on message and method…

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.



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

5 thoughts on “on message and method…

  1. While, as a lay person, I do not claim to understand completely the issues surrounding itineracy, I also would not recommend that the Methodist church abandon a system that has worked well for hundreds of years. A couple thoughts:

    The Methodists and the Catholics have used similar systems, and, while congregations don’t always love their pastors, there is rarely bickering or in-fighting amongst the congregation with regards to clergy. Conversely, I have literally seen Baptist and Lutheran congregations torn apart because of pastors. Having someone outside the congregation make the final determination may actually be better for the life of the congregation.

    Secondly, when issues do arise between the congregation and pastor, having someone at a higher level to approach can be a significant advantage. The bishop can talk with the congregational representatives and the clergy to (1) recommend how to heal the relationship and/or (2) search for a pastor who will be a more suitable match. Additionally, if there are issues with the congregational leadership, the bishop can provide counsel to help improve the congregation/pastor relationship in the future.

    Abandoning itineracy completely would leave the Methodists like the Baptists – some great churches with strong congregations and leaders, and some churches who “churn” through pastors and never have the ability to grow.

  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?”

    Perhaps what this means is that we’ve not spent enough time/energy/money using these people God has brought us – i.e., done more urban and suburban church planting. I’ve heard some in the AC bemoan that all the church planting goes to the suburbs. BUT THAT’S WHERE THE PEOPLE ARE. We NEED to go where the people are.

  3. hey Jay:

    Good words from the lay perspective. A couple of thoughts. First, I would think of a new approach still being tethered somehow to the sort of resources that you mention in your point #2–leadership of bishops and resources for healing relationships and help searching for new a pastor when the time comes.

    Second, I think we find ourselves in our own version of the situation you describe in your last paragraph. Not the exact same, perhaps, but a similar place nonetheless. This is one reason, among others, that I tend to think that while itineracy has a certain logic and appeal to it on the one hand, it is up for grabs as to how well it is working today (or for the past X number of years). According to metrics like growth in worship attendance on the part of churches, attractivness to first career clergy as a faithful expression of their call to ministry, and missiological connectedness to the modern context, I would suggest that itineracy’s track record recommends itself for serious consideration of how well it’s working. Some alternatives practiced in other denominations may have their problems, and serious ones at that. But our charge may be to discover a way that no one’s practicing that will faithfully engage the mission field rather than to suppose a forced choice among the options currently on offer.


    I’ve actually thought of that too. What if we are underserving growing areas because we are stuck in a mindset that makes institutional demands on where we deploy pastors instead of listening for the missiological demands right under our noses. The urge to maintain and perpetuate seems ever with us.

    And, again, we dare not miss the issue that we seem to be lacking not only the young in proportionate numbers but also the rural and small-to-medium town persons in terms of who hears the call to ministry in the UMC.

  4. Maybe there’s something to be said in that –
    We must run to the fires that the Holy Spirit is burning instead of deciding on what fires to create and trying it on our own.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: