Saturday, April 25, 2015

3 Reasons Why Itinerancy is an Idea Perfectly Suited for the 21st Century Church

As an itinerant preacher, I am sent by the church to a community in order to do ministry in that community alongside a congregation for whom I provide spiritual, missional, and temporal leadership. Okay, so there are a lot of prepositional phrases in that sentence - so first take note of the basic subject and verb: I am sent. That is the heart of what it means to be itinerant in the United Methodist Church, to be sent.

Here are three reasons why the itinerancy is perfectly suited for the mission of 21st century church.

1) The itinerancy empowers prophetic ministry.
“I am sent ... by the church.” The mission of the church guides the bishop in his or her discernment process. The bishop then acts on behalf of the entire church, utilizing the authority granted her or him by the church, to deploy leaders for that mission. Once deployed, I am accountable to that very same mission, and the bishop holds me accountable to that mission through my district superintendent.

And for the church’s mission in the 21st century this accountability connection is vital. For example, sexism, racism, and any other “-ism” congregation members may harbor will not unduly influence the decision of who will lead them. For another, a preacher can say what needs to be said to proclaim the Gospel and empower world-changing discipleship, without fearing the consequences of making the congregation a bit uncomfortable when doing so. Yes, I am accountable to the congregation as well, but my “direct supervisor” is the superintendent.

2) The itinerancy allows the church to take context into account.
“I am sent … to a community in order to do ministry in that community.” The mission of the church happens outside of the building walls, and itinerant preachers are sent to share the good news in particular communities. That’s an important part of what it means to be Methodist, as our founder made abundantly clear when he said, “The world is my parish.”

In the 21st century, the “mission field” of the church is becoming more and more nebulous, and less and less reliant on the old “insider” models of ministry. We are much less concerned with bringing “them” into the church, and much more concerned with being the church “out there” in the world. As an itinerant preacher, I can be sent to where my particular skill set matches the leading edges of new mission fields most effectively, rather than hired by a congregation to be “their” pastor.

3) The itinerancy facilitates grassroots ministry.
“I am sent … alongside a congregation for whom I provide spiritual, missional, and temporal leadership.” Methodism has always been a movement led by the laity; frontier preachers were sent to new towns, and sometimes discovered that groups of Methodists had already begun meeting together long prior to the preacher’s arrival. The healthiest United Methodist congregations still follow that model for ministry today.

Which is exactly the right approach for the church in the 21st century. We live in an era in which “bottom-up” efforts are the norm, and “top-down” initiatives are regarded with suspicion. Institutions are distrusted and hierarchies are shunned. Grassroots efforts, shared on social media and spreading quickly within communities, are nimble and energized and have great power and effect. An itinerant preacher leads a congregation for a season, stepping into a flowing stream and encouraging, equipping, and cheerleading the lay-led ministry of the congregation, and then moves on to do the same elsewhere.

Of course, no church polity is perfect. I know colleagues who have not experienced the itinerancy in the way I have, and I do not want to belittle their experiences at all. This post was prompted by a post several of my friends shared online, so I’m sure there is disagreement among us as to the efficacy of the itinerant ministry in today’s UMC.

But I happen to think that the itinerancy, especially how it is lived out here in Missouri, is perfectly suited for the prophetic, contextual, lay-led ministry that comprises the identity of the United Methodist Church. I believe it is the ideal way to deploy pastoral leadership for the 21st century.


Lon Hudson said...

This is the difference between being called to a vocation and having a "professional" career. "Careerists" do not want to leave where they are comfortable. "Vocationalists" go where they are called.

Mitch Jarvis said...

what I appreciate about itinerancy (says the guy whose moved once in 12 years) is that it keeps ME from always looking to greener pastures, and insulates me from the temptation of politicking for the sake of ladder climbing. I'd NEVER have come to my current church on my own, but it's been a blessing. I also appreciate the fact (as one who isn't afraid to ruffle feathers) that the congregation can't fire me when they get their shorts in a bunch. I wouldn't want to work under a call system.