The United Methodist Church is well-known for moving their preachers from church-to-church. Sometimes congregations cheer and sometimes they jeer. The same is true of pastors, of course. Many people have asked me about this ‘strange’ practice. First let me share about its origins before I share more about how it works and the pros and cons of this process:
In the 18th century there was this Anglican priest named John Wesley who was frustrated with the church in England. He began an effort to revitalize it by developing small groups and inviting the whole church into both prayer and action. Eventually the Anglican church was exasperated by him and his “methodist” followers so they shipped him to America. He began his efforts in the new world until they, too, became exasperated with him and sent him back to England, but his effect upon the frontier of America was incredible. Lay people began methodist societies and lay preachers would go from place to place, but the people who were part of these new Methodist societies didn’t want to then go to an Anglican church just because John Wesley said so, they wanted to be Methodists. Methodist preachers were eventually ordained and they were sent on horseback from one society to another and new “Methodist Episcopal” Churches began popping up anywhere these “circuit riders” showed up.
Out on the western frontier, especially, the clergy would ride from church to church to preach, baptize and serve communion as they were able but in between visits it was the lay people who preached and taught in the church. It was commonplace that a clergy person would only make it around about once a quarter. As the church became more established clergy began to receive greater training and education. As clergy became more educated ‘professionals’ they didn’t want to go out on horseback (at a breakneck pace) only to keel over dead at age thirty, so the bishops gave them smaller and smaller circuits until it became commonplace for clergy to be situated at a single church or churches for a year at a time. Back then, once a year the bishop would read the new appointments at Annual Conference and then all the clergy would go home with a couple of weeks to get moved!
Eventually the church realized that when clergy remained for more time it provided stability for local churches. Today, United Methodist preachers in Illinois are not very likely to be moved before they have been in an ‘appointment’ for three years, but it is also not very common for clergy to remain in a church for more than, say, 12 years.
How does it work?
The bishop can move a preacher at any time, but generally, pastors in Illinois find out where they are to go (or whether they will remain) by Annual Conference time. Pastors can generally expect to be appointed to a local church from July 1 – June 30 of a given year, which makes July first “moving day” for many clergy across this state. The bishop has district superintendents who are tasked with better knowing the individual churches in their districts and usually around January they begin discussing which clergy are retiring and any clergy or churches that are requesting a change. By the way, requesting a move doesn’t mean a move is going to happen, but most bishops and superintendents take those requests very seriously (when the request has merit).
Between January and the annual meeting (annual conference), in June, the cabinet will likely meet 5-10 times for 2-3 days at a time during those months. During each session of the cabinet they will discuss the churches where a pastor is needed and discern what pastor might best fill that position. Once superintendents return home to their part of the state they begin meeting with churches and clergy who are affected and introduce the new pastors to their new soon-to-be churches. This process often create a chain of changes, so it can be very complex and creative work when there are hundreds of churches and hundreds of pastors active in downstate Illinois!
There are many people who have given the bishop and cabinet flack about appointments, especially when they are thinking only of how a change affects them, but I cannot imagine how difficult it is to figure out the logistics in such a huge undertaking. At its best, this system provides churches and pastors with ‘good fits’ that help the pastor and the church to thrive (and grow), but not every appointment works out as well as the cabinet expects. Though, that does not mean that God wasn’t at work in the process, of course!
Why do we still do it this way?
Churches can become comfortable and, even, stale. Sometimes change is needed to help the church gain new vitality and it is hard to see that from within the congregation. So we have a bishop who looks at a church’s needs, solicits information and opinions, and brings wisdom. It helps churches to not get stuck in a rut. Moreover, who wants to tell their pastor: “Hey, everything is rolling along just fine. We actually like you, but we’re going another direction.” Even when the church is upset about pastoral leadership it can tear a church to pieces to fire a pastor and it can be just as destructive when a pastor decides to leave a church. Churches that are not connectional, like us, can go years without a pastor…often feeling stuck…and pastors in those systems can go years without a job.
There is a larger issue at play, though, than just hiring, firing, and steady employment. Sometimes when God speaks through a prophet / teacher / preacher the people are not going to like what they hear. It happened for the ancient Hebrew people, it happened to Jesus in his hometown, and it happens regularly still today. Just because it doesn’t feel comfortable doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to be said. If the church doesn’t hire and fire the pastor, but they are assigned by the bishop, it gives the pastor a certain ‘freedom’ in their preaching (but also when providing leadership and administration). In the United Methodist Church the pastor has the authority to lead worship and preach with ‘freedom of the pulpit’ which has enabled United Methodist clergy, at times of great conflict, to offer prophetic wisdom and leadership when the church most needed it!