Is the United Methodist System of Sending Pastors Wrong?

Jason Micheli —  August 7, 2012 — 7 Comments

Spoiler Alert: If you presently have appointment authority over me or anticipate having that authority in the future, you can stop reading now. 

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 7 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 freshman 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 7 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.

Jason Micheli

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7 responses to Is the United Methodist System of Sending Pastors Wrong?

  1. Amen, Brother, Amen!

  2. I am a Local Licensed Pastor in the UMC, Minnesota Annual Conference. When I became an Associate Member of the Conference I accepted the terms of itinerancy. I don’t regret it. As an LLP I was 8 years at my first appointment. Now, in my second appointment, I passed my sixth anniversary and am looking forward to 2 to 3 more years. I think that all appointments should be for as least 8 years with exceptions for exigent circumstances. We shouldn’t do away with itinerancy but should leave pastors in place long enough to do some good.

  3. My husband is a United Methodist Pastor. I think you neglected one crucial facotr in your argument against itenerancy. It is the elephant in the room and always the most difficult thing for pastors or anyone else to talk about and that is money. The way pastors are paid in the Methodist Church is ludicrous and I’m not talking about the amount they are paid. I am talking about the system of payment that has very little to do with a pastors qualifications. If we had a more standardized salary system this would allow pastors to stay in churches longer.

    • I misspelled Itinerancy in my previous post. I don’t want my argument to be diminished because of a spelling error.

  4. I think itinerancy is archaic like the pony express&outhouses. I don’t think John wesley intended itinerancy to be carried out for 300+years. It was a necessity in John wesleys day, but not now which is why we have Wesleyan churches&Independent Methodist churches. Life is chaotic&unstable enough without the one person you trust to provide pastoral care pulling a disappearing act. If the minister isn’t a constant why should anyone else in life be? I’ve been battling depression most of my adult life. I need my minister to be someone I can depend on. Currently I attend a UMC on sundays because I have a minister that I can trust. But I’ve been attending a bible study at a Wesleyan Church on Wed nts just so I know I have a minister who will remain constant. When the day comes that my beloved Methodist minister is snatched away, I don’t think I’ll be able to sit through another service in a Methodist church. My own husband won’t attend the UMC with me. He doesn’t trust it. I can’t live life on a Spiritual roller coaster. Itinerancy takes away the autonomy of the pastors&the congregations. It damages trust. It’s hard on the children of the pastors to constantly have to change schools especially in the middle& high school years when peer relationships are important. It makes the spouse look like a job hopper which could hurt them in trying to keep their own job. If the methodist conferences really wanted to carry out John wesleys model, then the ministers would be required to preach outside, travel by horse, use an outhouse, remain single, have no children,&die a pauper because that’s exactly what happened to John Wesley in the end. There’s a saying if it ain’t broke dont fix it. Just let go and let God lead.

    • Really good points!

      • I hope I didn’t sound disrespectful. I have developed a trust with my methodist minister. He mentored me through my son taking a teaching job in china. We haven’t heard from him since august. The same son has a history of drug/ alcohol abuse &mental illness. Worry doesn’t describe how I feel. My minister was with me when in 2017 I found a lump in my breast&was overjoyed to learn it was benign. He’s been with me in prayer since I got up Christmas day 2017 with a detached retina&an eye hemorrhage, laser eye surgery on new years day 2018. He stood in the gap last year when I had emergency kidney stone surgery& fell into a 3 month clinical depression, a side effect of the anesthesia&drugs the surgeons put in my body. I went on my first urban missions trip@57 years old, 3 weeks after having kidney surgery&i learned for the first time since my son overdosed that I don’t have to carry false guilt and shame any longer. We are both musicians. I play the piano for him 2 sing. He plays his guitar for me 2 sing. Im witnessing&praying with people i meet more now than i ever had. PUSH pray until something happens is my motto. I claim isaiah 43:1-2 daily. I’ve always had trust issues. I’ve finally met a minister I trust. To think that my choices are controlled by a conference of Bishops that don’t know me&are clinging to an outdated notion dictated by John Wesley who had his own personal issues does nothing to strengthen the faith. I believe the Bible teaches that anyone who does anything to damage someone’s faith would be better off to have a millstone tied to their neck&be cast into the sea? I pray for both my methodist& wesleyan ministers& their families every day. It’s not an easy job.Dealing with people who always take&never pay it forward.

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