Jun 052005

Boy, if you thought good ‘ol American politics could get crazy, you ain’t seen nuthin until you’ve seen the Methodist Church’s system for appointing ministers.

For those that don’t know, the Methodist have an itinerancy system in the tradition of John Wesley. Minister’s get moved around every so often. It certainly has its good and bad points. I know in North Carolina, Ministers pretty typically get moved at about four years on average. It seems appointments are a little longer in Florida.

The church I joined in Tampa, Palma Ceia United Methodist, has had a great pair of Ministers. The Senior Minister is Dr. Earle Rabb. The Associate Minister, who is not in the rotation but hired by the church, is Rev. Mac Steinmeyer. I feel fortunate to have become good friends with both of them. Dr. Rabb is retiring on June 19th, and he and Mrs. Rabb are moving to a home they’ve just built in the North Carolina Mountains.

Of course this means a new appointment for the Senior Pastor position at PCUMC. According to the Methodist Discipline (the rulebook for Methodism), the Bishop makes appointments, but is supposed to “consult” with the local church. Unfortunately, Florida has an incompetent and arrogant Bishop. Bishop Timothy Whitaker has made an appointment that is going to prove devastating for the church.

Due to declining contributions, the Conference was forced to combine some districts. Each district has a District Superintendent, so this means there will be fewer DS’s. There was a D.S. for the St. Petersburg District, and that district is being absorbed into a couple other districts. Now one of the other practices, when making appointments, is to keep the minister at the same or a higher salary. In this case, the St. Pete D.S. would need to be appointed to a larger church to maintain his same salary. Unfortunately, that is PCUMC.

So, what’s the big deal about this appointment. Well, there are demographic issues from several points. I might as well get the most obvious out there right up front. PCUMC has a few African-American members, but it is primarily a “white” church. The new minister, Rev. Kevin James, is African-American. Now, for most people at PCUMC that really is not a problem at all. For some people it will be. I submit that some members will say it’s not an issue for them, but it will be to some extent, even if they don’t even realize it.

But I think there are a number of other issues that make this a bad appointment, and I think these issues are far more important. Rev. James is only 42 years old. While the church has a very large and active youth group, I’d have to say the majority of members are certainly older. The Associate Pastor is 48, so he has the middle-age segment covered, and we obviously have a youth director doing an outstanding job.

I think the biggest issue is Rev. James’ lack of experience as a local pastor. He basically has none. He pastored one small church right out of seminary for four years. Then he became Chaplain at Bethune Cookman college, a small Methodist college in Florida. After a number of years there he was appointed D.S. by a previous Bishop. Frankly, my understanding is that there were no black D.S.’s, and this Bishop was pressured to appoint someone. So, basically James has spent most of his career as a “youth minister” and an administrator.

He’s brought a very arrogant and demanding attitude to the church already, and hasn’t even officially started. This has already alienated a number of people, and some have already asked to be removed from the church roll. I don’t think that exodus will be over any time soon. I had an exchange with the Chairperson of the Staff Parish relation committee. I think he was trying to be optimistic and idealistic about it at first. I also think he didn’t expect Rev. James to stay more than one or two years anyway. Unfortunately, I think he’s now seen the light and realizes this is not going to be pretty.

Having spent a lot of time in the funeral business, where one is privy to the politics of lots of churches, and having been a life-long Methodist, I think I had some insights that our Chairperson didn’t seem to have. First, regardless of the size of the church, a bad appointment has a negative impact, and the longer the pastor stays the worse it gets at an ever increasing rate. Also, it doesn’t matter how long the guy stays, undoing a bad appointment takes a lot longer than the appointment. In other words, even if he stays for just a year, it can take the church three to four years to recover, and then start building again from where they were prior to the appointment. I hope this Chairman is now starting to realize that.

