Tell me about preaching circuits

In various places I’ve seen talk of moving to circuits — English Methodism usually comes up here — as the way to deploy pastors.

The idea is interesting, but I don’t know exactly how it would work.

I’m looking for readers who have some insight about the circuit system and/or whether it might be possible to do in the United Methodist system. While you are at it, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the system?


14 thoughts on “Tell me about preaching circuits

  1. John,
    When I hear about preaching circuits, my first thought goes back to the 1700s when a clergy would ride from town to town on a regular basis. There are, I believe, historical references to each of the circuits, naming them after the towns or the region. In this part of the woods, you can see the results of the circuits in terms of the various churches located on highways and about ten or so miles apart.

    What I know about these circuits was that when the traveling pastor was not there, services and such were lead by the laity. I think that is what is missing from today’s churches and what needs to be brought back – the Methodist Church was a laity driven church in its beginnings and if we are to bring it back, it must be the laity at each local church that does the work.

    The reference to a circuit today would be the various joint appointments that exist, such as your own, where a pastor is covering two or more churches. The first time I ever covered a charge for a pastor was a three-point charge that was part of a ten-church parish. The lead pastor and his wife, also ordained, covered five churches and a fourth pastor has the other two. In my district, they are developing cooperative parishes where two pastors are covering four churches – I presume that each pastor has two churches each Sunday but I am not privy to the actual operating procedures.

    For me, in review the strength of the circuit riding system was that it put the emphasis for church development on the laity. That probably is the weakness today.

    1. A 10-church parish. Wow.

      I agree that laity are the key to system. In my life now as part-time pastor, I see the laity as the bedrock, too. Part-time pastors come and go, and they never have enough time to do everything a pastor should do. So, if the laity do not run things, they fall apart. But laity tend not to run things like a professional staff would or does, so getting comfortable with that truth seems important.

      1. Two things – when I filed in for those three churches, I was just that, a fill-in. After five weeks, the district and conference found someone to take over the position on a full-time basis.

        I would disagree about things not being run like a professional staff would. I know quite a few professional secretaries who are able to allow the pastor to focus on other things.

        The one benefit to having a full-time pastor (local or ordained) is that the three sacraments of the Methodist church (baptism, communion, and weddings) can be scheduled. When I served as a Lay Pastor (in Kansas, Kentucky, and New York), I could not do those three things and had to find ways to schedule them.

        The other benefit is that laity cannot do nor should they try to do is counseling. Here it is more than of a legal thing than a pastoral thing but it is one area that can cause a lot of trouble for a church.

        For me, one of the things that I had to do as a part-time pastor was make sure everyone knew what it was that I could do and would do and what had to be done by the members of the congregation. Somewhere along the line, in too many churches, everything gets shifted to the pastor and then we wonder why we are having problems.

        I don’t know how those pastors who have more than one charge are instructed/guided/directed to manage the operations of their multiple churches. Perhaps our colleague Allan Bevere can offer some guidance on that.

        1. Tony, I did not mean to disparage laity vs. professional staff. My point was merely that some churches (mostly bigger ones) develop a model of ministry that assumes paid, full-time staff organizing, coordinating, and executing things. When people are doing the same things but as unpaid, good Christians, the work is done differently. Not worse. Just different.

        2. John, I didn’t think you did. I also realize that the way that I wrote my response was a little off-kilter because I see the people who work part-time as professionals.

          You are right when you say that many churches see the big church model as the only way to go, even if they are not a “big” church. My problem with such a model is that it takes the operations of the church away from the people who really ought to be doing the operating. I know that in some really big churches you need that paid staff but it still comes down to someone who is a member meeting the visitor at the door and helping guide them through their visit.

  2. I think we could make a 21st century version of circuits work by leveraging technology. If we used a web based video feed we could have worship leaders in various sites begin a service and then broadcast a message from a pastor to all sites. This could essentially nullify the “worship wars” argument over contemporary vs. traditional music. If someone wanted to sing one type of song, they could go to church A or church B respectively. Also, the world could literally be someone’s parish. There wouldn’t necessarily have to be limits on where the message was broadcast to.

    If we then began to emphasize a small group ministry as the primary form of pastoral care, with pastors to be called in for situations that laity felt unqualified to handle, we could enable one pastor to cover a lot more ground. Of course, leadership development would need to be a huge focus to put this type of church in motion, but it could be done.

    1. Some churches appear to be putting this in motion already.

      For me, it raises significant questions about the sermon and the importance of bodily presence. But these may be hang ups that come from knowing that the thing I think I do best in ministry could easily be replaced by an Adam Hamilton live feed.

      I can see the argument for the video feed as the 21st century circuit rider.

    2. I have some of the same concerns that John has but I also have some technological concerns. What if the church in question does not have the right sort of connection? This can take many forms:

      There are some areas of this country where cell phone service is spotty.

      There are some churches that could not handle the power load (I know of one church that has only one three-prong outlet in the sanctuary; the rest were traditional wall sockets – the first time I wanted to use my lap top with a dying battery I had to really struggle to get power).

      In some churches, you have no one to handle the technology. This provides a great mission opportunity to find someone but then they will be focused on the technology and not on the message.

      And while video-conferencing is the way of the future (as predicted in 2001 – A Space Odyssey), nothing beats being there. And how will you do communion? I don’t think that we are at a point where an elder touching a screen and someone holding the elements up to the screen has the same effect.

      Technology can make our lives simple, provided we understand what it is that it can do and what we must still do. We can easily provide most (but not all) churches with the technology so that one message can be distributed to all the churches. But is that the type of church that one would attend.

      (I offered some other thoughts on the nature of technology in a series beginning with “Thoughts of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite” – (the other two pieces are linked in the comment section of this one).

  3. Circuits are still very common in my conference (SC). We just don’t have enough pastors to go around. I was offered a 3 point circuit back in March within another district, but I had not even finished the candidate process, so I felt unqualified and I also felt that the D.S. was just looking for a warm body more than anything else. I would have been preaching at 9 a.m., 10 a.m., and 11 a.m. in three different churches. I was offered a parsonage at the most centrally located of the three. I would have been a full-time local pastor and it was obvious that the D.S. had not read my file. When I told the D.S. that I wanted to go to seminary, the reply was, “Have you thought about the pastor’s course of study…?”

    Yes, I had thought about it…but that isn’t the same as seminary. The D.S. didn’t know me from Adam but he had a hole in his roster and needed it filled more than he needed it filled by the right person. I did have a chance to look at the church profiles and one thing that struck me was that of three churches, one had 10 persons in worship each Sunday, another had 15, and the largest had 35 to 50, depending on the Sunday. From end to end in a straight line none of these churches was more than 15 minutes from the other. I realize that closing a church can be emotional, and political, but consolidation seems like a better idea than struggling to fill circuits. The previous pastor was there on the circuit seven years and then was reassigned to a nursing home this year. When conference assignments came out I saw that this circuit had been given a “supply” pastor.

    I was very conflicted in refusing this appointment, but as I said…I had not even finished the candidate process and I felt the congregations were at least owed that at a minimum. I also, as pointed out previously, felt that this wasn’t a prayerfully considered appointment by the D.S. (not my own D.S. by the way) but simply a desperation move to fill a hole.

    1. I do think we do make appointments by desperation at times. It sounds like you made a careful and prayerful decision, which I hope is understood that way by others in your conference.

      As I am using the word “circuit,” though, I mean something different than a multi-point charge.

      As I understand it, in England, a group of pastors are appointed jointly to a whole collection of churches. They then jointly determine preaching rounds and other tasks. It is a collective appointment rather than saying “hey, you take these 3 churches over here.”

      In the county I serve, for instance, we have several very small churches that are served by a mix of part-time and full-time pastors. You could make an argument that several of the churches should be consolidated, but I also wonder if the county would not be better served by some sort of cooperative parish/circuit system.

      Congregations — I know — always want to have their own pastor. This is part of the resistance. But I do wonder if they some other forms of doing ministry might be a better use of resources, especially where it is difficult to provide pastors.


    Talbot Davis at Good Shepherd UMC in North Carolina has blogged several times about itineracy. I’m not sure that switching to a circuit system (or rather, reverting to a circuit system, since that’s what we had in frontier America) would be an improvement. After all, British Methodism has been in decline (proportionally) since after the passing of William Sangster at Westminster Central Hall. So, has the circuit system worked for British Methodists? And if it hasn’t, what makes us think that a return to full itineracy–instead of semi-itineracy–would work for an increasingly unstable society that longs for stability?

    1. I’m not arguing that it would be a solution to the ills of United Methodism. But I do think in many places it might become an option worth considering as a way to meet the needs of areas that cannot sustain a mega-church style approach.

  5. So would smaller, more far-flung congregations work better under a “cathedral and parish” system, then? Or what do you think the advantage would be of assigning multiple pastors to a multi-point charge, as opposed to a single pastor per multi-point charge?

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