Wesleyan Wisdom: It’s time to make a change in appointment making

Wesleyan Wisdom | Donald Haynes | United Methodist Reporter

For United Methodists throughout the connection it’s appointment time again.  The time honored method empowers bishops and cabinets the sole authority to deploy pastors with only an advisory role from the pastors and congregations. Bishop Jack Tuell, speaking for the Council of Bishops in the 1988 Episcopal Address said “we are going to redeem and renew the itineracy.” (The bishops also promised us to be “a growing church going on to perfection–more evangelical, more socially responsible, more inclusive, more global and more connectional.” If that list were a “report card, ” we would hardly be earning a passing grade a quarter century later!)

Donald E. Messer, then the president of The Iliff School of Theology, was chosen in the late 1980’s  to edit  a book about this strange system we call a “sent ministry.” He  chose as the title, Send Me?–the itineracy in crisis. (Incidentally, it was Messer’s book that chose to change the spelling of our “sent system” from “itinerancy” to “itineracy.”)    In writing a chapter about a “culture in crisis,” theologian Rebecca Chopp critiqued Wesley’s justification for the itinerancy of single lay preachers in the rather narrow geographic confines of England and Wales: “John Wesley was prone to confuse the itineracy with obedience to himself…!”  Ostensibly, itineracy was created to serve the mission of the church, but it has often seemed, Chopp observed, “that the ministry and mission of the church were created to serve the itineracy.”  Bishop Asbury repeatedly identified his own paradigm of the itineracy as the mission of the church. Throughout our history we have tweaked the system many times, but Mr. Wesley and the successor bishops have been incredulously resistant to change the power of the episcopacy in appointment making.

Maybe as a former D.S. and seminary instructor of scores of students I get more calls than some, but every spring I get emails and wails from laity and clergy concerning the resistance/refusal of the bishops and cabinets to “hear our humble cry.”  Some feel “passed by” as their colleagues receive career advancements.  Others report that their move will require their spouse to commute back to a job that is more remunerative than the compensation of the pastor.  Still other calls are from laity who have asked for reconsideration of the projected appointment to their church or change in parish alignments, only to be rebuffed.

Conventional UMC Wisdom About the Itineracy

The persistent justification for  the itineracy is that both pastors and churches have been served more justly than in the denominations with “call” systems. There is no lapse of time when churches are supplied or pastors are unemployed. Incredibly, this transition is accomplished a single day!  As the old saying goes, “every church has a pastor and every pastor has a church.”  Perhaps this supply and demand balance was one unspoken reason that the Judicial Council struck down the action of the 2012 General Conference to abolish “guaranteed appointment” for full connection clergy.

Secondly, the system has been defended on the basis of the ordination covenant. Every clergy is pointedly asked before ordination, “Are you willing to go where you are sent?” Whatever interpretation we might make of the setting for this question and the exceptions we all know about, the fact is that ours is a covenant ministry. No one is blindsided by the prerogative of the bishop to deploy clergy on the basis of the cabinet’s perceived judgment. As for laity, new members from other communions are quickly  initiated into the reality that the lay stakeholders have little if any voice, and no “vote,”  in determining who their pastor(s) will be or whether they are a “station” or a “circuit.”  If they are on a circuit or are being re-arranged to become a circuit, they have no voice as to which church they might be aligned to receive the same pastor.  If you are United Methodist, your pastor will be chosen and the church(es) with which you share that pastor will be determined without your permission.

Some women weigh in on the side of itineracy as a system that insures more equity in assessing their gifts and grace for effective ministry.  Yet the Presbyterians and United Churches of Christ seem to be utilizing the leadership of women clergy with as many career opportunities as The United Methodists.  Would women not feel more supported if a congregation asked for her? Highly effective women are increasingly elected as bishops by secret ballot, not by authoritative placement.

