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Commentary: Itinerancy impediment to attracting pastors


NOTE: A head-and-shoulders photo of the Rev. Paul Nixon is available. This commentary can be used as a companion with UMNS #301.

A UMNS Commentary

There is a lot of hand wringing these days over the clergy shortage now hitting United Methodism across our connection. Many factors are certainly to blame for this impending leadership crisis. However, I am convinced the main impediment in our church is something we call itinerancy, the system whereby bishops decide what is best for pastors and congregations.

God is calling men and women into pastoral ministry as powerfully and certainly today as ever before in history. Thousands are hearing that call, but most are not being called to itinerate.
Thus, the United Methodist Church is choosing not to deploy or to encourage hundreds of pastoral candidates each year who are gifted to be effective pastors.

We look past these people and they look past us because the ideal of itinerancy has become more important than receiving the leadership of these incredibly talented people God is calling in our midst.

I serve as a pastor in a church where, every few weeks it seems, another of our members is sensing a call to ministry. In almost every case, they are turned back by itinerancy, by our rule that says you can only serve as an elder among us if you are available to be deployed anywhere in the annual conference at any time, as long as you are in active ministry. This system made very good sense in a time when spouses seldom had careers, pastors were all male, and there was much less of a cultural Grand Canyon between urban and rural life. It served United Methodism very well for decades.

I graduated from seminary at the age of 23. I had always lived in the city, much of that time in the greater Los Angeles area. Effective ministry in a very small Southern town was a stretch for me, but I pulled it off for a few years by the grace of God. I was fortunate to have had rural grandparents and other family experiences that enabled me to bridge the cultural gap.

The 23-year-olds in my church are every bit as mature as I was, highly intelligent and devoted young people, but they are part of an entirely different generation and a rapidly changing culture, worshiping God to rock music with shirttails out.

God is calling some of these young people to ministry, and they are pursuing the call, but not to go and dress and act like a 50-year-old ministering to 70-year-olds. There is a cultural chasm between many of our large, dynamic churches, where so many of the young people are experiencing the call, and the majority of the places where we would send these young people to serve. The chasm is so wide that it would be akin to asking a Methodist young person 40 years ago to go and serve churches of another denomination.

This chasm is far more than simply a rural/urban chasm. It is a chasm between vital churches -- rural and urban -- marked by a spirit of extroverted innovation and tired conformist churches marked by a spirit of introverted irrelevance.

Furthermore, few of us would encourage our 23-year-old children to take on $30,000 of student loan debt for a first job that pays $26,755. The standard of living in this country has leaped forward, and yet we expect our new pastors to live in near poverty. If that is hard for a 23-year-old, try the financial equation on a 43-year-old who will have two children in college in the next five years.

The itinerancy, as it is practiced across the United States, almost guarantees that every starting pastor can make no more than his minimum salary. You have to "do your time" at minimum salary in most cases. The numbers do not add up, even for those who are called.

I see gifted women and men who are in their 30s, 40s and 50s deeply called to ministry. And, as is often the case with such gifted persons, they are married to equally gifted persons who might be a physician with a practice that has taken 20 years to build or a judge in the middle of a career that is based in the community. Physicians and judges can't itinerate. Their careers are not portable, in most cases. So when they have a spouse, gifted and called to preach, seminary is either impossible or an ordeal. Our system intimidates them and discourages them because of their inability to itinerate. And, if we haven't discouraged them with the first two realities, we assign them to places where they will be under-employed as punishment for their refusing to itinerate and pay the dues we feel are necessary to qualify them for leadership in our most vital churches.

The big loser in this whole deal is the United Methodist Church. We are not cultivating potentially great pastors for our most strategic pulpits.

This whole system is nuts in the year 2001 in this society. General Conference may change the system eventually, but trying to get intelligent, constructive change passed by so diverse a group will take more years than we can wait. I give them 40 years still before they cry "uncle" and finally bless free agent pastors. We will, by then, have lost two more entire generations of pastors.

Long before General Conference ever does anything about it, individual annual conferences will have to act on their own to nurture the leaders God is raising up among them. The cabinets and boards or ordained ministry will need to loosen the emphasis on itinerancy and affirm some form of free agency for pastors, allowing freedom for congregations to contract directly with pastors, within certain bounds.

Giving pastors a part in choosing the congregations where they might serve and where their families might be nurtured is essential. Allowing congregations to choose their pastors from a cabinet-approved slate of nominees (much like the Episcopal Church does in some places) would also be very well received. Let these churches court the pastor they want. Let the pastors negotiate for what they need in order to serve.

There will always be a leadership crisis for dying and dysfunctional churches. If we stopped forcing our best and our brightest to simply fill our spots, there would no longer be a vacuum in quality leadership in our most strategic churches. It is not just the total number of pastors that is important, but the numbers of pastors who are qualified to lead the churches that make 99 percent of tomorrow's disciples.

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*Nixon is pastor at the east campus of Gulf Breeze (Fla.) United Methodist Church.

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

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