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May 3, 2000         GC-007

Rural fellowship seeks better treatment for local pastors

CLEVELAND (UMNS) -- When the United Methodist Rural Fellowship met May 2, a “Cloud of Witnesses” urged support of a few pieces of legislation to come before General Conference to benefit small-membership rural churches.

Their concerns include getting more equitable treatment for local pastors in the denomination. Local pastors are able to perform the sacraments only in the churches to which they are appointed by the bishop. They are not ordained and do not have the same rights, benefits and privileges as elders.

One of the witnesses, speaking out of her own experiences, was Audrey Dunlap, a retired local pastor from the Detroit Annual (regional) Conference. Dunlap experienced the call to ministry when she was over 40, a high school dropout working in a mental health ward. She returned to high school and completed her sophomore year, but a shift change at work forced her to drop out during her junior year. She passed her GED test and eventually went on to complete the required studies to become a local pastor.

Now, in retirement, she has found herself “unappointable,” even though a retired elder serves the two little churches that she was leading before her mandatory retirement, she said. The retired elder serves those churches from about Easter to Advent, and Dunlap still serves them from Advent to Easter. However, she is hired by the churches on a week-to-week basis, and the members do not understand why she is prohibited from serving communion and he is not.

The inequity is more ironic for her when she considers that as a local pastor in a hotel and resort ministry on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she had for years supervised the nine elders and five student interns who participated in the ministry.

The biggest blow came when a young elder encouraged her to seek election as a lay delegate to General Conference, she said. She was informed by the bishop from the annual conference stage that she was not eligible to be a delegate nor could she be elected as a clergy delegate. “I fell into a big muddy crack.”

Dunlap said many churches would not have services without local pastors, and she hopes her successors are treated more fairly by the General Conference.

General Conference, the top lawmaking body of the United Methodist Church, is meeting through May 12 at the Cleveland Convention Center.

The Rev. Roger Grace, Athens District superintendent, shared Dunlap’s sentiments for more equitable treatment of local pastors. In his rural southern Ohio district, he has 85 people serving 159 churches, he said. Only 31 are full elders, and three retired elders serve churches. The majority – 51 people – cannot vote in clergy sessions. He marveled at one of them, a disabled miner who has grown two churches and now, at a third congregation, has a youth group of about 50 in a sparsely populated area.

Grace expressed support for proposed legislation that would create a “certified lay preacher” with provisions for educational requirements and oversight that are not currently in place. He is also supporting a proposal that would encourage bishops and cabinets to work toward longer appointments.

“You cannot grow churches with a revolving door in the parsonage,” he asserted. In his nine years in a cooperative parish, he said, about 50 pastors passed through the nine positions there.

In other business, life memberships were awarded to the following members:

        Bennett D. Poage, a retired clergyman of the Disciples of Christ and a member of UMRF since 1970;

        Alec Alvord, Western North Carolina Conference staff member;

        Wanda Hayes Eichler, outgoing UMRF president; and

        Ed Eichler, UMRF treasurer for the past seven years.

For each life membership, $1,000 in scholarship funds is raised by friends of the honoree.

The fellowship also elected and installed new officers. Ed Kail of Kansas City, Mo., is the new president

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-- Joretta Purdue

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