Racially inclusive appointment making is often cited as a justification for retaining the authority of the bishop and cabinet.  The jury is still out on this, but which system has the greater likelihood of a church’s enhancement in comprehensive growth–the system that can look at a candidate without regard for skin color,  or the system that appoints  a person of different racial origin with no congregational affirmation?  Would it not be best for “cross-racial” appointments to be made when a local church discerns this as their most effective avenue to missional ministry in their location?  At least one reason that “eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week” is freedom of choice.   We practice freedom of choice in the election of bishops, and some African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and  Native Americans have been elected as bishops by secret  ballot. Here we choose leaders of various ethnic heritages in a system of democracy, not ecclesiastical decree.  Must  the ethos of electing our episcopal leaders be different from the choosing of a pastor?

So whatever happened to “consultation.”  When in Detroit, Texas leading a church revitalization, I learned that it was the birthplace of John Nance Garner.   In 1932, he surrendered the office of Speaker of the House of Representatives for the Vice-Presidency under FDR.  As he was leaving the office in 1940, a reporter asked “Cactus Jack” Garner what he thought of the office of the vice-presidency.   Mr. Garner’s response coined  the definition of our national  Vice-President for a generation!  He defined it as “a bucket of warm spit.”  That is coarse, but might well reflect  how most local church Staff Parish Relations Committees define “consultation” regarding appointments. Is it real when the Book of Discipline clearly limits the local committee’s role to “advisory”?  The lever is pulled only by the bishop and cabinet, not the local stakeholders.

The itineracy was incredibly kind to me; I was “given” appointments I probably would not have received in a call system, especially the last one at age 60!.  As I write, my grandson has just been informed about his first appointment out of seminary. He too is a very fortunate young man.  My home church has never had over 100 members and, for the most part, has been sent ministers it could not have enticed to come under a call system.  I have no sour grapes.

Facing Up to 21st Century Reality

However, it  is my deepest conviction that the itineracy has become, to mix metaphors, “a sacred cow that  is now an albatross.”  Everyone who agrees with this sentiment will have their own list of reasons.  Here are some of mine:

1. In Asbury’s time all the charges were circuits.  As late as the 1960’s there were amazing similarities in either all EUB or  all Methodist Churches–one  hymnal, one local church structure, a uniform curriculum for Sunday School, the same nomenclature for youth fellowships, uniformity in women’s societies, a parsonage system for clergy housing, and a common “connectional” vocabulary.  Families could move long distances and to differing demographic communities and feel “at home” the first Sunday morning they went to church.   These days, that uniformity is gone.  With contemporary worship,  new genres of music, alternative local structures, housing allowances, and the freedom to choose Sunday School literature from any publishing company;  congregational similarity has disappeared.  Today, it is quite challenging to find a church similar to  the one you left.

2. In the past, the vocation of the clergy spouse was seldom an issue.  Until the late 20th century the spouse was female and she was expected to sacrifice her career for that of her itinerant husband.  If she had her own career,  this meant loss of tenure, loss of pension, repeated “underemployment,” and the surrendering of her own vocational call.  As society as progressed in relation to women’s rights and vocations, that old paradigm is no longer the prevalent model. In many cases, the spouse is the primary breadwinner for the family, contributing far more to the well-being of the family than the clergyperson. For many families, dual-careers are necessary to contribute a desired standard of living, as well as providing for the education of the children. the reality today is that most clergy families are pulled in many directions by the competing needs of church, career, and the needs of the kids.

3. In my own years of moving school children, the excellence of the public school system in the “new place” was not on the radar. We and they simply knew that we would move and they would register in the zoned school–for better or for worse.  For one of our daughters, this meant being moved at the end of her tenth grade when she was an officer in student government, a cheer leader,  a girl with many friends in the church and school.  Her world collapsed when we were “picked up” late in the appointment process and moved even though both we and the congregation were asking for me to continue in our ministry together.  Our daughter made it, finished high school and college and married a boy from the town from which we were moved!  Now her son is going to be a public school teacher in that “old” school system. We survived, but it was tough. These days, with more and more children being enrolled in magnet schools and other special educational settings, changing schools is much more difficult.

