Friday, January 07, 2005

A Really Boring Post on Methodist Itineration

The More Interesting Part
Interestingly enough, yesterday I engaged in several conversations with various and sundry persons about the Methodist system of itineration. Interesting because I have been working on yet another set of papers (this week on itineration) for my District on Ordained Ministry for yet another round of "rip 'er a new one." Also interesting because there was a special about Beth Stroud's church and the 37 year appointment of their senior pastor. This is an unusual appointment -- the longest I personally know of was around 20 years here in North Georgia and the shortest was, well, three days (interesting little story for later.) Interesting because it is one of the things I dwell on a lot because it is going to effect my future and family more than anything else in the life of ministry. (For the information of the Methodists out there -- I am a ministry intern who will (probably) become a Part-time Local Pastor (in a couple of months, Lord willing and BOM don't rise up agin' me) who has complete the educational requirements for that license, but still taking classes for my MDiv so that I can become ordained as a full elder.) If I stay a Local Pastor and do not pursue elder's orders, I don't need any more school (what a relief that would be! Three years of seminary has been grueling on top of the job and kids. (And it would be easier for someone of my "advanced age" (44) according to my Staff Parish Relations Committee.)(I seem to be having a paraenthetical sort of day and losing ground.)) At the rate I am going (half to three quarters time), I have 2 to 3 years more to go. If I stay a PL (Methodist for Part time Local Pastor), I sort of have "free agent" status -- I can ask the conference for an appointment, or I can find my own -- if the church is rated for a PL. On the other hand, PL and FL (full time Local Pastor) aren't laity or clergy at conference -- we have no vote or voice in conference. They also cannot peform the function of a minister except in their own congregation without the permission of their DS (district superintendent, the middle manager between the minister and the Bishop.) If I follow my heart and pursue the Elder's Orders, I am subject to itineration and my family could be moved anytime, anywhere. What to do.... well, I have been thinking and praying about this for 3 years now....

Why do we itinerate? It really does give the minister/preacher the voice of a prophet in their congregation. The minister is not dependent on the good will of the congregation -- if there is sin going on, we can preach and proclaim from the pulpit without threat to our jobs. Hence the strong Methodist tradition for social justice. It makes for very strong lay leadership -- in fact to become a certified lay speaker can required more education than the *average* Baptist minister (at least the average in my area.) The congregation is not based on the personality of the minister -- because Methodists know that that's going to change every 3 to 10 years (the pastor, not his personality.)

What's wrong with itineration? It is harder to truly pastor. By the time you really start to get to know your congregation, you're outta there. And do I have to talk about the damage it can do to your family? And how do you get rid of ineffectual ministers?

Begin the Boring Part

The Meaning of Itineration

The word itinerate is not an old word. It dates from around 1775 and means, “to travel a preaching or judicial circuit” (Merriam Webster Dictionary). Itinerancy is the system by which the clergy of the United Methodist Church are appointed to their churches or circuit (either of which can be called a charge) by their Bishop and subject to their annual conference and is directly supervised by the District Superintendent. The Book of Discipline defines “¶329. The Itinerant System – 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” (¶329. The Itinerant System, Discipline -- 2000). Itineration is not an option as Elder in the church. Every church in the Methodist Church will have a pastor and every minister will have a charge in as far as practicable. Itineration is a distinctive system of the United Methodist Church and is not subject to change. “¶ 17. Article III. The General Conference shall not change or alter any part or rule of our government so as to do away with episcopacy or destroy the plan of our itinerant general superintendency” (¶ 17. Article III, Discipline -- 2000). Today in the UMC, itineration has evolved from its roots in early Methodism. It is said that John Wesley traveled 250,000 miles in 40 years; preached 40,000 sermons; and produced 400 books. But his labors in the end produced the movement that formed the Methodist Episcopal Church. Francis Asbury here in America was called the “Prophet of the Long Road” for the many miles he rode in itineration on the eastern seaboard. To understand the itinerancy system is to understand the heart of the United Methodist connection.

History of Itinerancy
John Wesley was the first itinerate Methodist minister. Wesley felt called to a ministry beyond the traditional parish boundaries. To spread the gospel, he blew past the parish boundaries and parish protocols. He felt that God alone could determine his mission, ministry and preaching. He looked at the entire world as his parish. He began small societies of people to study the scriptures and hold one another accountable to certain rules and principles. He encouraged his people to stay in the Anglican Church and did not consider his movement a denomination. He began riding around central England visiting these societies and preaching to them. He was the first circuit rider. He later recruited other like-minded men including his brother Charles, to assist him in his rounds. “It was this sort of itinerancy on the Wesleys’ part that spread the movement and began to consolidate a network of acquaintances into a ‘connection’” (Heitzenrater, 140).

As the movement spread to American soil, so did the concept of itinerancy. Even before Wesley sent over his first missionaries, there were preachers in the American movement who itinerated, notably Robert Strawbridge. As the first true leader in America. “Francis Asbury was quite content to continue and, indeed, emphasize Wesley’s grand principle of keeping the preachers moving” (Norwood, 77). The great heyday for itineration was in the early 1800’s where the original reason for keeping the preachers moving was to administer the sacraments. As more and more ministers became ordained, this reason decreased and preachers began to locate in one church, to only itinerate every 3 or 4 years. This model, which was decided on in the middle 1800’s was disliked by many in the church who saw the bishop as the military general and the preachers a fast moving cadre, spreading the Gospel of Christ. It was debated, but accepted in both the MEC and MECS before the Civil War. This is the basic model that today’s itineration is based.

