I’ve been surprised by the number of messages I’ve received from people asking why I’m a local pastor — and why part-time. They want to know why I’m not pursuing ordination as an elder in the United Methodist Church. Or if not elder, why I wouldn’t be ordained as a deacon.
My decision to stop the process at licensed local pastor was an intentional, theological, values-laden decision. Especially for those who are trying to discern their own place in this system, I’ll share some of my reasoning.
Why local pastor?
When Paul writes to Titus about appointing elders (presbuteroi — note that it’s plural) in every town, and when Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in each church, I suspect that those elders they appoint are existing members of those communities. What are the apostles doing, then? It appears that they’re recognizing some of the people in those communities for their gifts and their calling to leadership within the community. Then they’re appointing leaders from within them.
I’m in a unique situation. The church I serve is the church I grew up in. That’s not really a coincidence so much as it’s an intentional decision. I’d go so far as to call it a very particular calling. As a lifelong member of First UMC Lexington, so much of my own understanding of ministry and calling has been to lead within my community. Not as a professional outsider, but as someone who might be similar to those presbuteroi whom Paul and Barnabas appointed.
Because of this understanding of calling and ministry, I haven’t been able to pursue ordination with integrity. Itineracy is at the heart of elders’ orders in the UMC’s current practice. For anyone who becomes an elder, it’s emphasized that they’re taking a vow to go wherever their bishop sends them.
I can’t vow with integrity to go where the bishop sends.
If the bishop came to me tomorrow and said, “I’m sending you to Owensboro,” I don’t think I would go. Yes, I’d pray about it. But that kind of role––going as an outsider to serve as a temporary chaplain––while it may be appropriate for many, just doesn’t fit my understood calling or function in ministry. Moreover, it doesn’t fit our family’s values.
Now I’ve heard more than a few dozen times that itineracy is a “consultative process.” As in, the bishop wouldn’t just call me tomorrow and tell me I’m going to Owensboro. There would be several conversations––with me, with the church where I am now, with the church in Owensboro. And I’ve seen that in action. I believe that’s (mostly) true. But the final appointment decision still belongs to the bishop. And if I say no, I’ve gone back on my vow. I can’t deal with that kind of breach of integrity. The truth is, even with a consultative process, I’m just not sure I can vow to go where a bishop sends me.
My District Superintendent was quick to remind me that local pastors are still appointed and can be moved, too. My response: “But if I choose not to accept that move, I won’t have broken my vow.”
The question that follows: “Is this an issue of submission? You’re unwilling to submit to the bishop?”
No, that’s really not it. I do submit to my bishop. But my submission is about whether or not I’m allowed to lead my community. My bishop can come at any point and remove me from my position. I know that. And I submit to that. I’ve been reminded by several people that one of the downsides to being a licensed local pastor is that you can have your appointment removed at any time.
So in a peculiar way, I see my submission to the bishop as opposite that of ordained elders. An ordained elder with guaranteed appointment submits to where (s)he will serve, but not whether (s)he will serve. My submission is more similar to what I think was happening in those communities where Titus and Paul and Barnabas appointed elders. I don’t think Paul would have ever gone into Ephesus and told one of its elders to go be an elder in Corinth. But he may have gone in and removed an elder. I’m submitting not to where, but to whether I will be an authorized pastor in my community.
The one other question that I hear: “Why not be ordained as a deacon? Deacons don’t itinerate.”
No, they don’t, but their ordination is also quite different. Deacons are ordained to word, service, compassion, and justice. Elders are ordained to word, sacrament, and order. The latter is much more in line with the ministry God has directed me to, so to be ordained as a deacon just doesn’t work. Fortunately for me, the UMC recognizes the licensed local pastor as one licensed to word, sacrament, service, and ordering the life of the local congregation. That fits.
(By the way, by giving non-ordained ministers the duty and responsibility of administering sacraments, we undermine any respectable theology of sacraments and ordination. If you believe ordination confers the duty and responsibility to administer sacraments, then only the ordained should administer them. Period. Ordination does not confer the right to decide who will administer the sacraments.)
To be clear in all of this, I believe the UMC’s system of itineracy and appointment is workable and faithful (except for the confusion about ordination). It’s not that I don’t believe it’s a right way. I just don’t believe it’s the only way––or that it’s the way for me and my family. Serving as a local pastor has allowed me to find a place in the UMC.
I’ve written a lot about the distinct roles of pastor and itinerant in Scripture and Methodist history. See “related articles” below.
One final reason for being a licensed local pastor is that I’m able to be classified as “part-time.” That has been helpful and important…
A number of others have asked why I’m designated as part-time. (My job description lists me as full-time, and I work full-time, but I’m listed with the conference as part-time.) This is a much easier question to answer: I’m part-time because of money.
If I were declared full-time, it would cost my church $24,000 to bring me up to the minimum required for full-time local pastors. If you’ve read anything I’ve written about pastors’ salaries, you know I believe there’s a more faithful way to use the church’s collection. My wife works, so we have other income, and we have never worried about meeting our needs. Perhaps that situation will change some day, but for now, I can’t justify taking any more from the church than I have.
For any of you who have shared my concerns about the church’s use of money, this could be a way for you to do something different. Our conferences set minimum requirements, and the only way to avoid them is through part-time status. I’m told some bishops use their appointive power as a way to pressure churches to keep raising salaries: “If you don’t give him/her a raise, I might need to make a change.” The part-time designation can also avoid some of those politics.
I hope this is helpful to any of you considering your own role in this whole process. I’d love to answer more questions if you have them, or to hear your thoughts.