Itinerancy and the “Smoke Filled Room”

Smoke-Filled RoomSometimes we picture the Bishop meeting with the cabinet in a dimly lit smoke filled room. There’s a circular table in the middle covered with green felt and ashtrays. All of the superintendents are gathered around with yellow notebooks full of comments about their pastors, and the bishop is sitting in a leather wing-backed chair in the corner. He or she only leans forward into the light to make the final say if there becomes a dispute over appointments. After months of wrangling and back-room deals, they emerge from this room, dust themselves off, and make calls to the poor little itinerant ministers who tremble as they wait to hear the call from on high.

Now, hopefully none of us truly believe that’s how the process works. In fact, I need to preface my comments by saying I’ve only been appointed one time thus far, and my appointment has been a better fit than anyone could have conceived without being guided by the very Spirit of God. I’m not saying this because one of my higher-ups might happen to read this; I’m saying it because it has simply been true. You see, I asked to be close to my aging parents, and ended up forty-five minutes away from them. This is in a conference where I could have just as easily been five hours from them. My father died in October after I was appointed in June. Because of the cabinet, I was able to spend more time with him during the last five months of his life than I had in ten years before. Our bishop and cabinet have my confidence and trust because of this.

However, that is not the case for some ministers and congregations. I believe this is because the process seems so mysterious to those who are on the outside trying to look in. That’s why weird fantasized pictures about what happens behind closed doors sometimes exist. I know many of you have suggested that itinerancy is broken and needs to be addressed at General Conference. I grew up in a Church with a congregational polity and a “call” system., and there’s no way that’s the solution (Of course, I know that’s not what most of you are suggesting). I believe in the itinerancy, and I believe in God’s desire to use our denomination to make faithful disciples. That’s why I’m United Methodist. I believe the more open, clear, transparent conversation we can have about the process the better. I also believe we can tweak the system to account for current trends and dynamics (for instance, in his book, Pastor, Willimon suggests the sixth year is one of the more effective years of ministry for many congregations).  In general, I would still hate to see the itinerancy go the way of the dodo. So what would a modified appointment system look like?

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