3 Reasons Why Itinerancy is an Idea Whose Time Has Come…and Gone #UMC

asbury horse
Bishop Asbury struggling with his horse, courstesy Asbury Seminary. What if Asbury is the UMC and the horse is itinerancy?

Here are three reasons why the itinerancy (the United Methodist system of deploying clergy) should go.

1) Itinerancy is intended for a very different context than United Methodists (at least in the US) face today.  Originally, itinerancy emerged in a context where a large number of laity were being served by too few clergy.  Then, itinerancy strengthened the ministry of the laity, as preachers served a “circuit,” only visiting local parishes semi-regularly.  In their absence, a strong system of lay leadership maintained and grew Methodist communities.  The situation is now the opposite: the church has come to be a support network for a large number of clergy to hold down jobs, and lay leadership has suffered.  The Order of Elders functions more as a guild or union to protect clergy rather than a covenant community deployed for God’s mission.  What remains of itinerancy today is at best a husk; I daresay neither Wesley or Asbury would recognize much of the machine we call “itinerancy.”

2) Itinerancy primarily benefits single white men.  Itinerancy, as conceived by the early Methodists, was not designed to be a system for anything but single men.  Preachers who wanted to have families were “located,” that is, taken off of the circuit.  Itinerancy has not evolved to handle the realities of female clergy, clergy families, or clergy couples; despite the excellent service many of these clergy render, they are still considered a burden to a system that thus rewards men, unmarried clergy and clergy whose spouses do not work outside of the home.  Oh, and it’s (still) a system that rewards white men in particular.

3) Itinerancy is designed for short-term service.  The UMC is coming around to something that many other denominations and church networks have already figured out: longer appointments are better for churches and for clergy.  The old standard – a 3 or 4 year term – is now recognized as the bare minimum amount of time a pastor generally needs to start earning trust and be able to lead serious change.  Some conferences are now telling their clergy not to even request a move until 4 or 5 years in.  Yes, John Wesley did argue, “We have found by long and consistent experience that a frequent exchange of preachers is best.”  With all do regards to our denominational progenitor, we have found by longer experience that this is no longer the case.

The Bottom Line

There is nothing sacred about itinerancy, as best as I can tell.  It is an organizational habit that is no longer effective; like a post for tying up horses, it is frontier architecture to which the United Methodist Church of the 21st century has no need to retain.  That is not to say itinerancy is without any merit; Joel Watts raises an excellent point that itinerancy serves as a safeguard against cults of personality (a danger any alternative system would have to attend to, as well).  But there are plenty of communions that avoid this danger absent the itinerancy.  All in all, I think the picture above sums up itinerancy nicely: represented by the horse, itinerancy is a system designed before both cars and trains, which was effective for a time, but which is now a burden to accomplishing our mission.*

But What Alternative?

For more on this conversation, and what an alternative might look like, I recommend you check out the discussion on the latest episode of the WesleyCast, available here (and even if you aren’t interested in the itinerancy discussion, listen for the interview with Duke Divinity School’s Warren Smith).

*As I am not familiar with the realities on the ground outside of the US, I am open to suggestion as whether this is still an effective system for clergy deployment in other areas of the Connection.  The last thing we need is the US dictating policy to the rest of the world in yet another area.

21 comments

  1. Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful post. I do have one very small bone to pick 😉

    I don’t buy the “it benefits white men” argument. As I recall from a polity class, guaranteed appointments, which are so closely linked to itinerancy, were set in place specifically to counteract any racial/gender preference for clergy appointments.

    And as a white man with a wife and children, I don’t see how itinerancy benefits me any more or less than someone else. It sucks to be told to move no matter who you are.

    I do happen to agree with the rest. I just think this point weakens the argument. You could leave off that one sentence at the end of point 2, and I can agree strongly with everything else you say here.

    Now the bigger question is this: when will itinerancy ever change, and what will have to be done with guaranteed appointments in order to change it?

  2. “There is nothing sacred about itinerancy” can we spout such a heresy? I agree with much of what you have written here Drew. I believe itenerancy, as we practice it, is something best left in the past.

  3. Thanks for this. I agree. I also think guaranteed appointments need to go as well (and should have stayed gone with the last GC). If the UMC is going to become a viable church again it is going to need to break the bureaucracy and the entitlement which prevents it from being so.

  4. Great post, Drew. But I wonder if anyone in a position to make a change will pay attention to the problem. It has become necessary for most of our spouses to work in order to make ends meet, but it seems little or no consideration is given to that reality. In too many cases it seems that the “good ol’ boy network” of taking care of your friends has more influence than gifts and graces.

  5. I am currently a Duke Divinity School student in my third year and will be an elder in the Texas Conference shortly. I have spent the last semester studying the 19th century itinerant system with Russ Richey.

    The entire post is constructed on one premise that is rampant and wrong today: itinerancy is a system. If you look back at Coke and Asbury’s annotated 1798 BOD you will see that itinerancy is based on a theology deeply rooted in biblical models of evangelism and mission. For them, they were following the footsteps of the apostles. While itinerancy will grow and evolve, we need to think about it as a theology and have it enlivened. I could talk for days about this, but this is just my one huge bone to pick 🙂

    1. I agree that there is theology/biblical precedent for itinerancy, and any system we develop should incorporate it somehow. I think this connects to a discussion of clergy roles respective of ordained or licensed, elder or deacon, etc. I have also wondered why Paul gets to write letters back to churches and come back to them on occasion, but that’s a huge no-no in our system. I think we could change things to be reflective of the theology, and be effective.

