Itinerancy Means Never Having to Say “I’m There for You”

Joan Chittister’s well-being is at the mercy of her community. She has a commitment to God, codified in her Church’s discipline that marries her fate to that of her town. It is group salvation. As she told Religion and Ethics Newsweekly “Benedictines take to this day a vow of stability.What does that mean? It means we’re in Erie for life. We go down with this city, or we build it up.” Chittister and her sisters have experienced Erie, Pennsylvania’s ‘going down’ and have been instrumental in its survival and revival. The Benedictine sisters run a community farm, a children’s art center and an online community.

Currently, I have no such possibility. No matter how much my heart aches for a community, I cannot give my all. I cannot do for my patch of Earth what Jesus did for me…give my life. Why? It’s not because I don’t care. I see the downtrodden, and I want to lift them up. I hear the cries of the needy, and I want to respond. I witness others committed to lifting up the lowly, and I envy their work and passion. I have attained a certain pastoral acumen that leads me to feeling the pulse of a community. Everywhere I have ever lived I have absorbed the diction and accent of the area, because everywhere I’ve lived I’ve tried to make it my home. I’ve taken stark stock of crumbling school districts, dangerous trailer slums, meth labs, abuse centers, homeless shelters and hooker-infested avenues. Within a mile of my last residence, 8 murders, attempted murders and other kinds of shootings. One of those was in the parking lot of a church where a drug deal went bad. I watched other deals go down in the church lot across from my house. My wife witnessed a pistol-whipping because the gun jammed. Prostitutes were everywhere. Honestly, I wanted to stay. I want to go down with a town, but I really want to be part of a town’s renaissance. I want to see the defeated people rise up, defeat their demons and live as heirs to the kingdom. I want to be present when drug dealers shake their addictions, when prostitutes rediscover their self-worth and when the left-behind claim their own place at the table. This is what I believe God’s grace is for—not to revel in our sinfulness—but to conquer and transform. From my formal education with my experience in the mission field, I know that the church’s mission is a matter of life and death.

But alas, I itinerate, so someone else will have to die with that city.

The leaving of southern West Virginia has left a scar on my heart. It’s not that it’s a great place to live. It’s not like it’s teeming with hope, reason and vision. It’s that it was my home and I got to go back. I had a chance to make amends and make it better. I didn’t survive the first round of senseless friction. My in-roads of good: a connection to an impoverished local school, growing from within the congregation a creative approach to addressing child hunger, my participation in a community health assessment and the planting of the seeds of a community meal were rendered useless because leaving was an option…not for me, but for my conference supervisors. The going got tough (well, petty at least), so the Conference just moved me. Itinerancy breeds a lack of commitment, because leaving is a part of the game.

The Legacy of Itinerancy

Itinerancy is a relic of the 19th century. It was great back then, not because it was customary, but because it was innovative and responsive. The first circuit rider in what is now southern West Virginia, John Smith, spent a whole year establishing and reinforcing Methodist societies. He did so on horseback and determination.  The Rehoboth Church sits at the hub of his circuit.  Itinerancy was necessary back then, as the nation was expanding, crossing difficult terrain for the first time and facing a bevy of difficulties along the way.  Its value was its usefulness for the purpose of the church—to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.  My church history professor in undergrad was a dignified Presbyterian clergyman and scholar.  He beamed with respect when teaching how and why Methodism became the largest church in the land.  ‘The Presbyterians and Anglicans took who they wanted.  The Baptists took the ones the Presybterians didn’t want.  And the Methodists took all those that even the Baptists wouldn’t take.’  I like being in the church of the dregs.  Early Methodists specialized in backwoods and the crevices of coal camps, prairie depots and newly formed towns.  Methodist churches in West Virginia testify to the simple method of the circuit rider way…simple, adequate, wooden facilities at the mouth of every hollow.  But what was once a long slog up and over the hill to church is now a 5 minute drive.  Very few of us live just in the hollow anymore.

So what is useful today?

What does it mean for the church to be about the dregs today?  You certainly can’t be about the dregs if you keep moving every 3-8 years.  People rightly expect a certain level of reliability from the church.  Nowadays the character of poverty and oppression is so complex that a long-term commitment is almost mandatory.  The poorest area in our conference is a large, craggy coalfield (McDowell County).  It ranks among the poorest places in America.  Its Infant Mortality Rate was 16.4% in 2011, almost 10 percentage points worse than the national average.  The United Methodist presence there is 1 elder, a handful of local and assigned supply pastors and 1 church and community worker.  The issues facing McDowell are 75 years in the making, tracking the status and whims of the coal industry.  McDowell’s issues are deeply political.  It needs a complete rebuilding of its economy, including geographical access, educational restructuring, a confronting of the medical crisis that simply living in McDowell County presents and a restoration of dignity among the people.  It is a decimated place.  They can’t even take care of burned down houses that blight the county, much less build something new (aside from a prison!).  McDowell needs a long-term commitment (think 20-year plan with plenty of outside money).  But it also needs the right theology: one that understands the various stages of faith, one with that specializes in grace, one that values ‘striving’, one that is community oriented, one that values creation, one that has both a strong charitable basis and a strong justice basis, one that values advocacy, one that values education and health care, one that values children and the elderly and the handicapped.  It needs what Methodism has to offer: a grace-based, sanctification-breathing entity with resources, people, connectedness, structure and ability.  There are no shortage of churches in McDowell but they are mostly independent and certainly less holistically minded than we are.  Getting to heaven is the sole goal of faith there. It’s not unlike escaping Hell. But I refuse to think that God has abandoned McDowell to this preventable fate. Did not Jesus really die on a real cross? So the church has to make a choice. When it comes to failed states like McDowell does the United Methodist Church value its beliefs or its ancient habits?  Because itinerancy won’t work there.  It can’t really work in Mercer County, where I lived.  Can it work in any place with the kinds of complex challenges that permeate our world?  Itinerancy is a tactic whose time has passed.

