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.