Should itinerancy be on the table?

The bishops and Connectional Table and other denominational leaders are talking a lot about changes to the church. Guaranteed appointment is on the table. Somewhat hazy references to reordering the life of the church is as well. Is it time to consider whether itinerancy is still the proper model for United Methodism?

I’d like to think about this by trying to figure out what “itinerancy done right” would look like.

What are the virtues of itinerancy?

I do not mean the system as it exists now with it careerism and barely concealed hostilities between local churches and the cabinet who “takes our pastor from us.”

What would a truly itinerant system look like? And what good would it do?

Of course, the original itinerancy model – if I understand correctly – did not locate preachers. The Methodist preachers were not parish pastors. Even the in American setting after the separation from the Church of England, the circuit rider showed up to bury and marry and baptize. He attended to matters of discipline. Then he rode on to the next station.

At some point along the way – and I need to read more history here – all our Methodist pastors became local parish pastors, but we still called them itinerant.

Here are the virtues of the ideal system – if I understand it correctly.

  1. A sent pastor is beholden to the bishop, not the local congregation and so has the freedom of the pulpit to preach with courage and enforce Methodist discipline.
  2. In an itinerant system, the laity become accustomed to the fact that they – and not the preacher – are the focal point of the the church and build systems that do not depend on any particular personality to keep things going.
  3. An itinerant clergy can be deployed to areas of need and exploit new mission areas as they emerge.
  4. An itinerant clergy are not out looking for the next pulpit because it is not their choice.

This may not exhaust the list, but if it is in any way correct it suggests a few things to me that might make our current system more like a true itinerancy – which people may not want.

First, clergy salaries should not be paid through the local church. (Yes, this will never change.) If the conference paid the salaries, then deployments of clergy would not be tied to local congregation finances. We do this in a limited way with church plants. If clergy are a resource of the conference to be deployed to meet the missional needs of the conference, then why not pay them through the conference? (Yes, I know, too big a change to ever happen.)

Second, we need more intentional laity leadership development and a cultivation of a sense that the church is the laity. As a goal, every church should be able to function fully and without a problem – including worship – without an clergy leadership for a period of time.

Third, the entire system needs more trust and shared vision. From bottom to top the system would need to be understood not as a necessary evil to be resisted and worked around as much as possible, but as a positive good for the extension of the gospel. And clergy would need to share a much more unified vision of the mission, doctrine, and discipline of the United Methodist church. They would also need much more mutual support among each other and from above so they do not feel isolated.

My last point, of course, raises the question about whether any system of itinerancy bears fruit.

John Wesley always defended his system on this ground. It was fruitful. He wrote, “We have found by long and consistent experience that a frequent exchange of preachers is best. This preacher has one talent, that another; no one whom I ever yet knew has all the talents which are needful for beginning, continuing, and perfecting the work of grace in a whole congregation.”

In practice, the norm of our system appears to be one of passive to active resistance to itinerancy based on arguments that always seem to assume the grass is greener in a call system. The system is rife with careerism and hostility and suspicion.

If there is virtue in itinerancy, what would it take to actually have one?

If there is no virtue in it is this time of denominational restructuring a time to finally set the circuit rider aside?

6 thoughts on “Should itinerancy be on the table?

  1. John,

    I am about halfway through John Wigger’s new biography of Francis Asbury, “American Saint.” It is wonderfully written – I highly recommend it if you have an interest in Methodist history. Anyways, Wigger makes clear that opposition to the itinerant model has existed within the Methodist movement from very early on, and that insofar as the American context goes, Asbury’s leadership at key times is the only thing that kept it part of the Methodist way of doing things. For basically the same reasons you mentioned – missional flexibility to send the right people where they were most needed, get the gospel to the expanding frontier, the freedom of the pulpit to address difficult things (from slavery to wealth) – Asbury was bound and determined to protect this way of assigning preachers. On the other hand, every preacher was paid the same (that was an ordained elder at least), and even Asbury himself was paid the same – something like 64 pounds a year (much less than Episcopal priests or Congregational and Presbyterian pastors could make). Returning to such a model, which I believe is maintained in the British Methodist system as relates to clergy pay, might be a helpful step. At least the most recent pension plan for the UMC is more balanced in its formula. Now Pastor A who retires from wealthy church A with a larger salary than Pastor B whose career never offered him such a congregation but served the same number of years faithfully nevertheless will not necessarily have a huge difference in their pension payouts

    1. I’ve been reading Wigger’s book, too. It is well done and very interesting.

      I agree with you that size of congregation served should not determine how well a Methodist pastor lives in retirement.

  2. Yes, the British system pays all clergy the same with a small premium for Circuit Superintendents (not the the same as DSs) and District Chairs (also not the same as DSs *grin*). I think that does somewhat stop the ‘career model’ of ministry of being ‘promoted’ to a ‘better and better’ church. I say ‘somewhat’ because of course there will always be those who aspire to a large church in a prestigious area. And we are centrally paid by the Conference; congregational assessments are paid to the Circuit who then pay London for the ministers in their Circuit (appointments in British Methodism are to the Circuit and not to particular congregations).

    I like the early model of Methodism because it puts much responsibility on lay people. But Methodists in America became a ‘church’ when the Methodist Episcopal Church was born at the suggestion of Wesley. The UMC may not ask its pastors to be heavy-handed, top-down leaders, but it does ask them to be leaders. And you can’t lead anyone anywhere in 5 years. I think that something like 10 years is more realistic. A 30 year tenure, on the other hand, probably means that the congregation and pastor have had sufficient time to mutually decline into an ‘always done it this way’ mentality again. Not necessarily, but probably.

  3. I would echo what Pam says about what has happened.

    Beyond that, I would add that British Methodism believes itself to carry on this early system. Where I think the break has occurred (and where those in the British Methodist system who believe only minor tweaks are needed are wrong) when the system worked as you described in in your 4 points. Most British Methodist churches are simply Sunday morning groups, no longer the network of small groups where the real work was undertaken (and there was only a need for a preacher to come for sacraments, baptisms, etc. That’s how I believe the laity made it into the strong church it is. When the primary focus is seen as Sunday, then the preacher becomes the focal point. (If Pam sees this differently, I would be interested to hear!)

    My view of where the UMC has still been effective is the strong Sunday School system it has implemented and maintained. I am not sure how that fits in with iteneracy, though.

    These are excellent thoughts, John, and I will be interested to see how this works out in a UMC system!

  4. Will, I completely agree with your assessment of where the British Methodist Church is as a “Sunday-only” organization. British Methodism was “churchified” a long time ago, in my opinion. It’s only the method of churchification that was different than in the US.

    Thanks for your views on US Sunday School in the Methodist system, which sheds a bit of light on my own understanding. I do think that adult Sunday School in US Methodism is much like house groups in the UK. And house groups could potentially function in a way similar to the old bands and classes if people wanted them to be more than just discussion groups.

    For me, what is missing, though is the expectation that people will grow in their learning and discipleship. I think that groups where people feel safe enough to be real can be accountability groups simply in the sense that, by being honest with others, one becomes accountable to God and to oneself. The other thing that is missing – that I think is needed – is the expectation that the group will grow and split and change. I think this expectation of changing and adding members has to be built into the intention of the group when it’s formed.

    I think that these comments apply both to house groups and to Sunday School classes.

  5. Will and Pam, thanks for your observations. I did not know much about the British system at all. It sounds like there are some lessons for us there, good and bad.

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