What Itinerancy REALLY Looks Like Today

When I saw the pictures similar to the ones above and below, projected on the screen I turned to our church board chair and whispered, “Hey, where is my horse? You owe me a horse!”  She tried to restrain her chuckle.

The leaders of local churches who are about to experience a change in pastoral leadership this summer, are required to attend a transition workshop.  Our conference leaders started the session offering an informative summary of the meaning, values, and rules of itinerancy.  Their presentation was familiar, yet distorted.  

Familiar because they offered historical data about the nature of itinerancy and its logic.  Much of it we’ve studied in membership classes, confirmation curriculum, and seminary studies. 

Distorted because the images on the PowerPoint slide that were used to frame the conversation, looked nothing like me, or what my family would experience in the next few weeks as we prepared for our move. Also, the content of the presentation left me wanting more!

Even though, this time we are not moving into another church in a nearby town, and we’ve chosen to move to Florida to be closer to family and warmer weather; this would be our third move in five years.

CONTEXT For non-United Methodist readers: Itinerancy or itinerant ministry refers “to the commitment by pastors to go and serve wherever their bishops send them.”  If you want to learn more check out this article: To Be United Methodist: What is “itineracy”? For seasoned United Methodist folks: No, this is not yet another article about the pros and cons of itinerancy.  This is also not a rant post about the hardships of itinerancy. I happen to be one who finds intrinsic value in it. 

As we watch our denomination struggle, and seemingly lose its battle to become relevant in an ever-evolving secular culture, I find myself feeling called to name the small ways in which we prefer to entrench ourselves in ideals that are inevitably obsolete.

The nostalgia of the traveling preaching heroes of our past continue to bring much pride to Methodism as a movement for the expansion of Christian faith in America during the later part of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. Yes, we are that big of a deal.

“Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives”

In reality, the average itinerant preacher has not looked like the folks in these images for almost 100 years!

Itinerancy is no longer the commitment of a male pastor who travels solo with his horse and saddle bag carrying a few personal belongings: minimal clothing items, a Bible, tracts, an umbrella, and a hat.(2) We are people who relocate with partners, children, pets, and all the commodities of modern life.  

Buffy, AKA The Slayer, was certain she was helping her human, Rev. Rebecca Patterson of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference of United Methodist Church, move to Miami. Opposite coast Buffy!

If you are not an itinerant clergy person, you might not relate to the nomadic spirit that many of us itinerant pastors share.  What the average American can certainly relate to, is that no matter the circumstance, relocation, even if its just down the block, it’s labored pain at a pricey cost.  I did promise I would not rantSorry!

We need not to spend too much time comparing the hardships of the past itinerant preachers to the challenges we face today.  Itinerant preachers travelled thousands of miles, sometimes covering an immense geographical area.(3) They travelled for weeks at a time, facing dangers, enduring storms, illnesses, and even death.  Theirs was a truly nomadic lifestyle. Our ways of serving, while sharing a common past, are incomparable.  

As good as these images make us feel, it is time that we update the visions of the living Methodist church to match the realities of the contemporary clergy families and the communities they serve. It may be also necessary, that we deepen the conversation to what does it mean to relocate to serve the people of God. 

Packing pro-tip from Rev. Susan Chupungco of the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, who discovered diaper boxes are just perfect to pack her Feasting On the Word Bible Commentary.

Our conversation needs to move beyond the reminder that pastors are not to have contact with our former parishioners for at least a year after our departure. 

What bounty of goodness may come from offering transitional trainings that explore some these conversations listed below?

·      Honing skills to “travel light”. Mastering the rules of simple living as a spiritual practice. Best ways to pack libraries in as few boxes as possible. We do still share our ancestors’ passion for books and study.

·       How to negotiate the challenges of moving into homes that are not up to par, or in some severe cases borderline uninhabitable. This has never been my experience by the way, but I know of cases.  Some of us, dream of the time bishop would appoint us to a certain church because we know what the parsonage looks like.  Yeah, I can be that shallow sometimes.

·      Navigating differing school registration processes. At times, in schools we otherwise would not voluntarily choose for our children.  I happen to see this as a ministerial opportunity, BUT many of our children have no energy for serving as missionaries in their schools, because they are busy trying to survive it. Reality check!

·      Managing the impact a move could have on the commute and self-care of bi-vocational clergy and on the employment of spouses who work outside the home.

·      Best practices for managing changing doctors, dentists, updating all our bills and driver’s licenses, and preparing handbooks with all the details of the church’s business for the new pastor.  I was thankful when a clergy colleague gave me her moving cheat sheet. My current church collected a “Best of…” sheet with suggestions for restaurants, pharmacies, hospitals, and all other “best” places to go.

·      Offering pastoral care to our church and family, when we ourselves need it the most.  It was hard to explain to my five-year-old why is not worth paying to move her beloved doll house. Yes, the one I picked from the church’s day care dumpster, knowing very well we would dispose of it, if we moved.  Or how moving, as exciting as it may be, also means she will not see her friends anymore. 

United Methodist pastors like to keep strong ecumenical relationships, especially if our friends are handy with pick-up and hand trucks. This picture is a moving memento from our friends Cat Wood and her wife, Vicar Kathleen Kerin of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who’ve been known to help a few Methodist pastors move in the last few years.

Listen, I get it! The whole thing is complicated.  I give much credit to the bishops and cabinet members who engage in this arduous task every year, and do take all these things into consideration. But most importantly, I give credit to all the clergy and clergy families who are committed to embracing this lifestyle as God’s call for their family.

I know the use these images for a morning session training might not seem like a big deal. But, as a religious leader who is interested in church culture change, I believe real change starts with the small decisions we make on a daily basis.  The way we think impacts how we behave. And how we think is transformed by the stories we tell.  We need to commit to telling our story well.

Pastor Posse – Rev. Nikki Edleman, Rev. Jenn Berry, Vicar Kathleen Kerin, and her wife Cat Wood, showing how it gets done!

To ensure that itinerancy serves as an effective tool for ministry, we owe it to Methodism to speak about it in the ways that are most relevant to the people who experience it: clergy, their families, congregations, and the communities in which we serve.  

You won’t believe the looks I get when I try to explain to our new “unchurched” friends why we moved into their town.  It is like I’m speaking 18th century English. Oh, wait, I am! I usually give up and summarize it by saying “We moved for work.” 

On this post, I offer a few glimpses of what itinerancy really looks like for clergy and clergy families.  In doing so, perhaps we can shift the kind of mindset that insists on preparing us for change, with the ideal of an itinerant preacher of the 1800’s. I suspect this happens often. In the mean time, allow me to admit some of us still fantasize about mounted ministry! And..we already have a T-Shirt!

T-Shirt desgined by Pastor Posse founder, Rev. Jenn Berry.

A new wave of itinerant preachers will face unique challenges: ethnically diverse mission fields, shifting cultural landscapes, and uncertain denominational structures.  It gives us courage when we can see and hear our reality represented.  In the story we tell about itinerancy it is necessary that we show all the contemporary digital “sparkles”, and yes, even all the “wrinkles” on our holy mess of boxes.  Here is mine!

Perhaps the call includes renaming itinerancy in hashtag form. Any ideas?

(1) Painting “Asbury Crosses a Stream” by Richard Douglas. From Asbury Seminary ePLACe: https://place.asburyseminary.edu/richardouglas/26/.

(2) Powell, William A. Jr., “Methodist circuit-riders in America, 1766-1844” (1977). Master’s Theses. Paper 813.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Illustration from The Circuit Rider: A Tale of the Heroic Age by Edward Eggleston depicting a Methodist circuit rider on horseback. From Wikipedia.