July 20, 2010

United Methodist Ordination – Pt. 2

Posted in Ordination at 5:22 am by billgepford

I’m not arguing against the UMC, but rather against the peculiar institution of itinerancy.  Why?  Because I’ve heard way too many Godly, high potential leaders refuse ordination in the UMC because they refuse to be itinerant.  It seems to be the number one reason that young future pastors are abandoning their Methodist roots in favor of greener pastures.

For those outside the Methodist system, itinerancy is the system by which pastors are appointed by their bishop to serve different churches.  Theoretically, pastors can be ordered to move to a new church every single year if the bishop so chooses, which would effectively prevent the forming of deep relationships.

At its theoretical best, the bishop will be perfectly led by the Holy Spirit and will appoint each pastor in the right place, and for the right amount of time.  However, I don’t know if this generation of future pastors are really so ready to trust their entire futures to bishops they have never met.  Why couldn’t the pastors themselves be the ones listening for God’s call and following that to the correct church?  While some bishops may be fantastic (and I believe I’m blessed to be in the state of just such a bishop), some people have had too many reasons to distrust the system.

If Wesley were around today, would he institute the itinerant system?  I highly doubt it.  Wesley was considered a genius organizer in his day – the itinerant system directly stems from that, and it really did make the most sense 250 years ago.  However, times have changed drastically since then, and that Wesley himself might arrange things differently today – “John Wesley’s great success as an organizer was due at least as much to his readiness to accept, and his adroitness in adapting, the suggestion of others, as to the fertility of his own resources” (John Wesley by John Henry Overton, page 120).  Does itinerancy make sense now?  Not in the slightest.  The UMC recognizes a correlation between long tenures and effective ministry (http://www.umc.org/atf/cf/{db6a45e4-c446-4248-82c8-e131b6424741}/CV_PRESENTATION.PDF – specifically page 48), and yet long tenures are destroyed by the inerant system.  Furthermore, the best leadership thinkers of the day espouse the importance of the support team around you (Harvard Professor Ashish Nanda in his address to the Willow Creek Leadership Summit, Jim Collins tackles it here – http://www.jimcollins.com/media_topics/first-who.html); itinerant pastors do not get to choose the staff around them.

Thoughts?  I love my church and want to do everything I can to see it fulfill the calling that God has for it, even if that means asking the uncomfortable questions.  Are there any real reasons left for an itinerant system?


  1. Bill – Thanks for your thoughts in this post. I appreciate the question as to whether John Wesley would organize in an itinerant system today. While it is clearly difficult to anticipate (or impossible), I value your raising this question.
    You are right to recognize the trust or lack thereof between pastors and bishops as a sticking point in the system of being appointed.

  2. […] Would Wesley create itineracy today? Read more at United Methodist Ordination – Pt. 2. […]

  3. John Leek said,

    Thank you for raising this point. I’m a seminarian and I definitely struggle with the idea of being moved often.

  4. John Meunier said,

    I’m confused by some of the premises here. How does itinerancy necessarily destroy long tenures? And how long is long?

    I’m also confused about the point about the value of being able to pick your own team. How many churches have a staff that is large enough to make this a factor?

    I’m pretty sure Baptists and Presbyterians also have difficulties with short appointments and entrenched staff that are inherited from others.

    That does not mean Wesley – if he were alive today – would establish itinerancy, but it seems to me we engage in a lot of sloppy thinking in our fairly common and familiar arguments against the itinerant system.

  5. billgepford said,

    @John – good questions; perhaps I could go deeper in my analysis.

    So often it seems we itinerate out of a sense of duty, not out of need or a calling from God. I’ve heard the argument that pastors are brought in with different skill sets (quoting 1 Cor 3:6) so as to better build up a church; while that argument does have some merit, it also ignores any notion of community. Itinerating a prophetic preacher around seems somewhat less effective in a world with cars and the options for worship they provide; if the preacher’s prophetic remarks hit too close to home, I could simply find a new church. This is a complete paradigm shift from the times when a person only had one Church within traveling (i.e. walking or horseback riding) distance, and skipping Church could lead to social ostracism.
    We have very few, if any, writings from most of the original disciples. Is this because they had nothing to say, or perhaps because they were in the same place for longer and did not have to write letters to remind the Churches of their theology? I’m incredibly thankful for the letters Paul wrote, but I also think that at least a few of the other disciples may have abstained from writing not because they had nothing to say, but because they had already lived out their message in the community they had become ingrained in.
    Maybe what we need is more complete pastors, not more rapid turnovers.

    You make a good point on staff – many pastors do not have a full-time, professional team around them. However, every church has volunteers; no Church could really function without them (you could argue that if no one is volunteering to help out, the church isn’t really functioning anyways). These volunteers fulfill many of the roles taken by professional staff at larger churches, and it is just as essential that the pastor have a rapport with them – each pastor must know who is dependable and who is gifted to lead, and in what areas. While they may not get to choose who they have helping them, they can have more success in leading a volunteer team if they know the individuals better – and such learning takes time.

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