Consultation involves the minister, the local Staff Parish Relations committee, the bishop, and the District Superintendents (or more commonly called the cabinet.) This is not a true appointment system in which the one appointed has no say. Nor is it a negotiation system. The characteristics of each and every congregation are closely matched with the qualifications of each Elder appointed. The Bishop represents the Episcopacy of the UMC in that he or she is ultimately responsible for the final decision of which minister to place at which church, however the Bishop does not make that decision alone. He makes good use of the cabinet and the SPR of the local church. The minister must be evaluated yearly by the Bishop to determine if the mission of the church is being fulfilled. Only after consideration and consultation between all these parties does the Bishop make his placements.

“¶431 Consultation and Appointment-Making – Consultation is the process whereby the bishop and/or district superintendent confer with the pastor and committee on pastor-parish relations, taking into consideration the criteria of ¶432, a performance evaluation, needs of the appointment under consideration, and mission of the Church. Consultation is not merely notification. Consultation is not committee selection or call of a pastor. The role of the committee on pastor-parish relations is advisory. Consultation is both a continuing process and a more intense involvement during the period of change in appointment.
1. The process of consultation shall be mandatory in every annual conference.
2. The Council of Bishops shall inquire annually of their colleagues about the implementation of the process of consultation in appointment-making in their respective areas” (¶431 Consultation and Appointment-Making, Discipline -- 2000).

Dissenting Voices
There are definite advantages and disadvantages to itinerate system. It is a system of long history in the UMC. John Wesley said of it "We have found by long and consistent experience that a frequent exchange of teachers 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 congregation" (, September 20, 2004). By being appointed to a church and not called, the minister is free to be a prophet in the congregation. However the continual and frequent removal of preachers, the breaking of bonds between the pastor and parishioners, the upheaval of the family of the pastor and other concerns bring in to play the question if the UMC has outgrown itinerancy. There are dissenting voices. “We cannot expect a local church to survive if the clerical leadership is constantly changing. Itineration of pastors in the UMC does not allow for continued leadership. The rapid turnover in other denominations has a similar effect. When a pastor has only 4-6 years in an assignment, it is impossible to bring about renewal” (William P. Wilson, MD,, September 20, 2004). “The Itinerant system, with its promise of guaranteed appointments, while caring for women and clergy of color in ways the call system cannot and does not, needs systemic attention. This includes eliminating the practice of guaranteed appointments that forces bishops to continue to appoint clergy we know cannot or will not provide the leadership needed for the Church today” (Sprague, 59). Perhaps there will be a call the next generation for a change in the itinerancy system similar to the changes in the system in the early 1840’s. However we need to make certain that Methodism will maintain it’s distinctive flavor of connectionalism.

A nice picture of Dr. Tom Frank


Unknown said...

Hi, reverend mommy!
Thank you for your explanation of itinerancy. I had just been blogging the other day about the PBS special and made some comments about the Methodist system based mostly on growing up half-Methodist (my dad's side of the family) and knowing a few Methodist clergy in my area now. I found all the parts of your commentary interesting.
As a UCC minister, I don't get moved around, but as the divorced (and now remarried) mother of three children, I have a commitment to keep my children near their dad. This means my opportunities are quite limited. Providentially, a little church here felt I would be a match and I was ordained to that call.
The sort of status you are considering as a Local Pastor is what we call in the United Church of Christ "Licensed Ministry." I've been involved from the judicatory level in supervising a licensed minister and they certainly have more requirements for their service than some Baptist, and other, ordained folk!
All I can tell you about the conflict between family and career is the conclusion I reached: I knew God called me to be mother to my children; if God also called me to ordained ministry, then somehow the two would work out together.
And don't forget, they get older every single year... When I took a leave from seminary after my divorce, at age 37, my kids were 3, 8 and 12. At that point it seemed impossible that I could ever serve a church. Now they are 9, 14 and 18, and soon we will leave those ages behind, too. Somehow ministry and motherhood mix, as long as I don't let ministry take up all the space, all the time. (Because as you probably already know, it easily can.)
My favorite Beth Stroud moment in the documentary was the comment she made about the church's response to her, something like, "It's cool that you're queer, but why do you want to be a Methodist?" I'm sure she feels as called as you do to that system and also feels called to work through it to bring about greater understanding and love, in the spirit of Jesus. If you're called to Motherhood and Ministry and, yes, Methodism, too, again, trust that it will sort itself out if you stay faithfully on the path.

Jay Voorhees said...

Lord, you must have had Tom Frank for polity! Thanks for the great post.

Theresa Coleman said...

You made me laugh --
Why, yes, I did! And lunch last Monday (just kidding)! How did you guess? =o)

Theresa Coleman said...

And BTW, I saw Frank in Cokesbury right before Christmas -- he was buying a *case* of the new 2004 Disciplines -- he said they were Christmas presents! I had to swallow my giggles. He's so.... Frank! Some of the current students have nominated him to appear "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Too funny.
I'll add a picture of him.....

Anonymous said...

As a former PK (mom was a UMC pastor)I can attest somwhat to the upheaval caused in the family when her appointment would change. I also have found that when the pastor is a woman and the husband has a career of his own the location of said appointment can create all sorts of other issues.
Although the itineracy does offer change and different talent and gifts to various churches, in this day of two-income familes it can place some severe burdens on all involved. Though I whole-heartedly agree that the UMC needs to change the system somehow it does need to maintain that wonderful connectionalism that I miss by now being part of a non-denominational church.

Just happened upon your blog and like what I saw as well. Keep up the good work.

The Examined Life