Here is my struggle: I feel God’s calling in my life. I feel a great sense of responsibility to it. Being responsible to my calling is being responsible and faithful to God. It’s that serious for me. I know others, not exclusive to clergy, have a similar view. But, under an episcopal system such as United Methodism, my calling is subject to the system of itineracy, whereby the Bishop appoints clergy to the congregations they are to serve.
In some ways for me, itineracy has worked out. In other ways it has not. And some of that working out, if I may be honest, is to my credit for being flexible and having an appreciative approach to people and places. I often say that I’ve loved everywhere I have ever lived. Furthermore, I have a strong tendency to fall in love with the churches and parishioners to which I am appointed. Even the church that had me removed for wanting to take Family Leave after the birth of my son, I still love that church and believe in it as a congregation. Reflecting on that particular congregation recently, I recalled Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail). I have been to no jails, but I have experienced the deep pain from a deep love that was broken. In reflecting on the pain of that moment, I have concluded that I do still love that church.
Nevertheless, I am not sure if my pastoral career has been fruitful in terms of following God’s calling in my life. And that brings me back to itineracy.
An Unreasonable Burden?
It seems to me that in itineracy, a clergyperson takes this deep calling, this fundamental need to serve God and God’s people, and places it in the hands of a Bishop and a cabinet who may or may not know you very well. Add in the tough logistics of fitting together clergy and appointments and one’s calling may have to take a back seat to ‘this is all that’s available’. Add in again conference politics, the general sinfulness of people and unwritten rules of who gets to serve where and you see how easily a tough matter can turn downright messy.
What if your calling involves ministry to the marginalized? What if your calling involves being a good dad as well as a good pastor? What if the only available spot really needs a good administrator and, well, I’ve lost my keys again? What if your calling requires you to be a bit outside of the standard? What if the cabinet just doesn’t know you very well?
I still feel a great deal of responsibility to my calling. I listened to God in my 20’s and chose a different path that was right for me. In the process, I learned God’s voice and got a solid take on my personal gifts and graces. In my 30’s that calling has been given over in a sacred trust to Bishops and cabinets. That is undoubtedly a heavy burden for them.
I have a deep admiration for Bishops and District Superintendents and do not envy their difficult jobs one bit. I wonder if the ideals of itineracy are too much to expect them to carry. It’s not that they don’t care. (Well, some do, some don’t…you get me, right?) When I spell out itineracy in these terms, I can hardly blame any Bishop or DS for when an appointment doesn’t work out. And, when I spell out itineracy in these terms, I marvel at the many times they do get it right. If itineracy is a sacred trust, one of my responsibilities is to affirm the humanity of the cabinet and pray for God’s grace to be upon them and their work. But it is hard to not question the system under which they work.
What then should happen when a calling falls through the cracks of itineracy?
I have two milestones in the foreseeable future: age 40 and my 10th year of pastoral ministry. The first half of that decade was mostly about learning and growing into the role of pastor, that’s not unexpected for a first appointment. For the last half of this decade of ministry, I’ve wanted to be productive: bearing fruits of the spirit for God, the world and the church. What fruits have developed in that time? Are people more faithful because of my pastoral ministry? Is the church more generous because of my ministry? Is the world more peaceful because of my ministry? I can’t give a yes to any of these. The system has certainly let me down to an extent. And some of those fallible humans in high places have not always supported me. But, it can’t all be their fault at this point.
So, under the itinerant system, what responsibility does a clergyperson have for his or her calling? At what point does the clergyperson determine that the system is unable to adequately serve his or her calling?
I love itineracy…theoretically.
My seminary hosted a simple barbecue at the end of the year for graduating seniors. Each senior got a chance to speak to the group. I remember my senior picnic very well. I remember that both my wife and I forgot to thank each other. But I more recall a parade of people approaching the microphone and announcing that they had no idea what they were going to do next. They spoke very cynically about the church and the seminary. I strode forward and exclaimed that I was ready to be a pastor. I was confident. I felt adequately prepared. I felt gifted enough and aware enough of my flaws. I envisioned working the itinerant system to serve in many localities in West Virginia and retiring with a fruitful service to a land I loved.
It just hasn’t worked out that way.
I still feel equipped. And I still love the church. But as I left the land I love last summer to move west, I felt as much of a stranger to my own people as I did when I arrived from seminary 8 years earlier. People knew my name, but they didn’t know my story or my calling. Now I am a stranger in a strange land trying one more time. I find myself overly protective of my calling and uncharacteristically sensitive about where I serve. I know what living out my calling feels like. I did it for the better part of a decade, albeit a decade ago. I am now feeling an almost desperate need to living more deeply into my calling than ever before. And I find myself gripping the reins and looking for ways to trust God without having to trust an institution.
So what will the future hold for itineracy? What will it hold for my particular calling? Will I ever be fruitful?
Image: "Choices" by Bill Dickinson (CC)