Pressure Points on the Itinerancy

Much buzz is taking place around the United Methodist Judicial Council’s decision to restore the language of the 2008 Book of Discipline regarding “guaranteed appointment.”  Another attempt to change structure (therefore practice) has bitten the dust and, according to the Judicial Council Digest, a major reason for this one has to do with itinerancy.

From the 2008 BOD: “The itinerant system is the accepted method of The United Methodist Church by which ordained elders are appointed by the bishop to fields of labor.  All ordained elders shall accept and abide by these appointments.” (Para. 338)

This statement calls for a dip into our history.  Consider this basic point so easily overlooked: Mr. Wesley appointed preachers, not pastors.  We have held onto terms like “itinerancy” while practices, offices and relationships have changed dramatically.  When Methodists were developing the terms we still use (i.e. when Mr. Wesley made appointments), Methodism was not a church and preachers preached and class leaders and circuit stewards did the lion’s share of pastoral work.

Then, preachers in full connection itinerated, literally.  They traveled.  Now, preaching and pastoral care reside in the same ordained office.  We now have a settled pastoral ministry while retaining the language of itinerancy.

Then, preachers preached to convince sinners of their need for conversion.  Methodist preaching was aimed primarily at provoking people to experience conversion and enter the path of serious discipleship.  And preachers could have a solid year’s worth of sermons aimed at this end and do just fine for a whole career, because they really did itinerate.

Now, we think of the need for pastors to stay long-term (I agree) and to engage in a full set of activities that preachers could not adequately do because they were, well, itinerating.  Pastors preach, but they do far more.  The move from preacher to pastor is much more significant for the current discussion than we realize, I think.

Thus, I see two pressure points working in the current debate about guaranteed appointment.  Bishops, whose authority has eroded over the generations, have the authority of appointment.  (I admit, I’m on the “return more authority to bishops side,” but with that authority goes other stipulations that I would want to ensure.)  And the Judicial Council ruling, for whatever else it does, reminds us of this facet of episcopal authority.

On the other side, elders in full connection – the only UM clergy who fall within the concept of “itinerancy” – often think of guaranteed appointment as offering some protection.  Since we have met all the requirements for entering full connection (and those requirements are many), we deserve an appointment that allows us to have significant ministry, to be sure, but also to be able to make a living.  In a shaky economy, with an aging clergy population in a church convinced that young clergy will bring young church members, “guaranteed appointment” begins to look like the last bastion of protection – and maybe even dignity – for elders who alone itinerate.

We’re using the same term (“itinerancy”), but with clearly divergent concerns.  We hang on to the term for historic reasons because it seems to say so much about who we are.  Yet, here we begin to see other challenges.  The current struggle begins to look like a version of the labor-management power struggle evident in a number of quarters.  In my neck of the woods, the fight between American Airlines and the pilot union comes to mind.

Which suggests to me that other assumptions far beyond the specific question of guaranteed appointment are fully in play, though not always sufficiently out in front.  For me, it comes back to shared vision and mission.  I’ll save that thought for another post.

 

 

 

 

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. matthew pharis says:

    I enjoyed reading this post

  2. I’m intrigued by your description of the move from preacher to pastor you describe, because I think it is at the heart of our current dilemma, one that is deeper than a simple struggle between the authority of Bishops and the security Elders. I believe the move from preacher to pastor created a church system in which itinerancy is unsustainable.

    We’ve professionalized not only preaching, but also pastoral care – creating the expectation that the ordained Elder will more or less serve as the heart of the church. Itinerancy more or less then subjects our congregations to a series of heart transplants. Who can live through that? We got away with it in earlier generations when people were less mobile and were tighter as communities, but in today’s mobile culture . . .

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the congregations struggling the worst are those that have historically been what Alice Mann describes as “Pastoral” size churches. Smaller churches that function as families can survive where the population is stable. Larger corporate-sized churches can develop systems that people can plug in and out of. But the churches in the middle? They need long-term, settled leadership. Without it, they will either grow or die.

