A vote in favor of Methodist itineracy, or When the circuit rider dismounted…

Many advocates for itineracy in the United Methodist Church have contended that itineracy is at the heart of Methodism and a vital part of our ministry.

I’ve advocated in many places for the importance of the local pastor. Some have taken my advocacy as a disregard for itineracy. On the contrary, I would argue that itinerant ministry played a vitally important role in the history of Methodism and could continue to play that role now.

In 21st century Methodism, the ideal of itineracy has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.[note]with apologies to G.K. Chesterton[/note]

Real Itineracy and the Dismounting of the Circuit Rider

Long ago, our circuit riders dismounted. We now operate with stationed pastors who get shuffled around from time to time. This may be a continued acknowledgment of episcopal authority––the Bishop decides when and where someone goes. It has little to do with itineracy as the early Methodists understood it. If anything, our current practice of “itineracy” is likely to have an effect opposite that of real itineracy as the early Methodists practiced it.

Look at this description from Frederick Norwood’s The Story of American Methodism:

“What they meant by itineracy was that plan of appointments by which ministers were kept moving twice-over. In the first place, each man had his appointment for a strictly limited time [at first quarterly, then annually with an absolute 2-year limit, then 3- and 4-year limits in the later 19th century]. In the second place, every preacher kept on the move on his circuit, and this was true even of ministers appointed to city stations, for they had several outpoints […] In this way, some preachers were appointed to circuits in which they preached perhaps four times (once each quarter) in each of many preaching points, and then went off to the annual conference for appointment to a different circuit. Four powerful sermons, ringing the changes from conviction of sin all the way to perfect love, would take care of an entire year’s preaching!”[note]p. 137[/note]

Itinerant preachers moved twice-over. (1) Their appointments to circuits had strict limits. Those who stayed at the same appointment for a second year were criticized for staying too long. (2) Even within those circuits, they were constantly moving. They might preach somewhere four times in a year!

Were these itinerant ministers the ones conducting weddings and funerals for all of their people?


Were they the ones convening weekly leadership meetings, hiring staff, visiting the sick? In other words, were they the “pastor in charge”?


Would they have even known most of their people’s names?

I wonder.

The itinerant minister functioned much more like an evangelist. “Four powerful sermons, ringing the changes from conviction of sin all the way to perfect love…” The itinerant minister provided little to no pastoral care, little church management, rare “vision-casting” leadership, if at all––and the “vision” would usually be a vision of the kingdom of God, not a committee-created 2020 “vision” for the church.

The Congenial Combination in Early Methodism

So what about all the rest? Who would conduct weddings and funerals? Who would meet with the leaders of a congregation and visit their sick? Who were the “pastors in charge”? The located leaders. These were the often overlooked backbone of the early Methodist movement. The traveling evangelists could bring their four powerful sermons, then move on. A local church would not rise and fall on that kind of occasional leadership. Instead, the ongoing leadership of a congregation came from people who were not under threat of being moved at the next annual conference.

The traveling preacher and the local pastor made for a great team. The one serving an apostolic role––constantly on the move and proclaiming the gospel––the other a priestly role––living among the people and shepherding them. “Only when the circuit rider dismounted and settled in the community where the local preacher lived did the problem arise […] of what his role should be,” explains Norwood, “especially in a community accustomed to a congenial combination of the two.”

Today’s Methodism has lost that congenial combination. We have no traveling preachers. We have lost what was best and most important about that role––its evangelistic nature and focus.

We have only local pastors. Yet we warn local pastors and their congregations that we’re likely to uproot them and move them to a different congregation from time to time. With that, we have lost what was best and most important about that role, too––its constancy with the people.

Why did we abandon the true itinerant ministry? Mainly because we found it difficult. Even in American Methodism’s earliest days, the bishops lamented that “an embarrassingly large number of traveling preachers located.” [note]Norwood, 135[/note] The pilgrim life is hard. It’s best cut out for the young and the single. (It was when circuit riders married that they tended to locate.) How many of our “itinerant” ministers today would truly be able and willing to travel like those early Methodist preachers? The car is much easier on the body than a horse. Still, we would likely lose most. Perhaps we would replace them, though, with those truly called to a ministry of itinerant evangelism.

And how many more great pastoral leaders for the church might we gain if we did away with the threat to move them to a different town and congregation? Likely many. Though what we call “itineracy” today is hardly circuit riding, its constant threat of displacement is still difficult both for those with families and for those whose vision of ministry includes a long journey with a particular community.

The Unnatural New Creation of Modern Methodism: The Ad Interim Pastor

Our circuit riders dismounted long ago. When they did, we abolished both the itinerant ministry and the located pastoral ministry. Instead we settled for a new, unnatural and biblically unprecedented form: the ad interim pastor, where the interim may be one year or twenty––hold your breath at each annual conference cycle. It is now the ad interim pastor who conducts most weddings and funerals, convenes most leadership meetings, hires most staff, and sometimes visits in the hospitals, too. Many in the UMC will contend that we should train laity to do some of these things––at least the visitation. To what degree will depend on which ad interim pastor is serving a congregation at the moment. That wasn’t a question in early Methodism. When the circuit riders dismounted, the lines between these roles blurred.

What if we tried itineracy again? What if we tried having located pastors in charge again? Even one of these moves could reap great rewards. The two together could be a piece of returning to the roots of the Methodist movement.


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