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.