John Wesley calls the clergy “stewards of the mysteries of God,” and “shepherds of the souls for whom Christ died” in a letter called An Address to the Clergy (Feb. 6, 1756, read it here). He remarks that the clergy’s intention for ministry should be “singly this, to glorify God, and to save souls from death.” There should be no other reason a person enters or remains in the ranks of the clergy.
Then, the clergy’s affection should be “endued with an eminent measure of love to God, and love to all his [sic] brethren…in the same kind, but in a degree far beyond that of ordinary Christians.” Wesley compares the clergy’s love for her people to the pains a parent goes through for her children because of her great affection for them. He said if this type of affection is NOT in you, you must be CRAZY to consider entering or remaining in the ranks of the clergy.
Finally, the clergy’s practice should be to “abstain, with the utmost care and diligence, from every evil word and work, from all appearance of evil.” Wesley reminds clergy that they are a sort of “guardian angel,” messengers of God for the people in their care…”continually employed, in what the angels of God have not the honor to do, co-operating with the Redeemer of men in ‘bringing many children to glory.'” Isn’t that the most beautiful description of clergy life you’ve ever heard?!
Then Wesley brings the smacketh downeth…In Wesley’s experience, many clergy were more interested in “a comfortable existence” than glorifying God and saving souls. Wesley challenged clergy who sought appointments at churches with higher salaries and amenities, not because there was anything wrong with the salary itself, but that seeking appointments based on “preferment, honor, or profit,” was a distraction from the singular calling to glorify God and save souls.
Wesley admonished that the love of God and fellow humanity was “utterly inconsistent with the love of the world; with the love of money or praise; with the very lowest degree of either ambition or sensuality…the love of diversions, the love of pleasure, the love of ease.” When clergy become ambitious for their own glory, luxurious in their self-spending, or lazy in their responsibilities, the infidelity of the church increases. In other words, Wesley sees the clergy as directly responsible for the state of the people in their care.
The United Methodist Church is politically structured so that clergy (particularly Elders) are “guaranteed appointment.” That means they will never be without a job, as they are moved by their bishop from one church to another. Historical evidence proves (read this study) that there is a sort of salary-based ladder that clergy climb as they prove themselves in one appointment and are sent to another church that can pay them a better salary (if they have done well), or be demoted to a worse salary (if they have done poorly). The clergy that majorly screw up, but are not formally charged (which includes a trial-process that can lead to defrocking), are punished by the bishop for their ways by being sent to appointments that will pay them significantly less.
If you love the rural church, you should be outraged by this system, and find channels to challenge it.
If you are in the ordination process, you probably already are outraged by the incredible demands placed on you to prove yourself to become ordained, to enter the ranks of these privileged, tenured clergy who are impossible to remove even after years of damage being done in local congregations. And yet, if you are in the ordination process, you MUST remain silent about these issues, because it is entirely out of place for you to challenge the system before you are a part of it. Your DCOM and Board interviews and papers are NOT the place for you to challenge the church.
I am incredibly thankful for the men and women who are working within the system to change it. I’m especially thankful for the Clergy Excellence programs in my home Virginia Annual Conference, which I have experienced as working with all their might to transform the broken parts of our system. I hope you belong to conferences that are also working to change things for the better.
I close with Wesley’s final words in his Address to the Clergy:
“Brethren, is not this our calling…as we are Ministers of Christ? And why (I will not say, do we fall short, but why) are we satisfied with falling so short of it? Is there any necessity laid upon us, of sinking so infinitely below our calling? Is not his will the same with regard to us, as with regard to his first Ambassadors? Is not his love, and is not his power, still the same, as they were in the ancient days? Why then may not you be as “burning and as shining lights,’ as those that shone 1700 years ago? Do you desire to partake of the same burning love, of the same shining holiness? Surely you do. You cannot but be sensible. It is the greatest blessing which can be bestowed on any child of man.