4. The Baby Boomers who began coming into empowered positions by the 1960’s were “disestablishmentarians.”  One characteristic of the “Boomers” and successive maturing generations has been a resistance to authoritarian structures. Schools changed, corporations changed, churches changed. While much of our polity is democratic in nature, lay leaders experience an appointment system with minimal input and a sense of powerlessness in their role in defining the leadership of their church. This lack of connection leads to a sense of lessened responsibility for “making it work” with the new pastor since that decision was made by someone in “the establishment” with minimal understanding of the context of their church setting.

5. We fail to acknowledge that in fact we have a two-tier system in which large mega-churches often have a much greater say in who their next pastor will be. Only rarely are pastors in these setting moved against their, or the church’s, will. While we give lip service to the importance of small membership churches in the UMC, our actions suggest that they are in fact not as important as the larger churches.

One Possible Paradigm

Let’s get real.  William E. Channing, the famous 19th century Unitarian minister, wrote, “There are periods when the principles of experience need to be modified, when hope and trust and instinct claim a share with prudence in the guidance of affairs, when, in truth, to dare is the highest wisdom.”  Do we have the faithful courage to ask if that applies to our itineracy?

Retain the episcopacy for sure, however, let the stakeholders–lay and clergy–decide when a pastoral change needs to be made–not by a potentially “stacked” SPRC vote, but a congregational vote of confidence.   When a congregation discerns it is time for a change, what would happen if the bishop allowed them to put  their profile on the Internet, sharing their needs globally? Why can’t we let the word “connection” be liberated from parochialism?  Interested clergy could query the church for more information and perhaps then request an interview.

After screening applicants, the charge could submit 3-5 names to the bishop for background checks, a review of the candidate’s Wesleyan beliefs and United Methodist polity, and any known “clouds” from past appointments.  After the bishop and cabinet review and approve persons on the list, the congregation could invite one or more to come for live interviews, sermons, etc.  Meanwhile their incumbent pastor could be engaging in his or her own search–connection-wide.  Sometimes clergy need to return to churches nearer their roots because of grown children’s locations or aging parents or simple desire to relocate before retirement. Clergy would be empowered to “shop those markets,” allowing them the opportunity to serve in a context that helps them best be fulfilled.

The bishop would always retain the right of “veto,” but with episcopal blessings, the call could be made, effective any time during the year, not necessarily  in June or July.  The installation of the new pastor would be presided over by a bishop, preferably, but not necessarily, the incumbent resident bishop.  This would tie the episcopal office and spiritual leadership to the local church.

And while I’m at it, we would lose the office of District Superintendent. In my view, we would benefit more from church coaches  in various arenas of missional ministry whose consulting fees would be paid by the local church.

This paradigm is little more than the distillation of  table-talk conversations with many colleagues over many years.  Of course, colossal work by responsible parties would be required to surrender the power of the bishop and cabinet in appointment making.  Fiscal restraints seem to be causing rather draconian measures with minimal stakeholder concern.  We must not overlook the power of that last clergy “vote”–early retirement or leave of absence; or that last lay vote–the silent walk down the aisle, leaving The United Methodist Church.  As one who loves United Methodism, I pray that we will make substantive changes very soon.

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.


  1. Thomas Coates says:

    Wonderful thoughts on a difficult issue!
    I wonder how other episcopal (little “e”) denominations have been operating– The Episcopal Church, our full communion partners, the ELCA, and other Methodist denominations with modified polities– what works what are the problems there? (competition between priests, tenured clergy).

    I understand giving up the DS, but similar denominations either have smaller conferences (dioceses) with fewer churches, or other levels of governance between the episcopacy-level and the local church. I believe active district superintendents with true “strategic” abilities could be a very significant step in breaking down parish barriers and recognizing that we all serve one God, and work with One Body.

    While it’s unrelated, too often people bring up “well, deacons don’t have to itinerant, so you don’t get sacramental authority”– this statement is horrible and wrong on several counts, but at least, if itinerancy is modified, it will no longer be said.