As part of this “consultation” process, the Bishop and D.S. had the Staff-Parish Relations Committee develop a “profile” for the kind of appointment they wanted. This was such a joke it should have been insulting, as this appointment was made in the Bishop’s mind months before it was announced. This appointment is being made solely on the basis of needing to move Rev. James to a like salary, yet the Bishop is bending the contents of that profile to justify the appointment.

From what I can learn, only one person on the committee was willing to speak out against the church accepting this appointment. The problem is, and the Bishop counted on this, people are afraid to say anything for fear of being branded a racist. And I know first hand the Bishop doesn’t hesitate to play that card. I know that because I wrote him about it being inappropriate to expect the volunteers at PCUMC to spend the time completing this profile when we all knew he’d made the appointment long before this exercise in futility.

I also advanced my points about the problems with the appointment, and I was specific in saying that my objections were not related to the “cross-cultural” nature of the appointment (this is how the Bishop refers to this appointment, but I think if I were one of the African-American members of the church, I’d pay him a visit and ask what culture he thinks African-Americans are from). Well, it only took the Bishop two days to respond to my email, copying a number of people, and explicitly calling my observations “racist.”

I called him on the phone, and by the time he returned my call, I was still furious, but at least had time to think of how to respond to him. I asked him to explain, given that I’d specifically said it was not related to the “cross-cultural” nature, and had listed specific objections to the appointment not related to that. He couldn’t provide a good answer, other than to say that he got a lot of mail where people said they were not racists….”but.” I explained that sometimes what followed the “but” was accurate and true, but people had to qualify their comments since he was so quick to classify any objection as being based on racism.

I invited Bishop Whitaker to join me in my “way-back machine,” and travel back with me several years when I was having trouble getting my membership transferred to PCUMC. I reminded him that I had eventually contacted him for assistance, and still had the email response he’d sent me. In his response he refused to help, claiming he didn’t get involved in the day-to-day operations of local churches, and then, because I’d disclosed my sexual orientation as a possible cause of the problem, the Bishop had quoted only the parts of the Discipline which say that homosexuality is inconsistent with Christianity. He failed to copy the sections saying that everyone is a child of God and deserving of ministry. Therefore, it was clear that he was attempting to dissuade me from joining the church. I explained to him that, given his own extreme bigotry, it was beyond disingenuous for him to accuse anyone else of racism.

He was obviously set back on his heels, and is clearly not used to having people do anything other than kiss the papal ring. He agreed to send out an apology to those he copied.

Bishop Whitaker then proceeded to try to make all this sound like he was doing this church a HUGE favor by giving us exactly what we requested in that “profile.” He went so far as to tout the fact that Rev. James had been a delegate to The General Conference (he and 2,500 other people every four years). I mean talk about grasping at straws to try to make this justification. He’s claimed he was giving us someone more dynamic and more able to reach out to the “metropolitan community.” All of this as if Dr. Rabb were chopped liver.

I think that’s the worst part of the Bishop’s bullshit. Dr. Rabb has served this conference for 43 years, and he has left every single church better than it was prior to his coming. It is so insulting for the Bishop to be saying these things, and Dr. Rabb deserves a better legacy than this. What makes it really bad is the Bishop’s motivation for saying these things. He’s merely saying them to justify this appointment, and has no regard for what his words mean to Dr. Rabb. Totally selfish motivation.

I finally called him on that profile crap, and said, “I think we both know the primary factor in this appointment was your need to maintain the salary position.” He never said that wasn’t true, but did say, “Well, of course that’s a factor. It’s public that I have to include that as a consideration.” So he never denied it was the primary consideration.

Bishop Whitaker has no administrative skills, limited personal skills, and little if any regard for the local churches in his conference. I think what he doesn’t realize is that they are the customers who pay the bills. Alas, his contributions will continue to go down, as people leave PCUMC and go to the Presbyterian Church around the corner. It’s really sad.

It’s also very clear that Rev. James lacks the gifts and graces for this type appointment. I hate it for the negative impact it will have on the church, but their elected committee members sat there like sheep to the slaughter afraid to stand up to the Bishop…so this is what we’ll get for a couple of years.

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