Methodists & Moving

This past Sunday, Methodist churches all across western North Carolina received new pastors.

Now, not all Methodist churches did so. In any given year, about 20% or so of the churches in the Western North Carolina Conference say good-bye to one pastor and then hello to a new one through a system called the itineracy. By itineracy, Methodism means that its pastors “itinerate” or “move.” This year, “moving day” was June 24 and the first Sunday for pastors in new churches was June 29.

This system has its roots from the early days of the Methodist movement — in England in the 1700s and here in the U.S. in the 1800s. It was an effective means of deploying clergy and serving churches in the days when people traveled on horseback.

Even in the 20th Century, Methodist pastors rarely stayed in one congregation for more than four years. While this ensured plenty of “itinerating,” it often made for churches that had little continuity and pastors’ families who had little stability.

These days, our denomination encourages longer tenures. In fact, I’ve only moved once in 19 years of ministry — something that would have been unheard of a generation ago. I served nine years in Monroe and this week begin my 10th at Good Shepherd.

But the larger question is this: is a system that served Methodists well in the days of wagon trains and stagecoaches still viable in an era of wireless internet and megachurches?

Probably not.

These days, there is a real connection between stability in leadership and congregational health. The largest and most innovative churches in the U.S. — not to mention in Methodism — tend to keep their pastors for a long time.

In fact, Rev. Don Haynes, who has served at almost every conceivable level of the denomination, has some provocative commentary on the itineracy. You can read it here.

By the way, while I did not “itinerate” this weekend, it was full — Vacation Bible School, an emotional funeral, and then Sunday’s worship. You can listen to the message here.