The Dinosaur In The Methodist Room

I have been in Methodist-preacher-gatherings in which the subject of our denomination’s stand on homosexuality was the elephant in the room — a topic which, for the sake of holding on to the congenial vibe in the meeting, no one wanted to address.

Yet this week, I recognize that we Methodists have another issue that’s not an elephant in the room but a dinosaur. You see, elephants are at least still alive and viable and active. Dinosaurs, of course, are extinct — species that could only survive in another era.

We have just such a species in the Methodist system — something that was designed for and could only survive in another era.

Our dinosaur? The itineracy.

It’s on my mind because last Sunday all the new appointments in the Western North Carolina Conference went “public.” Throughout our Conference, 15-20% of churches will be receiving new pastors and, obviously, pastors will be sent to new churches. The new assignments will begin on July 1.

Why is our system such a dinosaur?

  • It was designed for a world that no longer exists. The process of moving pastors frequently from church to church to church worked when people traveled by horse and buggy and when individual Methodist churches were pretty much indistinguishable from one another. It does not work when people travel by car and when individual congregations within the same denomination are vastly different.
  • In earlier generations there was not such a direct link between pastoral longevity and congregational health. Today there is — with relatively few exceptions, the largest and strongest churches inside Methodism and outside of it have senior pastors with long tenures.
  • In the 21st Century, local pastors are not interchangeable parts, easily moved from one church to another. For example, there are many churches in our Conference for whom I would be a terrible match; by the same token, there are some UM pastors who would not fit at a church like Good Shepherd.
  • The best advice I ever received in seminary was this: “Don’t always try to get a promotion by going to your next appointment. Instead, grow the church you serve into your next appointment.” I have tried to live by that. So Good Shepherd is not the same church it was in 1999. And I am definitely not the same pastor I was then. So I have changed appointments by not changing appointments. It hasn’t been easy or perfect or smooth, but I believe it has been in the long-term interests of the church.

Grow the church you serve into your “next appointment.” Maybe that’s one way for dinosaurs to live after all.