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Commentary: Itinerancy a strategy for church's mission

By the Rev. Robert Kohler and the Rev. Mary Ann Moman

Kohler and Moman: Itinerancy was the mission strategy for the early Methodists. In its beginnings, it worked well for single men who could ride the circuits without the demands of family. The early circuit riders succeeded in taking the Gospel to the furthest reaches of the frontiers of this country. Today, itinerancy is facing many challenges. We have had many conversations about itinerancy. We share our thoughts and experiences with you as to continue the conversation.

Kohler: Elders offer themselves "without reserve to be appointed and to serve, after consultation, as the appointive authority may determine." This is the covenant for mission and ministry, which is at the heart of the itinerancy, but it is a covenant that has been amended and changed over the years so that its usefulness has been brought into question.

The annual conference is no longer the gathering of only itinerant clergy of Methodism. In 1939, laity were given equal authority over matters of annual conference with the exception of decisions on the character of clergy. Clergy membership in the annual conference was extended to full-time local pastors in 1984 and then to part-time local pastors and deacons in full connection in 1996. With the inclusion of these non-itinerant categories of ministry in the clergy membership of the annual conference, there has been a re-examination of the nature of itinerancy and its relevance for the mission and ministry of the church.

Moman: Changes in the 1956 Book of Discipline made changes in the bishops' authority to appoint pastors. "Every traveling preacher, unless retired, supernumerary, on sabbatical leave, or under arrest of character, must receive an appointment." (1956 Book of Discipline, p. 149) Those words meant that every elder in full connection, including clergywomen, must be appointed. This change in the Discipline gave clergywomen full inclusion in the life of the connection.

I was 5 years old in 1956 and had no idea how that decision would affect my life. It became clearer to me in 1979, when I was in my first full-time appointment. My husband Richard and I were appointed to two churches in Indianapolis. We were told that one church would be less likely to accept me as their pastor and it would be better to appoint both of us to each church.

I suppose it is true that, given the choice, neither church would have chosen a woman. The bishop and district superintendent took a risk. It worked. We had a wonderful ministry in those two churches and in the community. Our gifts and skills were needed for the church's ministry and mission.

Kohler: Critics often say that itinerancy is simply a way to guarantee security and advancement for clergy, forgetting its purpose as a strategy for mission. To be sure, there is some truth to this criticism when the criteria for making appointments focus on salary and years of service. Others are saying that it is hard to distinguish between the itinerant and non-itinerant forms of ministry when the tenure of many itinerants exceeds those of deacons in full connection and local pastors, and the lack of movement from place to place is coupled with an unwillingness to itinerate in rural and inner-city parishes.

Moman: Given the rapid change in many communities, it may be that a pastor could be itinerant by staying in one place! I was pastor at Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis for more than nine years. During that time there were many changes in the demographics of the Broadway parish and in Indianapolis. The new itinerancy may mean learning a new language, helping communities learn to adapt to change, reaching out to immigrant populations.

Kohler: Itinerancy has been critical to the development of the mission of the church. As a church, we are working toward the day when a strong body of clergy faithful to the Gospel and faithful to "making disciples of Jesus Christ" will lead the church in its mission in the world.

The itinerant system has made it possible for Methodism to go where no church has gone before: to every crossroad community, every city in every state. As people pushed into the frontiers of America, the circuit riders found their way to communities being settled. At its best, itinerancy still makes that push into the frontier of America possible. Now the frontier is among immigrant populations - Latino, Pacific Islander, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Hmong. While our response to the development of ministry of this new frontier includes the use of lay speakers, lay missioners and other non-itinerant clergy, the ultimate success of this mission depends upon the coordination of itinerant and non-itinerant forms of each ministry, which together can accomplish what none can do alone.

Moman: The covenant itinerancy I share with the elders in my annual conference is important to me. We share a commitment to be accountable to each other in our ministry. I have always thought of myself as a pastor of the annual conference who happens to be appointed to a particular charge (and now to extension ministry) for the good of the mission of the annual conference. I am continually reminded that in order to fulfill our mission, we need to expand the pool of qualified clergy. As important as it is to be accountable to the conference, it is equally important to be accountable to the larger connection. Our mission is larger than any given annual conference. The pool of qualified clergy is expanded when elders in all jurisdictions are in the pool. Certainly, this complicates appointment making and enhances creativity for the sake of the mission of the church.

Itinerancy is still a missional strategy. In 1980, the General Conference said that "appointments are to be made with consideration of gifts, graces of those appointed to the needs, characteristics, and opportunities of congregations and institutions, and to program and missional strategy of conferences without regard to race, ethnic origin, sex or color, consistent with the commitment of an open itinerancy. Through appointment making, the connectional nature of the United Methodist system is made visible." (1980 Book of Discipline, p. 252) Itinerancy is our witness that we will work toward the full inclusion of ethnic persons and women in the total life of the church.

Kohler: If we are serious about being in mission, let's focus on the possibilities that itinerancy provides and at the same time address the inadequacies. Abandoning the covenant of itinerant ministry will not guarantee a more effective clergy or the fulfillment of our mission "to make disciples of Jesus Christ."

What is needed is a larger vision of itinerancy. In order for that vision of a vital and creative itinerancy to emerge, encouragement is needed to:

Expand the possibilities of deploying itinerant clergy beyond the needs of the local church.

Offer full conference membership to those training through seminary and those who are being trained through the Course of Study.

Expand the pool of candidates, particularly young candidates, in order to address the continuing need for a well-trained clergy. Appointments to places of mission take precedence over issues of institutional maintenance and clergy privilege.

Kohler and Moman: We have shared some of our concerns and hopes for the itinerancy. We challenge the church - laity and clergy together - to talk about new forms of itinerant ministry in the 21st century that will enhance our mission.

Rev. Robert Kohler and Rev. Mary Ann Moman are staff with the Division of Ordained Ministry at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

This United Methodist News Service article was first released on July 2, 2001.



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