In one way, denominations are all the same.
We all have our our special coded language we use to describe and organize ourselves. In the United Methodist Church we tend toward boringly secular-sounding words like ‘conference’ and ‘superintendent’ and ‘itinerancy.’
Itinerancy refers to the United Methodist system of a resident bishop choosing the pastor for the congregation versus, say a Baptist church, that chooses its own pastor. Up until the very recent past, and still not the case everywhere, such appointments lasted only 3-5 years before the pastor would be moved on to another parish. Pastors, then, are treated almost like interchangeable parts.
The practice of itinerancy had very specific geographic and historic reasons for its inception. It was the best missional means for the church to follow the growth of the population across the western frontier. It was also a practice that presumed the congregation and its community were stable and it was the pastor who was transient, hence ‘itinerant.’
More recently, the system of itinerancy has allowed Methodist bishops to make ‘prophetic’ appointments to congregations; that is, itinerancy empowers bishops to appoint female and minority pastors to congregations that might otherwise resist such clergy. This, I believe, has been a good thing for the Church.
Today, itinerancy is a major hoop through which aspiring clergy must jump. To be ordained, clergy must articulate the theology of itinerancy, agree with it, pay lip service to it and vow to submit to it. As a young ordinand I jumped through said hoops better than most and passed with flying colors. And I wasn’t lying. But now I’ve got some questions.
I’m not suggesting that itinerancy is stupid or antiquated. Nor am I even really complaining about it.
I am suggesting, however, that when we treat itinerancy as theologically sacrosanct, when in fact it was a contextually necessitated process, we miss something.
So here’s my pushback:
When I was at Princeton Seminary, Dr Robert Dykstra, my Yoda, offered me this advice:
‘You should insist on being appointed anywhere so long as you had the guarantee you could stay there for at least 5 years. It takes at least that long for people’s pretenses to die and for the curtain to be drawn back from their lives. After that happens, you can do real ministry together.’
I had no idea at the time whether it was good advice or not. After all, he wasn’t even a Methodist.
I’ve now been at Aldersgate for 9 years. It hardly seems that long, but this summer a couple of things have struck me.
This July, on a mission team in Guatemala, I spent several days laying mortar with Laura Paige Mertins. LP was a sixth grade confirmation student when I first came to Aldersgate and now she’s about to start her third year at JMU. I’ve watched LP grow into a remarkable young adult with a faith more mature and grounded than many 3x her age.
What’s more, for the purposes of my argument, LP feels comfortable asking me anything when it comes to the faith and I feel comfortable answering, knowing that she trusts what I’ll offer. While I attribute much of her abundant faith to her family and the church, I also know, without being egotistical, that some part of her faith/worldview is my doing and it’s only been possible because of a relationship that’s been built over time.
She’s but an example. I’ve been at Aldersgate long enough now to know whose marriages aren’t as strong as they seem and whose marriages are even better than they appear. I know who’s struggling with issues of addiction or sexual identity. I know who’s lost their faith and who’s made a major leap in their relationship with God.
In 9 years, I’ve confirmed something like 350 kids in the community, and this fall the congregation is actually letting me try out a children’s program based on the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus of all things should point out how after 7 years the congregation and folks in the community trust me, and I trust them. We both know each other’s strengths and not-so strengths. It’s time and relationships, I think, that allows us to take the leap from being directors of programs to actual pastors.
I normally hate it when pastors say ministry is all about relationships. That’s usually code, I think, for laziness or ineffectiveness. I’m not suggesting ministry is all about relationships. It is about relationships though. I’m suggesting that having an appointment process that operates as though relationships- and the trust engendered by them- mattered not at all may be missing something.
I didn’t mention any of this when they interviewed me for ordination and asked me about itinerancy. Not because I was holding back or hiding my thoughts but because it’s only now, with enough time in one place under my belt, that I appreciate Dr. Dykstra’s wisdom.