rethinking itineracy

Seems like there’s talk about itineracy many places I read these days.

For an non-United Methodists out there, “itineracy” is the way UMC pastors come to be pastors of UMC congregations. They are assigned, through a process that includes some consultation with the pastor and the churches involved, by the bishop and her/his “cabinet,” made up of District Superintendents who share oversight responsibilities for the congregations in their areas.

I think it’s definitely a conversation well worth the time and energy since it is intricately related to our missional methodology, not to mention being more well known–by insiders and outsiders–than our theology! My recent thoughts on appointing pastors missiologically fall squarely in this larger conversation. Some articles I’ve read lately address the question of “whether or not” regarding itineracy. My blogpost leaves open that question, but is open to it as well, since I’m asking more the “how” question.

In the United Methodist Reporter, Donald Haynes has two columns in the past month or so on the issue of itineracy. The first is from March 5: “Ostrich Posture of Eagle Vision on Itineracy?“. The second is from April 4: “GC2008: Outsource Study on Itineracy.” Occasional contributer Eric Van Meter has a recent column as well: “Itineracy Makes it Easier for Us to Move On.”

Itineracy, modernly conceived and applied, does have its advantages. The most practical and least to be underestimated is that congregations are not long without a pastor, if at all, and clergy are not long without a church so long as they remain “in good standing” with the Conference. Another seems to be an advantage, though I have doubts as to whether or not it is a modern myth–that being sent by the bishop rather than called by the congregation allows one to speak prophetically and deliver hard truths without being forced out quickly thereafter by put-off congregants. My sense is that speaking “hard truths” to a congregation entails significant risk on appointed and hired pastor alike and that both situations demand plenty of groundwork laid for trust and appreciation between pastor and congregation. In both, it seems as though there is a need to “earn the right to be heard,” while at the same time assuming the risk to one’s future with that congregation as something necessary according to the prayerful discernment of the pastor.

Quick summaries:

Haynes’ first column, from March (“Ostrich posture…”), calls into question the whole approach in modern use. He acknowledges that it was begun in a context–both in the church and the community–in which we no longer find ourselves. For these reasons, he advocates General Conference 2008 (beginning next week) appointing “a study committee to radically restructure the outmoded model of itineracy.”

Haynes’ second column, from April (“Outsource study…”), beats the same drum. He helpfully points out that a circuit rider was not a pastor–he was a preacher. Haynes proposes, “asking General Conference to authorized a soul-searching review of this hallmark of Methodism.”

Van Meter’s column, in which he pretends to be in relationship therapy for his covenanted bond with the UMC, he wrestles with seeing both the advantages and disadvantages of itineracy. He concludes with an exortation to pastors and congregations to better invest in longer relations via trips, etc.


Published by Guy M Williams

Christian | Husband, Father | Pastor | 8th-Gen Texan | Texas A&M ‘96 | Asbury Seminary ‘01 | Enjoy family, reading, running, golf, college football

4 thoughts on “rethinking itineracy

  1. A few thoughts:

    1) The statements that reflect the thought that the Pastor is the one who is responsible for coming in and showing a local church how to do things the right way seems misguided in a number of ways. I have seen more churches that have healed pastors than the other way around.

    2) The notion that longer tenures will result in more grow or health in a congregation is similar to thinking that the longer a unhappy person stays in a marriage the better things will get. Unless both sides are committed to growing, length of time will not matter.

    3) Leadership is an art not a science. To say that we can’t send pastors to certain locations suggests that we think our pastors are incapable of growing new skills and habits. It is similar to saying that artists are only as good as their canvas or clay.

    4) I firmly agree that the salary has more to say about who goes where than it should.

    5) I do not agree with Haynes’ statement about us being a “two income” world. I could possibly agree with it being a “two career” world, but two incomes often means, “Too many expectations, not enough budget”.

  2. Hey Rick. Thanks for pressing these points. Some thoughts…pressing back and running with you…

    1. Won’t question what you’ve seen as far as churches healing pastors. But there are an awful lot of unhealthy churches that need some help and that need leadership. Whether there is capable leadership ready to go serve or not does not change the need for leadership. Not be “pastor-centric”, but not to underestimate the impact and need for leadership either.

    2. Not if we assume that simply leaving someone, anyone, in a position longer with be the magic panacea, of course not. But, to continue the marriage analogy, when pastor and congregation can press through their “so why did we get together after all?” years, great things can happen. Especially with transformational leadership. I think that’s why we’re beginning to take longer tenures seriously.

    3. I have actually suggested almost the opposite in my other post: that while its true that our pastors can grow new skills and abilities, a missological approach usually involves tapping into indigenous leadership, thus saving time and energy by allowing persons to serve where they naturally fit and where they would be inclined to be anyway. Wonderful, surprising things can happen as a fish out of water, but most of the time don’t we get more out of a fish when we put him in a pool of water he would gravitate toward anyway, entrusting him to have a vision beyond that little pool of water?

    4. Yep.

    5. Your corrective here is dead-on about our “two income” world. I think that “two career” is more accurate, which seems to make the same point as Haynes is making. When the clergyperson is husband, the stereotypical assumption is that if the wife feels called to a career too, that it needs to be teaching or nursing, since those are more conducive to the current assumptions of the appointment process.

  3. 1) We both could put forth anecdotal stories that would show a case for either side of this. Strong leadership can of course come from someone other than the Pastor.

    2) Rediscovering what a covenant relationship means each time a new pastor arrives might improve the chance of both sides of the pastor/church equation knowing what they are getting into.

    3) Big fish in little ponds tend to either 1) starve 2) feed on the smaller fish. Not liking where that would take us:-)

    I will accept that not every leader we put into a church will have the capacity to develop new skills and vision. I have simply found that good leaders do well wherever you place them.

    4) We need the pastor (QB) rating system. (or a playoff scenario!)

    5) Agreed.

    Keep pressing if you like.

  4. Very enjoyable conversation (perhaps to build on for a coffee break sometime?). Here’s my latest.

    1. Agreed.

    2. Perhaps one way of getting this effect would be to have more parties invested in the decision for pastor and congregation to come together in covenant relationship for ministry.

    3. It is helpful to keep in mind that good leaders do well wherever you place them, lest we find excuse after excuse for why someone is ineffective (“they just need a better appointment” smells fishy–to keep the analogy/reference going). Just the same, good leaders perform better when they already know the cultural assumptions and cues and can navigate those in a way that is faithful to the gospel call, rather than bumping into them awkwardly or spending disproportionate time learning them when they could be optimizing the cultural knowledge they already possess.

    4. True dat. The formula would be simple enough, but timely access to the data… doubtful. :^(

    5. Yep.

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