  6. Itinerancy can be defined in many ways. Basically it means to commute. Due to my wife’s career, I am unable to commit to a commute (an itinerancy) of more than an hour’s distance from my home. In June of this year, I will begin serving an appointment that is about a 45 minute drive from my home. In 21st century rural America, the 30+ minutes commute is rapidly becoming the norm. So maybe we need to change our definition of itinerancy given the advent of better transportation and the age of the two income family in which one spouse is unable to easily relocate to maintain or advance his or her career. I agree that itinerancy as we know it must change. I think a good way to start is by having appointments to be based on 6+ year covenant in which congregations and pastors commit to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2Peter 3:18). This would be more respectful of the current labor and family culture and hold pastors and congregations accountable to work together rather than seeking to run away from conflicts. In this way, I believe we can reasonably maintain the integrity of the Episcopal system and episcopal cabinets could focus more on ministry than the steeple chase.

  7. I agree with Paul Richards. Itinerancy is a strategic tool still used by mission based enterprise in today’s world. Corporations routinely assign personnel where they are needed to accomplish their mission irregardless of gender or family situation. While a pastor in Anchorage, I remember an oil company employee saying, ‘The company told me to pick up my next check in Houston.’ Military families are quite familiar with itinerancy. The only difference is that spouses and their children are supported and celebrated. The driving force is mission, not convenience. My spouse always worked to support our family, but she sacrificed a ‘career’ in order to support my call to ministry. Her incredible role in my 47 years of ordained ministry was barely recognized at my retirement. Believe or not, I agree with the author that itinerancy is ‘frontier architecture;’ however, what he fails to realize is that we live on the frontier of mission.

  8. It’s become obvious in recent decades that many clergy, regardless of status (single, married, ethnic identity, etc.), do not really want to itinerate but to just rotate appointments within a certain geographical area where they feel comfortable. I’ve heard clergy say things like, “I’ll move as long as I can stay in the “I-5 Corridor” (fill in the name of your own favorite section of freeway or metropolitan area), (implying) please don’t appoint me to a church 300-400 miles outside my comfort zone.” The mission of the church will always need people willing to be sent out, for we are a called out people (“Go ye into all the world and preach . . . ). But we have a short supply of those willing to say, “I’ll go where you want me to go, dear Lord . . .” I don’t believe one’s marital situation or whatever should define the nature of itinerancy. Put down some roots where you are sent! Yet I confess, I’m as guilty as everyone else in wishing to stay close to home!

      1. I think there is some truth to this. I also believe, though, that in such a system it behooves us to make an effort to get to know those in authority. Like it or not, the squeaky wheel generally does get the grease. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  9. Is the community loosely called church the last to get the memo or is just the Methodist Church in all its manifestations. The church being addressed here under any denomiNATIONAL Flag is no different from any other institution that believes its existence is more important than the people it serves. So much more to be said here especially within a context that purports liberal open armed acceptance is only minimally different from the nation which rewards churches with the 501 (c) 3 tax status legally binding them from giving voice to political views and particularly political opposition. Itinerancy is not the issue. The issue is character in an era of revisionist perspective that says if it is not broke, break it and lets see what it looks like when we piece it back together. The soul of itinerancy provided what is lacking in the 21st century quality leadership influencing quality relationship and community. Oscar Crawford

  10. I agree with some of what you say. However, I’d like to pose these questions/suggestions.

    Being a part of an itinerant order, living where sent, could be seen as a surrender of one’s circumstances of ministry to God. I know that the “system” doesn’t always function properly, none does and that it is very difficult to lead but I do think there is value in stepping away from the careerism that plagues us. I had a dear friend and mentor in ministry who refused to ever express a preference move or stay or where he’d like to be to a Superintendent. He was one of the happiest pastors I knew.

    I’d like to suggest we handle the need for long term pastorates by moving to four year appointments. People and churches would be asked after 4 years if they are OK. Then again after 8. Then again after 12, etc. I don’t see this as subverting itineracy at all as Bishops still would make the appointments…

  11. “But there are plenty of communions that avoid this danger absent the itinerancy.”

    Such as? Sorry, Drew, you don’t get a pass on that kind of statement. What churches are the “plenty” who avoid the cult of personality? I haven’t systematically studied that tendency, but I have enough anecdotal experience to know that every system is prone to this, especially when clergy stay in one place longer, rather than shorter.

    I’m not saying you don’t have any reasonable points, just that it’s not a reasonable argument if you don’t offer any evidence to support one of your conclusive points. I’d be happy to reconsider if you answer the question.

  12. Not a pastor here–but have been part of a church family affected by pastors changing over the last 20+ years. I don’t know if the WAY we do it is good, but I think the principle is important. We have learned and grown as Christians as we have had different pastors come through our church, we have been challenged to think and work in new ways, and some challenged to hold onto our heritage. I think that when you are in a big church, it is hard to get rid of a pastor that is losing his fire or inspiration because they can only go to a few churches in your area where he will make as much money–I wish we could get pastors from all over the nation–if not the globe–to teach us new ways to experience and work for God—and not have size of church or area they are in be an issue. Then both the congregations and the pastors might be able to grow more… If you have made a commitment to serve God, why are you fighting to stay in one place? Only because then you are serving yourself, your convenience, and your comfort zone. Doesn’t God challenge us to more?

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