Reflections on Leaving – Part 3: Itinerancy

According to A Dictionary for United Methodist by Alan K. Waltz, itineracy or itinerancy is:

The system in The United Methodist Church by which pastors are appointed to their charges by the bishops. The pastors are under obligation to serve where appointed. The present form of the itineracy grew from the practice of Methodist pastors traveling widely throughout the church on circuits. Assigned to service by a bishop, they were not to remain with one particular congregation for any length of time.

(from Glossary of Terms at umc.org)

Early North American Circuit Rider

Some see a commitment to itinerancy as a central aspect of being a United Methodist Elder. Some describe this commitment as being willing or open, others describe it as being obedient. Elders speak about it in a variety of ways: part of our identity, openness to the Spirit, career opportunity. Churches have mixed reactions depending on their experience, some see it as a curse “each time we get a good one they take them away” others see it as an opportunity “we’ll have a chance at another preacher sooner or later.”

There seem to be a variety of ways that itinerancy is practiced. Some churches (some say that it is mostly the larger ones) seem to have more input on their pastor staying or leaving, and are given longer pastoral tenures. Other congregations tend to have a revolving door to pastors. Some Elders serve in places a long time, while many Local Pastors are constantly on the move.

I do not believe that itinerancy should be seen as equal to an appointive system. I see the two as related but not the same. Pastors do not have to be itinerant to be appointed to their place of service. In some ways this is what we have in place already in some of our larger churches. Pastors are appointed there but are expected to stay for a long time. This does not take away the authority of the bishop to appoint to another place, it just makes “staying” the default understanding.

The work of pastoral leadership requires time, and it requires a long time. Like any other covenantal relationship it truly matures and improves with time. Rhythms of pastoral life, caring, life transitions, teaching and preaching, leading, necessitate a settleness that the anxiety of possible move cannot provide. Add to these rhythms the rhythms of family life (in itself another covenantal relationship) then the importance of being in one place for the long term becomes even more important.

As I prepare to leave in response to the itinerant system I am fully aware of the tensions above. I understand being “itinerant” in terms of my willingness to go where the mission of the church needs me the most. This could mean one place for the rest of my pastoral life, it could mean a variety of places. As I go again I do not go to leave, I go to be fully present, to grow roots, to be with those I have been asked to be in ministry with. “Staying” has become my default position.

I remember arriving at Squyres UMC to find that, after so many pastors, they were already preparing for my departure as they helped me unload the moving truck. I found these ways of thinking frustrating and hard to listen to. Yet little by little we were able to get over our fear of another change, of another move, of another relationship lost. We were able to focus on our ministry together and not be anxious about the itinerant system.

As I enter a new congregation it is clear that I do not enter it to leave but to live. To live my pastoral life with attention and intention. To live into the many relationships that God will send my way. To live in raising my family and growing in grace. To live into the Spirit’s continued work in my call to discipleship. To live in the midst of the many uncertainties of life.

At the center of “itinerancy” is the idea of journey. Sometimes the journey takes us to other places, most of the time the journey is found right where we are!

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