Some thoughts on Itinerancy

Today I was confronted with something that convicted me and got me thinking.

I am an elder in the United Methodist Church. One of the agreements I made when I was ordained is that I would itinerate. According to Thomas S. McAnally in Questions and Answers About the United Methodist Church, "Being part of the itinerancy means that a clergyperson is willing to go where sent. This system assures every pastor a church and every church a pastor. It also matches the gifts and graces of an individual with the needs of a particular church or area of service." In other words, I agree to go wherever I am sent, whenever it is deemed necessary.

In “History of Itinerancy” we are told that “United Methodism has a unique system of assigning clergy to churches which dates back to John Wesley and which is different from any other denomination. The system by which pastors are appointed to their charges by the bishops is called itinerancy.  The present form of the itinerancy grew from the practice of Methodist pastors traveling widely throughout the church on circuits. Assigned to service by a bishop, clergy remain with one particular congregation for a limited length of time. All pastors are under obligation to serve where appointed.”
John Wesley explained his reasoning for an itinerant clergy system by stating that "We have found by long and consistent experience that a frequent exchange of preachers is best. This preacher has one talent, that another; no one whom I ever yet knew has all the talents which are needful for beginning, continuing, and perfecting the work of grace in a whole congregation."

I think Mr. Wesley was right. And I believe in the itinerant system.
But, I came to a sober realization today. A good friend who cared more about sharing the truth with me in love than worrying about whether I would be hurt or offended confronted me with something that is, in my mind, directly attributable to itinerancy and, I believe, a serious disadvantage of the system.

First, a bit of history: I have been an associate pastor at a large UM church for the past four years. I inherited a 6 month old contemporary worship service when I arrived and was asked to lead it. This year I was appointed by the bishop and cabinet to start a new church 30 miles north. My senior pastor asked if I would stay on in an advisory capacity for two months to help the transition of the new pastor. This has been a very good process and I think that more healthy transitions could be made if churches would do this kind of thing more often. I have been beginning the new church and preaching alternating Sunday’s at my former church while staying loosely connected in other ways. I have been pouring a great deal of time and energy in to the new church and have been taking my off Sunday’s to visit other new churches. Naturally, my primary focus has been on the new church. This coming Sunday will be my last Sunday at the old church. I was telling my friend today that in hindsight I almost wish we would have made a clean break at the end of June like all other churches do. I said that I would have liked to have said goodbye and moved on to begin this new adventure, and I told him that I was looking forward to giving my final sermon and moving on.
 His response was honest and to the point.

Essentially what my friend told me was that it seemed to him and many others that I had said my goodbyes; that I had already moved on. He told me that many of the folks at the old church need to have closure, and that I needed to allow them to have that closure and that I needed to experience it myself … no matter how hard it may be.
There are two things that I learned from my friend today.

1.      Itinerancy creates an invisible boundary between clergy and congregation. Itinerancy says to the pastor and the congregation “this is only temporary.” Because of this, the congregation and the pastor oftentimes develop a relationship that is surface at best. I have often wondered why so many of my former pastors were so guarded. It’s because they’ve learned not to get too close to people in their congregation. They develop a practice of loving the people without really getting to know them (which I am beginning to think isn’t actually possible). I bought into this and have been able to make a clean break from this church family because I thought that everyone understood the rules and would just play along.

2.      Most of those attending the congregation that I have been leading don’t understand itinerancy. Most of the people who have begun attending the service that I have been leading are not Methodist and thus do not understand how things work. They have come to love me and my family, and they have felt hurt and abandoned by me. While I was busy moving on – like a good itinerant pastor – my congregation was left wondering what in the world was going on.
Here is what I learned today: although I continue to believe in the connectional itinerant system of the United Methodist Church, I have to realize that many people do not understand it and thus must be educated as to how it works. I also think that I have to figure out a way to truly love the people that God has placed in my care and refuse to keep distant for fear that I might have to leave them someday. Pastors still have a unique and very personal place in the lives of the parishioners who attend their churches; we become like family to many of them, and we can never forget that. While we may be focused on moving on, many who we are leaving behind are grieving and confused. We must deal with that, no matter how hard it may be. The honest truth is that much of my disconnection over the past several weeks has been self-preservation. I am grieving the loss of my church family as well, and my default mechanism for dealing with grief is to avoid and move on. I cannot do that. I must face the grief that comes with the loss of a very deep and loving relationship with people who I have shared life with. That is the least I can do for them. These folks are a part of my life, and I cannot just move on and forget about them because that is what we Methodist pastors do.


  1. Good observations and thoughts. It does raise important questions about how central "personal" relationships are to a pastoral relationship and the pastoral role.

    The point about education is especially on point. If we do not tell people about the United Methodist system, how will they learn? It would be helpful if all our itinerating was about missional needs of the conference. Often, that does not appear to be the case.

  2. It's not easy, and you and your friend bring up important points. It makes me think of a marriage with a prenuptial agreement. It doesn't help that the disparity from church to church is so large. The congregation I'm part of has a record of 7 years with 1 pastor in 100+ years. Nearby, there's a church that's had the same pastor for over 20 years.

    John's right though, as far as education. Pastors and teachers need to be reminding the congregation about what our tradition is. The other thing to remember is that the alternative isn't easy either. I can't recall the number of churches I've seen split because they had no system for determining when a pastor was no longer a good fit.

    Also, I can't help it, and I hope you'll forgive me, but the plural of Sunday is Sundays. Peace.

  3. Sean..this is a great post..I am one that understands..this is SOOOO much like our military and many of the people love you and understand BECAUSE they are in the military..there are so many times when I remain guarded with people because you know in 6the months or a year they will ne gone. This was exactly what hurt my first 6 months in korea.When I actually slipped up and allowed people into my life I found out I had almost missed out.To this day those people remain some of my best and closest friends. .......I also understand because I have worked for people who didn't open ip because they knew they were leaving..Allow yourself to love.accept love..lead the Journey like it is your last and you will build incredible loving relationships that will be there for you when you are leading the NEXT launch like its your last.. love you brother..

  4. Thanks for the comments guys. This is a very important issue. J, you are so right about the need to push beyond the tendency to keep distance. We only have one opportunity to truly love the people we are with for the limited amount of time we are with them. We will never truly experience genuine community with others if we keep oursleves sheltered in an attempt to avoid the pain that will inevitably result from separation. Jesus knew that he only had three years with his disciples and he loved them fully all the way to the end. In fact, he made a point of elevating them from disciples to friends. That might preach!


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