Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
II Timothy 4:2-4
In the late 1960’s, Bill Ziegler was appointed to serve one of the largest churches in New England. He was widely regarded at the time as the best United Methodist preacher in the region, and one of the finest in the nation. Wherever he served, the churches grew and the congregations loved him. But he arrived in this new city at a difficult time. In the city, racial tensions and unrest played out against a national background of conflict. Locally, there was a case of police brutality which had brought tensions to the boiling point.
Bill dived into the conflict. He immediately became involved in civic affairs. And in his sermons he addressed these issues with honesty and compassion. Bill was always known as a “prophetic preacher,” who, like the Hebrew prophets, and like Jesus, lifted up God’s call for justice. He named the demon of racism. He talked about the need for reconciliation. And he proclaimed the Gospel in the context of the tension.
It was uncomfortable. And dissension grew in the congregation. A group of prominent parishioners gathered and sent a delegation to see the Bishop. They told the Bishop that Bill was dividing the church, that members were staying home and some were withholding contributions. The Bishop sent a District Superintendent to talk with Bill.
It was a short conversation. The District Superintendent explained the complaints and said that the Bishop wanted Bill to stop upsetting people with controversial issues. Bill asked his visitor, “Do you think I’m not preaching the Gospel?” No, he had not meant to imply that. “Does the Bishop think I’m not preaching the Gospel?” Again, the answer was no. “Then get out of my office,” said Bill, “My job is to preach the Gospel.”
As I write this, United Methodist lay and clergy delegates from around the world are gathering in Tampa, Florida for General Conference. Over the next ten days they will discuss and debate a variety of issues including an ambitious plan to restructure our general agencies and boards. Within that plan is a provision that would eliminate the guaranteed appointment of clergy.
Those who favor eliminating the guaranteed appointment say that it is necessary in order to deal with ineffective clergy. And that is a real concern. But the purpose of the guaranteed appointment is to defend the “freedom of the pulpit,” one of the most treasured pieces of our United Methodist heritage. Pastors can be moved, but they cannot be fired.
The truth is that over the years few pastors have been as fearless as we are supposed to be in our preaching. But it is hard to see how that will improve when effectiveness is defined by a set of metrics measuring attendance, finances, baptisms, and church growth. Those measures are important. But our first responsibility is to be faithful. We follow someone, after all, whose invitation was to “take up the cross daily and follow me.”