Part of being in ordained pastoral ministry in the United Methodist Church is that every so often you move. In fact, at times, I’ve quipped with people that “I move for a living.”
My absence on this blog of late is largely due to that very fact: The Bishop appointed me to be pastor of a new congregation. Actually, since this church was started in the 1830s, new probably isn’t the right word… how about a different congregation. As of July 1, 2016, I’m now the pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Carmichaels, PA.
So, I’ve been asked dozens of times, WHY do we United Methodist pastors move so often? After all, there are some churches that have pastors for 20 or 30 years.
The official answer is two-fold. One, because the Bishop decides to move us. And hopefully, he (and his advisors that we call the Cabinet), has actually heard God say it was time for that pastor to move before they make such a move.
But the deeper answer is because of our kind of church organizational system. Most churches have some sort of hiring process where they hire, or call, a person to become their pastor. Oftentimes, that process is referred to as a call system. Roman Catholic priests, Salvation Army officers, and United Methodist pastors are appointed by their bishop or superior officer. Similar to the United States military, we are informed where, and when, we will go elsewhere. That’s the way we work in the United Methodist Church. And we call that the “itinerant system” or “itinerancy”.
Itinerancy (also correctly spelled as itineracy), is the system where pastors are moved from place to place wherever they are needed next. In the old days (like REALLY LONG AGO) we itinerated by horseback. One week we would be at church A in town A and serve Holy Communion and baptize anyone ready for Baptism and encourage and help the lay people of that congregation as much as we could… because we probably wouldn’t see them for another 13 weeks. (That’s the origin of so many of our United Methodist congregations having a tradition of only serving Holy Communion once a quarter… about every 13 weeks). After that week in town A, we then moved to town B for church B… and we literally itinerated around a circuit of about 13 towns and churches. (That’s also the origin of the term “circuit riders”).
Now-a-days, instead of using horses, we use horsepower (in our cars). And many of us still have more than one congregation that we’re pastoring at the same time. Church A has an 8:00 worship service, Church B worships at 9:30, and then worship begins at 11:00 at Church C. Some, like me in this current appointment, only have a single town and single congregation, but have more than one worship service (8:30 and 11:00 here in Carmichaels if you want to visit!).
Officially, each pastor in our system is appointed for one year, although we are usually reappointed at least once or twice. Sometimes a pastor will stay in the same place for several years before a new appointment. It all depends on the needs of the church and the churches of the rest of the conference.
Bishop Francis Asbury
In early Methodist history, Francis Asbury, one of our first two American bishops, was a stickler for short one or two year appointments. He believed being in one place for too long would compromise the pastor’s ability to speak truth to sin. The thinking was that if you’re living in and among the people of the area for too long, then you won’t just be the pastor but would start to become friends and be comfortable with the lifestyle of living there. And if someone become really good friends, then the pastor might become hesitant to address concerns and/or sins for fear of upsetting a friend or one of their relatives. And a pastor who didn’t identify sin they were aware of and then try to help people to repent and walk away from sin was unacceptable and considered (in today’s vernacular) unfaithful, ineffective, and unfruitful.
Another often heard explanation regarding the need to have pastors move occasionally uses the imagery of going to school as a child. You may have a great teacher in first grade that you like and who is great at helping you learn. But by your senior year you really should have progressed beyond that teacher from the past. As a pastor, I have gifts and strengths and skills which I hope are useful in ministering with the parishioners in my congregation. But if I have any pastoral or administrative or teaching skills at all, then you ought to be growing beyond what I can offer. And since I’m not perfect, you will eventually need pastoral leadership from someone who possesses other pastoral skills and gifts that I don’t have. Eventually, there will need to be a pastoral change.
In our system, pastoral changes usually take effect on July 1 of whatever year. However, when there is a missional need, a pastor could be moved at any point in the year. It seldom happens, although of my six appointments, only three started on July 1. The others were May 1, January 1, and September 1. Again, our system is driven by the needs and realities in the local churches.
In each appointment, the Cabinet and the Bishop discern where they believe the Lord is leading each pastor and each church, but then they call the individual pastor and inform them of what they believe is God’s will. They pastor learns about the new congregation and the setting (community, parsonage and living arrangements, and such). The pastor then gets a chance to pray as well and can ask for a reconsideration, although there’s never a guarantee that it will change. The next step is a member of the Cabinet (the District Superintendent for that area) goes with the pastor to meet representatives of the new congregation (known as the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee). Unless there is some huge red flag that goes up,then the District Superintendent will confirm that the appointment will happen. A red flag might be a situation like a handicapped pastor who is being considered for an appointment that has a very accessible church building, but then she or he discovers the parsonage has a multitude of steps. That appointment just isn’t going to work.
Ultimately, it is the Bishop that will “set the appointment”, although he or she has been in on the whole process up to that point, so we pretty much know before they publicly read the appointments.
They tell me that in the “old days” the two steps in the middle of this process, where the pastor gets to pray and then the meeting with the new church, didn’t usually happen. Rather, the pastor (always male at that point in our history) went off to Annual Conference sessions each June, and while there would learn IF they (and their family) would be moving and where to. The wives would wait near the telephone to await a phone call from their husbands to discover if they needed to start packing for a move before July 1. (I REALLY like the system the way it works now a lot better!)
I’ve heard pros and cons about the call system and about the itinerant system. I LIKE the fact that with our itinerant system, no church is ever without a pastor. My predecessor stopped being the pastor here in Carmichaels on June 30, and on July 1, I became their new pastor. Many call system churches, I’m told, go months and sometimes even years with no pastor while they’re trying to decide who to hire. Likewise, after leaving my old congregation on June 30, I didn’t become unemployed just because I left that church. That next day, July 1, I started as pastor of this congregation. There are many pastors, I understand, who are in the call system, who go months and sometimes years before they are “called” by another church.
One downside of our itinerant system is of course that we move every so often. Also, the pastor get to decide where they will live and work and the congregation doesn’t get to decide who they will hire as their pastor. Neither does the congregation get to fire the pastor when he or she preaches something they don’t like or offends someone, nor does the pastor get to just decide they want a different appointment when things get uncomfortable. Instead, the congregation and the pastor have to look to Scripture to see how Jesus talked about resolving conflict and building reconciliation as much as possible, because even if there will be an appointment change, it won’t be immediate.
I’ve only ever been in this United Methodist system, so I’d appreciate hearing how things go in the call system… or if there are some other ways that churches and pastors are brought together.
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