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Matching pastors, local churches

By Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor

Whether you sit in the pew or stand in the pulpit each Sunday, the appointment process is important to United Methodists. Churches grow to love their pastors and pastors grow to love their churches. It is a very special relationship.

From the very beginning of this Methodist movement, ministers have been appointed and sent forth to serve. Many of our congregations in South Carolina trace their history back to those early days. Francis Asbury traveled through this territory and preached in the churches more than 200 years ago. Methodists were at work long before there was independence and the United States of America. It was a time when preachers were admitted on trial into the traveling connection.  Because of the missional actions of the Preachers in Connection,  circuits were established and annual conferences were born.

Although many things have evolved in the assignments of ministers to particular local churches rather than to large circuits in those earliest times, one thing has remained the same. It is and has always been about mission. Those entrusted with the task have been sending preachers to places in the hope that they will establish and build up the body of Christ.

At the upcoming General Conference, delegates will talk a lot about congregational vitality. Along with other conferences, our churches have been setting goals and planning ways to grow our ministries. The question is always, How can we help our churches be the very best that they can be? 

Each year at Annual Conference, one of the final actions is to fix the appointments.  Although folks may notice who is moving, the list of appointments includes everyone. In preparation for that announcement, the district superintendents and I will spend a lot of time in prayer, discussion, discernment and more prayer.

At the close of 2011, in South Carolina there were 1,015 churches and 1,108 total clergy. This means that there are potentially 1,124,620 appointment possibilities. As I quote that large number, I realize that I have just given you the total numbers without taking into account all of the individual factors related to every local church and every clergyperson. All of the important dynamics that make for a good match are the considerations that will involve the cabinet in days of prayer and discernment.

Through the consultation process, superintendents have spoken individually with each of the pastors in their districts about their special gifts and circumstances. The Staff/Pastor Parish Relations committees have responded to the superintendents about the pastoral needs of the congregations. Each superintendent has information from their district, but it is only as the group joins together in discernment that the whole plan begins to develop.

It happens as someone talks about a particular church and the ministry that is going on there. Some part of the description of the church s leadership needs will cause another superintendent to lift a name and how God has gifted him or her for this situation. The description sounds so simple. Yet it is not simple, but it is at times holy. In the faces around the table, there is common agreement and anticipation of how God will lead as a pastor and church come together in ministry.

Distinguished theologian Dr. Lovett Weems encourages us not to focus on the right answers, but instead to ask the right questions. For those persons within his circle of influence, John Wesley developed some accountability questions to help them draw closer to God.

It is a good list even for today: Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I am? In other words, am I a hypocrite? Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate? Do I confidentially pass onto another what was told me in confidence? Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits? Am I self-conscious, self-pitying or self-justifying? Did the Bible live in me today? Do I give it time to speak to me every day? Am I enjoying prayer? When did I last speak to someone about my faith? Do I pray about the money I spend? Do I get to bed on time and get up on time? Do I disobey God in anything? Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy? Am I defeated in any part of my life? Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful? How do I spend my spare time? Am I proud? Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisee who despised the publican? Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I going to do about it? Do I grumble and complain constantly? Is Christ real to me?

This list from John Wesley is not just for traveling preachers in our connection, but for laity as well. It is appropriate for all Christians to consider these. Each of us is called to self-examination and accountability. We may struggle with these questions individually, but they are the right questions.

I submit that it is not easy to ask or answer these questions, but that is not a reason for us to disregard them. This list represents the kind of examination with which the faithful have struggled throughout the Old and New Testaments. They are the questions of Moses and Paul and Jesus. They were relevant questions 3,000 years ago, 2,000 years ago, and 200 years ago. They are the right questions for today.

Our Lenten journey to the cross has begun. A few weeks ago, in the Old City of JerusaIem, I walked again the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross. Again I was reminded of the price that Jesus paid for our redemption. We are invited to join our Savior on the Way of the Cross, for it is the Way that leads to life.

We covet your prayers, as the cabinet enters into this appointment season and seeks God s help in matching pastors and churches. It is our desire to make decisions that honor God and build up the Church.

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