Why part-time local pastor?

ordination

Why not ordination?

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.

To be clear in all of this, I believe the UMC’s system of itineracy and appointment is workable and faithful. 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…

Why part-time?

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 $19,000 to bring me up to the minimum required for full-time local pastors. My church would do that. I have no question about it. They have never pressured me not to be listed as full-time and have even pressed me to take salary increases at times in the past. But 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 part-time, 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.

ryanstrebeck says:

good thoughts, as always, teddy. We have actually been having some conversations about elders taking part-time appointments intentionally in order to well serve “non-conventional” churches and plant situations. I like the flexibility, especially because so many spouses work and have great insurance options as teachers, nurses, etc. Saving a small church 17500/year on insurance premiums is a huge lift.

Stephen says:

Interesting. So you are basically saying you are called to word, service, and sacrament at only one church.

I thought long and hard about intinerancy before becoming a candidate for ministry. I spent many nights talking to my wife about it. Worrying about it. Etc… After much prayer we knew this calling was right for us.

Is it easy? Absolutely not. We have moved 4 times now, and each time it has gotten harder. You put down more roots in the community and then you move. In my heart I know that I am called to this ministry, and I have always submitted to intinerancy. I know several pastors who become tethered in prime locations, but my prayer is always that God can use me and my gifts wherever I’m at.

My concern/question is that I know of some larger churches using homegrown local pastors as basically unitinerant clergy. It allows them to handpick who their clergy will be without submitting as a church to the bishop. You see just as I have submitted to the Bishop our churches should as well.

Teddy Ray says:

Hi Stephen,

Yes – I’m saying that I don’t think it’s necessary — biblically, theologically, historically — to associate a call to word, service and sacrament with a call to itinerancy. (Actually, if pressed, I’d lean toward saying that most of what we have from the Bible, theology and history would make itinerancy and pastoral ministry almost mutually exclusive.)

Stephen says:

No it’s not, but my concern was in the historic tradition of the Methodist church we have associated this calling to ministry with the calling of itinerancy. Circuit Riding so to speak.

We are unlike other denominations that have a more centralized calling of stability.

Just an honest question. Do you think it’s time to do away with itinerancy? Would this better serve the mission of the church?

Teddy Ray says:

Yes – I think it would be better if our current practice of itinerancy went away. I understand its pros. I think there are more cons. And I would argue that what we’re doing now is not consistent with early Methodist history — actually that it runs opposite the intentions that Wesley laid out. I’ve said a lot more about all of that in the articles linked at the bottom of this post. Would love to hear your thoughts on those if you read them.

You are raising quite a few questions that my wife and I have gone over in the months since I’ve declared my candidacy. In every bit of paperwork I’ve filled out, I’ve noted one thing repeatedly – my covenant with my wife comes first. That doesn’t mean that we’re not all in for the itinerancy as a family. We are. But, I discerned that I was to be a husband before discerning a call to be Elder. My wife works, and her career is part of what fulfills her, so as advised to me, part of what I’m to do is make sure that my DS knows who I am and where I feel I’m called to do ministry and hope that that factors into any future decisions being made. I currently am in Licensing School and have an appointment, but am on my way back to seminary for my MDiv studies. Really interesting to hear your perspective on this.

Teddy Ray says:

Hi Jarrod,

Blessings to you as you continue through the process. It’s tough to discern – especially given that, as you say, you discerned a call to be a husband before a call to be a United Methodist elder. Though people always bring up the consultative nature of the process, and on and on, I also always remember that the current bishop is only around 8 years, at most. I never know that the next one will handle things the same way. So to me, the question you and your wife might be asking is, “Will we truly be willing to submit to any appointment within this conference, no matter what or where it is?” If so, that’s encouraging. If not, you need to think a bit more about the vows you’re going to take. Same as I would ask any couple getting married if they really mean, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” If they’re not certain they do, I advise them not to get married.

Patti Money says:

I definitely understand and respect your choice, Teddy. As someone who has struggled with itineracy, and who DID turn down an appointment because I felt that it would ruin my family, I’ve thought about becoming a local pastor. However, I decided to continue on my ordination track (I will apply for ordination as an elder this year) because I have seen how powerfully God can work through the itinerant system. I see myself as more of a missionary/apostle than a chaplain…I go where I am sent, based on my gifts and graces and the needs of the church…and trust that God will send me where I NEED to go, even if it’s not where I WANT to go. I am thankful, however, for the increasing level of consultation in the process.

Julie Robertson Hare says:

I am not even sure you remember me from my time at First UMC (and ATS), Teddy Ray, but I do enjoy your perspective on things and am keeping up with you through this blog and Facebook. God’s blessings and peace on you and your family as you enter your Sabbatical year!

