Take an “imaginary” trip with me. The year is 2017, but things are different in some subtle ways. The U.S. military uses horses as its main mode of transportation because horses worked so well during the Civil War. Major companies conduct business through the phone party line because that is what worked for a century. Secretaries use the manual typewriter because their mothers and fathers used it effectively. Itinerancy is still the backbone of the United Methodist Church because the Circuit Rider was instrumental in winning the West for Christ in the 1700s.
Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But isn’t that what we United Methodists are doing – using a method of pastoral deployment that worked brilliantly three-hundred years ago, but is killing us today. We are still moving our pastors around every four to five years just to be moved. Just this week I received a text from my denomination. The headline was “Who is moving? Then it went on to show the URL where this years round of appointments could be found, as if God really cared about who was moving where. And worse yet, we aren’t willing to acknowledge doing so is one of the many causes of the United Methodist Church’s decline. We are victim to our method and our method is killing us.
Take a look at the vast majority of major churches that are keeping our denomination financially above water. And what do we find? The majority of our growing churches have a history of long tenured pastors. And yet Itinerancy and playing Musical Churches is still part of our DNA. We still move pastors around on a regular basis rather than allowing them to bloom where they are planted.
Why, you may wonder, is Itinerancy one of the major causes of our decline? Because it does not encourage pastors to grow the church where they are. It causes pastors not to bloom where they are planted. United Methodist Pastors know they can wait around for a better appointment. They know if they don’t muddy the water, and don’t get caught in a moral indiscretion, in time they will receive a better appointment for no other reason than they have put in their time. In other words they deserve a better church and salary just because they’ve put in their time.
When I was a pastor, for a time I went to a lectionary study just to hang out with a group of pastors, most of whom I liked. But after a year or so I quit because a pattern developed. January through May the topic of discussion was who was moving where, and July through September the topic of discussion was a lament by those who didn’t get the appointment he/she deserved. That’s not a healthy environment if you are trying to grow a church. We need a system where pastors don’t receive a larger salary without actually earning it by growing a church.
We need a system that rewards growth rather than penalizes it (growth usually comes with some level of chaos in a church that has been dying or on a plateau for some time and the last thing our system rewards is chaos even if it leads to growth).
Now I need to clarify what I mean by growth. I’m not just talking about the growth of worship attendance. I’m talking about actually growing the number of disciples through conversion and adult baptism. Jesus said “Go make disciples.” Making disciples is what we need to reward. And babies aren’t disciples – not yet. Today, disciples are adults who are growing to be more like Jesus. I’ve seen churches grow without making disciples but I’ve never seen a church that makes disciples that didn’t grow.
One of my consistent prayers is for the growing number of United Methodist leaders who understand that Itinerancy no longer works and who do what they can to change that part of our DNA. It seems as if we are slowly learning the killing effect of Itinerancy, but even with that knowledge, we are acting upon it is too slowly. We are dying by the minute. But that isn’t what makes this plea so urgent. Our denomination is moving toward a mesa where over the next two decades we will plummet over the cliff because of our aging population. The average UM is now over sixty-years old and we aren’t replacing them. Unless we do something, the handwriting is on the way. Wake up people. It’s time to scrub Itinerancy altogether and say to all our pastors: “Bloom where you are planted.”
FYI: In full disclosure, I have been a United Methodist pastor since 1967. I did not grow up in this denomination – I choose it because I believe in its original mission and theology. I have just come to hate its method.