I’ve been posting lately on how United Methodist clergy are paired up in ministry with United Methodist congregations. Though I think I am open to being convinced in either direction on itineracy or some form of it, I have questions about it’s missional effectiveness and its place in the Methodist imagination. Therefore, searching conversation is needed.
In the first post, I was thinking about how a missiological approach with an emphasis on raising up indigenous leadership might affect our system. Two main points there:
1. Paying great attention to natural affinity of pastors to places–not over- or understating this, but recognizing its value in the potential to produce longer term pastorates and decreasing the time and energy spent on the new sub-culture learning curve, thus increasing the time and energy available for the other learning curves associated with a pastoral transition.
2. Our current system is attracting disproportionate numbers of clergy from urban and suburban churches relative to the distribution of churches among rural, smaller town, urban, and suburban areas. If the organizational dictum, “Your system is perfectly designed to get the results you are getting,” then what is it about our system that is leaving rural and smaller town areas out of the culture of the call? How may this be addressed?
In my second post, I acknowledged strengths of our current approach, itineracy, then took a little issue with a supposed strength of itineracy, and finally shared some links to conversation I’ve noticed in the UM Reporter, specifically from regular columnist Don Haynes and occasional columnist Eric Van Meter.
In one of those columns, Haynes had this to say:
Donald Messer’s 1991 book, Send Me? The Itineracy in Crisis, made itineracy the defining characteristic of Methodism to the degree that message was subordinate to method. That volume also changed the spelling from “itinerancy” to “itineracy.”
My response upon reading that book is the same today: “If United Methodism is defined by its methodology rather than its message, God help us.” In seminary class, I often add the postscript, “And I don’t think God will, because as Wesley clearly believed, no polity is delineated in the New Testament.”
A much more analytical and helpful volume is Tom Frank’s Polity, Practice and Mission of The United Methodist Church, but it was published over a decade ago. Since then, both the church and the culture have undergone seismic shifts. The itineracy in its present form must be re-visited.
We have been overly protective of the itineracy and the authority of the bishop to make appointments.
This quote points to something Haynes wrote in the other column:
For too long, our polity has defined us. People who know nothing of Wesleyan theology know us as “the church that moves its preachers a lot.”
It is true that part of Wesley’s genius was his ability to develop and organization system and methodology that aggressively supported the spread of his theology–a practical theology with a vision for spiritual vitality and authentic discipleship. But the contribution of that theology must be greater than the system that worked so well within that era and its immediate successor in America. In other words, is not the message more important than the method for spreading it?
I tend to think that the organizational successor to Wesley in modern times, though not the theological successor, is Rick Warren and, more broadly, the cell group/church movement, which he applies in his context. Like many mainliners, I at first thought I Warren as a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to convictions about the social justice aspect of the robust biblical gospel. Then I thought, why on earth should anyone have a bad attitude about an organizational genius being converted to the holistic gospel?
It remains, however, with the spiritual children of Wesley, to find new ways to be faithful to the Wesleyan theological and missional vision. As Haynes points out, we have enshrined a methodology rather than a theological and missional vision as our principle means of faithfulness to the Methodist heritage. We have elevated a particular methodology above the message itself. Certainly our theological heritage and missional commitment are greater contributions that the specific methods employed (in and for England and America in the 1700-1800s).
It seems to me that the most faithful way to be true to our Wesleyan heritage is to follow John Wesley’s lead in coming up with methods that fit the missional context today and are in harmony with Wesleyan theology, even if that means laying aside some of the methods of the Wesleys and the early American Methodists.