This post was intriguing to me, as I have wrestled with ordination myself and continue to consider my options. I definitely feel called to the UMC, just not necessarily sure where I fit in ordination-wise. This gives me food for thought.

Also, I am going to need you to write (a lot!) about boundaries in ministry upon your return from Sabbatical. It seems you are one of the only pastors I know who has boundaries! You set limitations to protect yourself and your family values and that is wonderful and others would do well to follow suit. I look forward to hearing more!

Teddy Ray says:

Hi Julie,

I remember you well. You’re at Auburn now, yes?

Thanks for your comments on boundaries and ministry. Definitely a difficult thing. There have been some failures for me, so I’m no perfect example. But there have also been some shining moments of recognizing a problem and taking a stand. Honestly, there were two times in the last nine years where I had turned in a resignation. In both, we worked out a plan that allowed me to continue without breaking those boundaries. In one, I ended up needing to reduce my salary to bring in some help.

Also – I think the honest truth is that choosing those boundaries probably means endangering “short-term success” as it’s seen in ministry world. More time spent meeting with people, putting on events, etc., will surely generate bigger numbers faster. But I think it’s also fool’s gold in a lot of ways. Even if we cultivate more people who genuinely want to be disciples, the unhealthy model of our lives teaches them an unhealthy way of being Christian. I’m convinced that even zealous, honest, good discipleship is more destructive than helpful when it comes from a person who isn’t actually healthy.

greg rose says:

Philippians 4
1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

I thought of you this morning, Teddy, as I read this. I thought of you as being faithful to the Lord, and I thought of you as living outside the box – that box of the way so many see faithfulness, particularly among clergy.

As I have been pondering through Philippians, I have come to the conclusion that Paul had help. He did not rely, in the end, upon his own intelligence, discipline, or pedigree, which all were significant. His hope was in the Spirit who lived within him.

Carry on, in the same way, my brother. Thank you for your faithfulness.

Oh, and Owensboro would be a great place to be called to!

Teddy Ray says:

Thanks for such a kind and encouraging word, Greg. Owensboro would be a great place to be called to – no doubt! Hope you’re well there.

I have been thinking lately there are two different ways to define itinerancy.

1. The clergy are called to move every few years
2. The clergy place themselves under the authority of the cabinet and bishop.

As someone who came into the UMC because the connectional framework and system of accountability I am in favor of itinerancy. But I also question how well it can work due to many of the things you talked about.

I grew up in a church were the sr. pastor usually stays for 30 years or so. The church always trusts their leadership and they have continued to grow and be a great example of Christ in the city.

In my conference the beef with being itinerant comes from clergy not wanting to follow along with definition 1. They argue stability is good for a church. My current appointment has had a clergy change for the last 3 years in a row and will probably see this continue every year for a couple more. This makes for an anxious congregation looking for trusted leadership.

The better definition (in my opinion) is understanding itinerancy from definition 2. You are under authority (and I wish the cabinet and bishop had the ability to enforce this more) of those whose job it is to best discern skills and needs and assist in the sculpting of congregations to really be prepared to be led.

Good thoughts. I remember talking about this with you several years back. I appreciate you naming the power of congregation calling people out of their midst into leadership and ministry

This is exactly why I’m in favor of eliminating the hard and fast link between ordination and conference membership, a link which never existed in the mind of John Wesley.

I think the local elder status (used in our predecessor denominations and still used in the AME, AMEZ, and CME churches) is an excellent way for people called to order and lead the life of a local church but not called to itinerancy to faithfully pursue their calling without having to deal with our muddy theology of ordination and the sacraments. The call to serve to sacraments isn’t always coincident with a call to itinerancy (even in the evolved meaning of itinerancy we have today).

Ed Seay says:

Thank you for this post. I am a part-time local pastor for a lot of the same reasons. I don’t serve the church I grew up in but I do live in the town I grew up in and on the farm that has been in my wife’s family for over 50 years. After my first appointment year, my DS and Bishop urged me to go FT local pastor, but once I explained my reasons, they have backed off. I appreciate your posts.

Morgan Guyton says:

This sounds very reasonable to me. There is a discipline in staying put where you are and letting your roots go deep. I wonder if itineracy is somewhat anachronistic. At the very least, its usefulness needs to be articulated according to the social realities of today. I am called to itineracy because my vocation is more apostolic than pastoral. I didn’t know the difference between the two until I went to a church planter training last year. I respect your discernment. I wish that local pastors were not viewed as second class.