Circuit Riding and Church Leadership

John Smith straddled the Alleghenies establishing churches.  By necessity, he could only get around to each community once a month or so.  The thriving of these churches certainly rested on something more than Smith’s effort.  A lot of his work was finding local people to be the linchpins of their respected congregations.  Lay leadership was what made circuit riding really stick.  Smith’s ministerial presence was needed to guide the leaders in right theology and appropriate organization of the parish.  Smith did what Paul and Barnabas did—he established, moved on, but doubled back to shore up the roots of local leadership.  His tactic was thoughtful and fruitfulness-minded.

I’m not convinced that ‘moving on’ is fruitful anymore for clergy.  And in practice, we don’t really think that either.  More established clergy “move up” to larger congregations.  And because of logistical matters (the ratio of elders to those congregations that can keep up with elder’s expenses) larger churches get older clergy who will stay longer.  In our conference, the most fruitful congregations are led (or have been led) by clergy who stuck around for 10-15 years.  But all that is based on logistics, not strategic ministerial intent.  In bustling Morgantown, a low-to-middle class neighborhood is served by a congregation whose average clergy tenure is 3 years.  For the last 28 years, the average experience of a clergy entering that congregation is almost 0.  If you were to strategically realign the Methodist presence in Morgantown, you would certainly place a church in that community.  You would even place it on the corner of Richwood Avenue and Darst Street (where Sabra United Methodist Church has sat for 99 years).  But you wouldn’t subject that congregation or that neighborhood to the revolving door of clergy it has seen for most of its life.  The congregation, I might add, has developed a real sense of abandonment by the conference.  And they were unwilling to commit to a clergyperson who they knew was going to leave.  One can hardly blame them.  They’ve said good-bye every three years for almost 3 decades.

I am a big believer in the “Big Brain Question”.  The answer to the Big Brain Question can determine in children the difference between success and failure, crime and security, disease and wellness.  “Are you here with me?” is the Big Brain Question.  Children who know there parents are there for them will most likely do okay in life.  Children for whom the answer is No or Uncertain experience greater anxiety and lower quality of life.  I’m convinced that churches need to be able to answer Yes to their communities’ longing for commitment.  The revolving door of clergy leadership makes this nearly impossible.  I worry that it even creates a hidden instability in the community that is detrimental to it.  I would guess that a lack of congregational reliability is not a quantifiable ‘loss’ to a community.  At the same time, when we consider what an engaged, reliable congregation can add to a community, one can see that an addition unrealized should be counted as a loss.  I think itinerancy breeds in congregations a collective sense of contempt for clergy.  They know we’re going to leave, so they don’t really have to abide by our leadership.  Why commit to someone who they know is not committed to them.  I have heard it said over and over again ‘preachers come and go, but this is our church’.  I bristle at this routinely.  It’s not my fault I can’t commit.  Or is it?

So what Now?

I don’t have a solution.  But I am having a clearer sense of the problem.  I am now three months into my third appointment and my eighth year of parish ministry.  I am jumping in feet first and trying to learn quickly and serve faithfully.  I am beginning to like people and hear their deeper stories.  But when it comes to ‘going down’ with Parkersburg, I know that probably won’t happen.  And I am starting to resent a church that habitually pulls clergy with little regard for what it does to our hearts.  I am loving my new place while still mourning my demise at my old place.  It was after all, only 3 months ago.  And, when it comes to the Big Brain Question for my career, I can’t say for sure that the conference is there for me.  And I can’t help but think, “What would Joan Chittister do?”  With McDowell, with Bluefield, with Jerome Park, with Parkersburg, with me?  My prayer is that these places get some Benedictines.

One thought on “Itinerancy Means Never Having to Say “I’m There for You”

  1. As i understand what you’re saying: The UMC is a connectional church and there is certainly a connection between the local community, the local church, the pastor and the UMC Conference. AND there is also a commitment between the local community and the local church … and between the pastor and the conference. BUT, because of the old itinerancy tradition, there is only a weak commitment between pastor and local church (“pastors come and go but this is our church”). In other words for UMC Connectional System to be useful the connections must be stronger than itinerant (“moving on”) connections. They must rise to the level of committed connections.
    Reminds me of the old saw, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and in this case the pastor’s commitment to the local church and thus to the local community appears to be the weak link. This is very insightful, born as it is from experience. I would like to see my church make a “commitment” to poverty, hunger, illiteracy and all the ills that some of our local communities are suffering. But i’m wondering just what that commitment looks like? It seems like it has to be stronger than just one person, the local pastor. As a member of the UMC, I feel this is something my church needs to seriously discuss. Maybe it’s time to move on from itinerancy and time to question what a connectional church really should look like. Time to “do a new thing.”
    Thank you…


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