By Forrest White
The son of a Methodist preacher, the Rev. Dr. John Peters remembers childhood days when big family news was disseminated at the dinner table.
“One year, Dad announced that my mother was having a baby and we cheered,” he said. “The next year he said, ‘I have some important news.’ One of my sisters asked, ‘Are we having another baby?’ Dad said, ‘No, we are moving.’ My sisters began to weep. We loved where we were living.”
The itinerant nature of life as a Methodist pastor didn’t deter Peters from following in the footsteps of his father, Howard Peters, his grandfather, J. Sydney Peters, and his great-great grandfather, James Lumsden. Together, the four men served 192 years within the Methodist itinerant system.
Peters faced all the challenges of pastors on the move – children changing schools and leaving behind friends; a spouse searching for a new job; the family adjusting to life in a new area; caring for aging parents from afar; etc.
But purely from a pastoral perspective, he loved it.
“I was always amazed at how I seemed to be placed in the right church at the right time,” he said. “God seemed to be very much at work in this system.”
Itinerancy is the deeply rooted United Methodist practice “by which ordained elders, provisional elders, and associate members are appointed by the bishop to fields of labor” and “… shall accept and abide by these appointments.” (The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, ¶ 338)
It is a process of discernment involving district superintendents, pastor/staff parish relations committees and the clergy member, with a goal of matching gifts of the individual with ministry needs of a congregation or charge.
At times it produces matches seemingly made in heaven, other times not.
“Sometimes in spite of a congregation’s prayers and a superintendent’s understanding of a good fit, an appointment just doesn’t work,” Peters said. “In such a case our itinerant system can bring a remedy.”
Methodist founder John Wesley, himself an itinerant preacher, wrote in 1756, “We found by long and consistent experience that a frequent exchange of preachers is best. This preacher has one talent, that another; no one whom I ever yet knew has all the talents which are needful for beginning, continuing, and perfecting the work of grace in a whole congregation.”
Itinerancy allows for equality of opportunity for all elders and associate members regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic reality, life experience or family composition, said the Rev. Lindsey M. Baynham, conference director for the Center for Clergy Excellence.
Yet she knows, from personal experience, the itinerant life of Methodist clergy often isn’t easy.
“My last Sunday at my first appointment I bawled during my pastoral remarks,” Baynham said. “The pastor and the congregation, for a specific season that can never be repeated or replicated, share unique and special moments as well as the challenging ones.”
The Rev. Daniel Wray’s first appointment out of Duke Seminary was the Wesley Campbell Charge in rural Altavista, Va., where he served from 2012-2015.
“I learned from my parishioners just as much or maybe more than they learned from me,” Wray said.
He had grown up in the Richmond Metro Area. Once, during a long stretch of rainy days in Altavista, he found himself wishing for “nice weather.” During prayer time that Sunday, a congregation member thanked God for the persistent raindrops falling on the crops.
“As a suburban kid I had always viewed rain as a hindrance, but was now taught to see it as joy,” Wray said. “I have found these moments in itinerancy holy moments, the moments when I allow people to teach me, when I am learner just as much as teacher, when I have a deep respect for my new home. That is what makes the itinerancy system heartbreaking as well. You know every year you can move and yet you give your heart and soul to a community.
“Each move means a youth you won’t see graduate, the seeds of ministry in that person which you won’t get to watch flourish, a cherished member you’ll never see again until we claim the Resurrection. Those moments hurt.”
Peters recalls running into a grown up Methodist Preacher’s Kid, whose father had been moved to a new church the summer before her senior year in high school.
“She reminded me, to that day, she hadn’t forgiven the Bishop who moved her family,” he said.
Both of Peters’ sons opted for secular careers, choices he fully supported all along.
“Itinerancy is either a relic of another age of Methodist experimentation or a cutting-edge practice that brings together congregations and pastors who would probably never come together otherwise,” said the Rev. Alex Joyner, Eastern Shore District Superintendent. “I guess it’s really both.”
Those outside the denomination are more likely to see the system as a relic.
“They ask, ‘Don’t they move you every three to five years?’” said The Rev. Mi Sook Ahn, pastor of Fairmount UMC in Richmond.
She will take the time to explain the itinerant system. She will also likely acknowledge that she isn’t fond of moving – the actual packing and unpacking part.
Ahn speaks of boundaries in place to help pastors and congregations with transitions. Once a pastor moves, it is understood that their previous church is in the hands of another pastor.
“As a provisional elder, working towards becoming an ordained elder, being in an itinerancy system teaches me to be obedient to God’s calling and to say ‘Yes’ to God,” Ahn said. “Living with the possibility of moving is not easy. But, at the same time, it is one of my spiritual practices to listen and follow God’s call.”
Over time, it has become more common for Methodist pastors to have longer tenures at the local church.
“It used to be the case, especially in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, that there were effectively term limits imposed on clergy,” said Peters, who served United Methodist Churches in Virginia from 1973-2013 before retiring and serving the Conference’s Association of Educational Institutions until 2019. “Some churches held to a four-year rule religiously.”
Having lived the itinerant life as a child and as an adult, Peters continues to embrace it, challenges and all.
“It will always have its challenges,” he said. “But perhaps itinerancy reminds us that neither clergy nor laity own the church. We are all laborers here.”
-Forrest White is a freelance writer with the conference Communications Office.