***Disclaimer: this post is not written by Will Willimon.
Bishop Willimon invited Jason Byassee and Andrew C. Thompson to respond to criticism about his focus upon numbers as an evaluating tool in accessing effectivness in ministry for United Methodist clergy and congregations. This is Rev. Thompson’s response to that invitation.
One warm autumn evening a few years ago, my phone rang. I had been lying on my living room couch, half-dozing while a Red Sox game played on the television. The cell phone jingle woke me up, and I looked at the display of the incoming call.
It was my district superintendent.
In early September.
Now I was only serving my first pastoral appointment. But I knew enough to realize that a D.S. calling in September probably meant trouble.
The conversation that followed confirmed the worst of the possibilities that flashed through my mind when I saw the incoming call: An associate pastor’s position had opened up quite unexpectedly, and the bishop had tapped me to fill it. He had considered letting the position lie vacant until annual conference the following year, but it was a large church with a lot of ministry going on. The senior pastor at the church was already overloaded, and 10 months seemed too long to leave him without a junior colleague. As a campus minister, I could be moved without causing the “domino effect” familiar to Methodist clergy who get caught up in mid-year moves (a factor the D.S. was frankly honest about, though he was also careful to explain that the bishop’s decision had only come after a careful consideration of the congregation’s needs and my particular pastoral gifts).
All of a sudden the itineracy became very real for me. And the end result of that fateful September phone call was, in fact, a mid-year move. In accordance with the needs of the church in my annual conference, I left a campus ministry appointment where I was finally building momentum after almost 3 years and where I had many friends. And I moved to a town and a church where I knew practically no one.
I gotta be honest. It was tough at first.
But it was also what I accepted when I entered a Methodist ministry. I realized that at the time. And I bring it up in this post because I think that experience helped me begin to think about what it really means for those of us called to be Christ’s shepherds to give the whole of our lives to ministry in the church.
It helped me begin to think about what it means to live a life that is not my own.
The Contentious Nature of Itineracy
As I see it, the itinerant system in the United Methodist Church is seen as contentious by the clergy for two reasons – one practical and the other cultural. The practical bone of contention has to do with fear and mistrust on the part of individual pastors, namely that they and their families will get caught up in the gears of a bureaucratic machine and be sent to a ministry setting not because it fits their gifts & graces but rather because an episcopal cabinet is simply trying to fill slots.
I see this issue of the itineracy process as a real challenge, both for bishops and their superintendents as well as for elders under appointment. I also don’t see any magic pill we can all swallow to make the challenge disappear. Clergy need to continually remind themselves that they are yokefellows in the gospel with every other member of their annual conference as well as with their bishop. Bishops and their cabinets should look upon the fear of their pastors with understanding, realizing that trust in an ecclesiastical polity led by human beings (even human beings guided by the Holy Spirit!) is liable to error and that some their preachers have been on the receiving end of those errors. We all need to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, recognizing that we have been fitted together as stones in the same spiritual house that Christ is building.
I recently heard a reading of Queen Elizabeth I’s speech to her coastal militia prior to the English struggle against the Spanish Armada in 1588. It reminded me how much strong leadership depends on those being led having the sense that their leaders stand with them rather than simply over them. Even more, that those leaders are willing to suffer and die along with their followers if needs be. I think it would be a real gift to the church for God to call more of us into martyrdom as a witness to the gospel. That may happen in our day, or it may not. But bishops and superintendents do at least have the opportunity to preach before those they lead – as Elizabeth had the opportunity to speak directly to her army – and they should consider addressing (and modeling) the deeply connectional nature of our covenant together. The connection in Wesley’s day was, after all, rooted in the common fellowship of the preachers.
The second contentious aspect of itineracy for clergy is a cultural one. It is related to the time in which we live. And it is, if anything, more difficult to address. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has an insightful view of modernity where he says that the story of modernity is that we have no story except the story we chose when we had no story. (You might want to read that again.) Basically, Dr. Hauerwas means that our culture teaches us that we should be self-made, constructing our lives and futures and even our very identities according to our own felt desires. This deeply embedded idea assumes that we come into the world like baby sea turtles hatched from eggs on the beach – needing no instruction, no formation, no catechesis. We live in a world that tells us to “Have It Your Way,” which is both a Burger King slogan and modernity’s overriding motto.
It’s all wrong, of course. Those of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death (Romans 6). The lives we live now are possible only in his resurrected life. And the stories we inhabit are, finally, his story.
But modernity’s false promises haunt us. And so we find ourselves falling into the rut of the self-created story time and time again. So hear me on this: The reason many of us fear being sent as Jesus sends his disciples is that we’ve bought into the myth that the life we live should be of our own choosing. For those who follow Jesus, I simply don’t think that can ever finally be the case.
Anxiety over the “Guaranteed Appointment”
There’s a lot of anxiety amongst Methodist clergy right now over the possible alteration of the so-called “guaranteed appointment.” That anxiety – like all anxiety – is born out of fear. For the record, I think the guaranteed appointment is a bad idea with no biblical or Wesleyan basis. I know why it was instituted and the good intentions with which that happened. But like so many lamentable parts of our Book of Discipline, it attempts to make a rule out of something dependent on character and virtue. That “something” is our covenant relationships in the annual conference. And while character-building takes longer than rule-making, it is by far the more worthwhile activity.
Trees that do not produce fruit are nothing worth. And shepherds who cannot do the work of shepherding should not be entrusted with sheep. These convictions seem as necessary to the vitality of the church as anything I know related to leadership. Fruits can and must be judged in different ways, depending on the variety of settings in ministry. In fact, a reassurance of that fundamental aspect of episcopal oversight on the part of bishops might allay some of the anxiety we see over the possible change in the guaranteed appointment. But even so, those who continually cry out that they “don’t trust the system” might ask themselves why they assume such a de facto cynical posture and why on earth they’d want to be a part of a “system” that they fundamentally distrust in the first place.
In the end, I think the debate over the guaranteed appointment is symptomatic of our wider struggle with itineracy. That makes me hesitant to speak about it separate from the itinerant system in general, and it certainly makes me hesitant to consider it apart from core Christian virtues of patience, trust, repentance, and love. We have several layers of shepherds and sheep in our church, and we need to realize at every level that flocks only maintain health and grow when they realize that they’re all in it together. And yes, it is an inescapable quality of such healthy flocks that the shepherds are competent for the tasks to which they’ve been given.
Oh, and by the way, that mid-year appointment I was asked to take turned out very well. I experienced the Holy Spirit at the very center of the whole process, in fact. I took that as a sign of providence. And I continue to think that God has got work for the People called Methodists to do.
The Rev. Andrew C. Thompson is an elder in the Arkansas Conference of the UMC. He writes for the United Methodist Reporter and maintains a blog at http://www.genxrising.com.