History of the Itinerancy
United Methodism has a unique system of deploying clergy 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 intinerancy 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.
"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."
(From Questions & Answers About the United Methodist Church by Thomas S. McAnally)
John Wesley began the itinerant system during his work in England. Wesley developed circuits for his assistants to travel, each of which included a large number of appointments. Preachers visited these appointments about once a month and changed circuits from year to year, depending on the current circumstances.
In America, the itinerancy was introduced in the late 1700’s. Originally, the circuits were extremely large, sometimes extending over a region of up to eight hundred miles. The ordained pastor often returned only once every six to eight weeks, but local lay pastors and class leaders continued services in the pastor’s absence. These traveling preachers, or circuit riders, traveled constantly in an effort to reach all parts of the circuit. "This system effectively served the needs of city, town, village, or frontier outpost. The churches were able to go to the people wherever they settled."
(The Churches Grow, 1817–1843, Historical Statement, Book of Discpline)
The system has both its advantages and disadvantages. John Wesley said of it, "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."
"The itinerancy is designed for and can only be made to work in a connectional church, nor will it work unless all the appointments of all the preachers in a conference are made at the same time, so that the whole conference moves together. "
(From the Encyclopedia of World Methodism, Vol. I, pp. 1242-1243)
Bishops report all pastoral appointments at the annual conference session. In the United States, these sessions are usually held in May or June. Each annual conference then designates a particular Sunday when all pastors begin their new appointments.