    • Respectfully, I disagree. If there is a problem in the process it is because the cabinet and the bishop have lost sight. I have seen too many churches who would make terrible choices. I think of one local Baptist church that lost itself by calling the wrong pastor (but lost so many longtime pillars that the church has lost its mission, and I have seen a UM church nearly die when that long time favorite pastor, who did it all, retired and left a church with diminished lay leadership; it was saved by a few good appointments, and now grows in ministry.

      Both systems have faults, both have pluses. I prefer to know we will always have a pastor, and a system that (should) encourage strong lay leadership.

  2. As one who grew up in PCUSA AND UCC churches, both being Call churches and as a non clergy member of a UMC, I have noted some of the good things about Sent ministries. One of those things is that there are not all those teams going out for months and even years (something that seems a total time waster and often a total outreach stopper) seeking the next pastor as there are in Call churches.
    In many ways more of the organization can be given to the congregation in a Sent church and incoming clergy come into a functional system much of the time. In a Sent church there can be greater “ownership of the duties, responsibilities and joys” of church life by the membership. In a Sent church if one does not get along with the pastor, one does not have to pack up and go somewhere else as there is promise of someone else new coming in someday.
    For clergy families however there is an issue in Sent churches of education of children of various ages and of spousal employment. The education issue can be mitigated by careful assignments by the DS and the Bishop in accommodating the education schedule of the children and making sure that they stay in one place for each level of school, ie. elementary, middle and high school. For spouses, admittedly, it is not as easy to be accommodating to some kinds of employment, but these upsets can also take place in a Call church, especially if the pastor is dismissed for conflict with some powerful members or for personality clashes generally. That however can be common for all employment including secular employment everywhere.
    Having tried both, I prefer the Sent assignment method of the UMC.

  3. Teddy Ray says:

    Dr. Haynes,

    Your past writing on itineracy was the most helpful I’ve found for re-shaping my understanding of itineracy in Methodism’s history and for re-thinking future possibilities. Thank you! I agree with you that our current system of “sending” needs to change. I would suggest a different first option, though, rather than moving to a “call” system––something that focuses more on internal pastoral development rather than external pastoral searches.

    A first start at it here: http://teddyray.com/the-modern-pastor-sent-or-called/

  4. It’s naive to think it is going to work every time when we set up the ‘system’ according to what we think or might be right and then from that following trying to ‘fit’ everything into that system. The proof is in the pudding. it is not working and yet there are too many lives and powers are connected to appointment, apportionment, and trust clause system of Methodist. We either have to start a new movement like John Wesley did or just give in and go down with the system.

    May I suggest eAppointment? Like the online dating system – eharmony – each church will conduct self-assessment and at the same time, each pastor will do the same and then let the computer make the ‘match’ by high percentage points. In this case, there is no one to blame. If the blame should go around it is either church or pastor who failed to put enough information into the system. Hmmm… computer deciding the appointment… too radical?!?

    Let the bishops and DSs serve local churches and hold only the honory title – much like Church Council chair. If they have been proven to be good pastors why shackle them in the office pushing pencils? In this case, no heavy cost or unnecessary layer of hierarchy.

  5. Let me see if I get this right: The author wants me to accept a change from appointments based on the whim of bishops/cabinets to one based on the whim of church ‘leaders?’

  6. Let me see if I got this straight: The author wants me to exchange a system based on “the whim” of bishops/cabinets to one based on “the whim” of whoever controls the voice of a local church?

  7. Good insights, though everyone approaches this issue based on their own set of biases.

    My biases:

    1. Too often appointments are done as rewards and/or punishments rarely openly but often subtly. In certain areas, if full apportionments aren’t paid, the pastor should have his bags packed. In other places, any, even simply perceived, challenges to the presiding Bishop or DS will result in re-assignment. Sadly, “bad” or biased DS’s and Bishops can cause chaos and demoralization within their conferences. Some process for recourse and accountability within the connection is probably needed at a minimum.