    • If we stick with using a term like “itinerancy” to refer to the process of appointing elders, we clearly need to do more work with helping all people involved understand what we mean by it.

      You raise a couple of thorny and important topics: (1) the professionalization of pastoral ministry, which probably in some ways was necessary, but in others took away important pastoral functions from gifted lay people whom God called to this work. (2) Professionalization – at least the way it has played out in many smaller UM congregation – creates a certain kind of dependency relationship between ordained pastoral leaders and congregations. This leads to the “heart transplant” problem to which you refer.

      There is a 3rd problem, I think: professionalization contributes to the settled pastoral ministry which has forced a hybrid system of negotiating the appointments around (a) the needs of the congregation, (b) the gifts of the pastor/elder and (c) the strategic vision of bishop and cabinet for where to appoint pastors.

      These challenges require that, if we’re going to stick with a concept of itinerancy, we have to admit openly that it means something vastly different than what it has meant historically and that we’re really talking about a hybrid system that includes some congregations de facto calling their pastors.

  3. Peggy Harris says:

    I love the “heart transplant” analogy. In many cases, churches never thrive again after failed transplants. As to de facto calling of pastors, it’s already going on in some areas. I know a successful UM senior pastor in my conference who received a call letter from an out-of-state United Methodist church (he was called to be an associate pastor in a large congregation). Also, many United Methodist pastors have been called to churches outside our denomination (and have accepted those calls). As a UM pastor’s wife, I’ve often struggled with the itinerancy. Years ago, though, a UM pastor explained it to me in terms that helped me understand one major reason we do it today: It allows smaller churches to receive a committed, educated senior pastor, even if it’s for a shorter length of time. The UM commitment to the training and education of clergy (and the resultant training and education of their congregations, via “Disciple” Bible studies and other methods) should, in theory at least, result in Christian disciples who are prepared to go forth in an increasingly diverse world of ideas and beliefs. Sharing Christ in such a world is getting more and more challenging. Thank you for raising these ideas. I look forward to further discussion and would love to hear from “local pastors” on this issue. Theirs is a unique story, and their importance to our denomination cannot be overstated.

    • Thank you, Peggy, for your comments. My dad was an ordained Deacon and Associate Member of the annual conference. He went through the Course of Study a long, long time ago. Had only a high school diploma and the Course of Study Certificate.

      We don’t have this status any more, even though there are still some Associate Members around. Thus, I grew up in a parsonage and moving around to very small, almost entirely rural parishes (which, though I did not like the moving, I loved the rural churches!).

      I have heard a number of senior pastors of very large UM churches express how important it is that they (the pastors) are able to pick their associates. Generally, the rationale is that they are responsible for the congregation and know the needs of that congregation better than the Bishop and cabinet could possibly know. This wrinkle adds to the de facto call system.

      I don’t know how many “tiers” of ministry we have in United Methodism, but I would say there are at least 3 – (1) large, multi-staff churches served by elders, (2) smaller neighborhood, small town and rural congregations still “big enough” to have an M.Div. elder serve as pastor (whether with staff or not) and (3) licensed local pastors. I know that some LLPs serve substantial churches, but the Local Pastor status puts them at a disadvantage in the annual conference organization, even though recent General Conference decisions has strengthened that status. The M.Div. is still the gold standard (as Craig Dykstra says).

      These tiers mean different degrees of “appointment” or “call,” I think.

Trackbacks

  1. […] jobs, and lay leadership has suffered.  The Order of Elders functions more as a guild or union to protect clergy rather than a covenant community deployed for God’s mission.  What remains of itinerancy […]

  2. […] jobs, and lay leadership has suffered.  The Order of Elders functions more as a guild or union to protect clergy rather than a covenant community deployed for God’s mission.  What remains of itinerancy […]