required for full-time local pastors (the minimum in the link is for elders – it’s $4,000 less for local pastors). My church would do that. I have no question about it. They have never pressured me not to be listed as full-time and have even pressured me to take salary increases at times in the past. But if you’ve read anything I’ve written about pastors’ salaries, you know I believe there’s a more faithful way to use the church’s collection. My wife works part-time, so we have other income, and we have never worried about meeting our needs. Perhaps that situation will change some day, but for now, I can’t justify taking any more from the church than I have.

For any of you who have shared my concerns about the church’s use of money, this could be a way for you to do something different. Our conferences set minimum requirements, and the only way to avoid them is through part-time status. I’m told some bishops use their appointive power as a way to make churches keep raising salaries: “If you don’t give him/her a raise, I might need to make a change.” The part-time designation can also avoid some of those politics.

I hope this is helpful to any of you who are considering your own role in this whole process. I’d love to answer more questions if you have them, or to hear your thoughts.

*In July 2013, Teddy began a sabbatical year with his family, serving with One Mission Society in Spain. Previously, he served as the Executive Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lexington, KY, and as the founding pastor of the Offerings Community, one of First UMC’s three faith communities. Teddy writes about theology and ministry at www.teddyray.com. See more about his year on sabbatical at www.sabbaticalyear.org

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3 Comments on "Why am I a part-time local pastor"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Joseph Boggs
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Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am a youngish (30s) Methodist Pastor who is also pursuing an intentional licensed local pastor ministry in a specific context. It is not the church I grew up in but it is a church to which I feel a particular call and for which I feel a deep love. Until I stumbled across your article while researching a seminary paper (Yes, I’m still in seminary even though I have no immediate plans to get ordained) on the orders of ministry, I thought I was alone in my way of thinking. You give voice… Read more »
sylvia
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Thank you again! I have now had time to read your whole article on local pastors. Maybe we could consider the fact that to our congregations we don't live in ivory towers of over flowing fountains of conjecture. We live in Dallas now with our gay son and his partner and they take care of us and enjoy us. I wish we could just speak as parents and calm the fears of those who think we are all going to 'hell in a basket'. I don't know where you live but if you ever come to Dallas to Grace Reconciling… Read more »
saltychris
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You've voiced a few of the concerns/thoughts that I've had but have yet to set to paper in my own provisional-to-ordination process. Thanks for sharing this.

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