    2. As you point out, the Pastor-Parish committee should definitely have more say, especially when they are trying to keep a pastor. It is very demoralizing for those congregations saddled with a string of “bad” pastors, to finally get a good one, and then have him reassigned when both the church and pastor want to continue the appointment.

    3. The current system also allows many “career” pastors who just go through the motions to have a guaranteed salary for life. Let’s face it; there are more pastors than we like to admit where it would be better for both the UMC and the pastor if they were cut loose and who would be much more effective working at a job outside the church. The salaries of most UMC pastors aren’t great, but with all the allowances provided, they also aren’t bad either. (I go back and forth personally on the whole debate over whether pastors should be paid full-time salaries.)

    Just some thoughts… We all need to be in prayer for our pastors, PPRCs, DS’s and Bishops during this often stressful time.

  8. Felix Rogers says:

    My dad was a Methodist minister, South Carolina Conference, and moving every 4 years was rough. I was asked during a therapy session how many long term friends I had, I responded, none. My survival mode was leave town, leave everything behind, and start over. Just forget the friends you had and make new friends. The good news….I make friends easily. The bad news, I still do not have any long term friends. The worst move was before my sister’s senior year in high school. The DS ignored the fact that he was moving a family with a rising senior in high school…and it was pure politics….nothing to do with ministry. Dad was also the statistician for the conference…..I learned early, around 1957, what a spread sheet was.

  9. Felix Rogers says:

    My dad was a Methodist minister, South Carolina Conference, and moving every 4 years was rough. I was asked during a therapy session how many long term friends I had, I responded, none. My survival mode was leave town, leave everything behind, and start over. Just forget the friends you had and make new friends. The good news….I make friends easily. The bad news, I still do not have any long term friends.
    The worst move was before my sister’s senior year in high school. The DS ignored the fact that he was moving a family with a rising senior in high school…and it was pure politics….nothing to do with ministry. The good thing for dad on moving day was reducing the number of churches he served; from charges of 4 churches till finally one church.

  10. I always appreciate Dr. Haynes’s insights. While I have no substantive disagreement with what he has written, it sounds a lot like what the Episcopalians do today. And yet, outside of a few thriving and growing mega churches, they are dying as well.

  11. I was born in a parsonage and had the distinct privilege of being a PK. Major changes have occured in the appointment system–years ago it was not uncommon for clergy to learn of their new appointment at conference time.
    I really relate to the comments of Dr. Haynes. Additional major changes need to be made, recognizing the changing circumstances he eloquently describes.

  12. These are very helpful. The “opposing” column by Tim neglects my efforts to maintain the episcopal form of government, leaving the “last word” to be the bishop’s appointment. Why are some so afraid of a congregational voice? Yes, they would make mistakes, but, my goodness, in our present system so little is really known by the cabinet about the ethos of most local churches–their power structure, their worship style, their openness to social justice issues facing their parish, etc. Churchill once said that democracy is a terrible form of government, “save for all the others.” Our system is awash with scapegoating. If a pastor had more voice in her or his destiny and if the next appointment were not a “promotion,” there would be no cabinet to blame. We need our bishops to be seen as our spiritual leaders and our mentors, not heavy handed “ecclesiastics” imposing their authority on the local church and pastor. Each of my six bishops has been a friend at some juncture in my life except the first one who for eight years never knew I existed. Most laity have never known more than one bishop personally, if any. We need to create a closer relationship between the connection and the parish.

    Let’s keep talking. No one has “the” answer or “the” system. But we have problems.

  13. It is true that no other mainline denomination in America nor British Methodism is growing, but the fault is not in their system per se. All denominations once called “mainline” are declining. Systems don’t create Spirit, but they do allow more or less of the Spirit to work through the front line of the kingdom–the local church.

    Once more, please stop comparing my proposal to the Baptists or Congregationalists. There, the local church is a self styled, self contained, self governing entity. We are a connectional system that needs tweaking, not chucking!

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