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Itineracy in the United Methodist Church

United Methodists like to speak of itineracy, that most distinctive pattern of deploying clergy for service in United Methodist congregations. It has been with us from the Circuit Rider days. Are we in danger of loosing this unique approach to ministry that served us so well in earlier generations?

In the days of Bishop Francis Asbury a pastor might be appointed to half of a state on the American frontier. His appointment might be for only three months, after which he moved to another Circuit. Multiplied thousands of our oldest congregations today trace their history to the Circuit Rider who gathered a congregation in a home in their frontier village for prayer and Bible study out of which a new congregation grew. There was no parsonage; he moved from home to home in community after community. The study was his saddle-bag. His tenure was brief, but his was a lasting impact on their lives.

In the years that followed we have continued a modified form of this itineracy. Countless congregations benefited by the multiple gifts and graces of many pastors. In this “serial leadership” of consecutive pastors, never two just alike, over time the combination of skills blended together to form a board base of developed ministries.

In more recent years leaders of the United Methodist Church have also recognized the strengths of longer term pastorate. The same pastor over a long period of time often kept the church on the track of a continuing vision of ministry in its community. Churches saw the development of mature, broad-based ministries beyond what any one of them could have even imagined early on.

What does all this mean?

Does all this mean that the UMC is abandoning its historic focus on itineracy as a strategy for ministry? Or are we developing a two-track system? Might this herald the day of a new form of itineracy? Is it coincidental that Interim Ministry has found its place in the UMC as we have embraced longer term pastorates?

Two truths demand to be acknowledged in this new era of church life:

  1. Transitions following longer pastorates do not come as easily.
  2. Not all pastors are “wired” for long term pastorates.


When the same name has been on the door marked Pastor’s Study for 12- 15-20 years the congregation finds it more difficult to embrace a new pastor than a church trained for change by a succession of three-four year pastorates.

  • There is grief over the loss of a long trusted friend.
  • There is doubt that “anyone can take the place of Dr. Smith.”
  • Flexibility has been replaced by the assumption that the way we were taught to “do church” is the only way it should be done.

So the District Superintendent introduces the idea of the appointment of an Interim Minister after a long pastorate. Lets call him/her a “Transition Manager.” Yes, he/she will lead the church in all the ministerial functions of a pastor. But he/she will also:

  • Not be laying the groundwork to be another 12-20 year pastor.
  • Be free to help the congregation celebrate its glorious past.
  • Help them analyze who they are more objectively.
  • Assist them in acknowledging a sense of where they are now.
  • Guide them in articulating who they want to become.
  • Delight in looking to the future with no personal stake in it.

Every church needs a time of taking stock. Objectivity in the leader in such a time is priceless. A leader trained for the task of managing the transition is a gift.

Sprinters and Marathoners

Not every United Methodist pastor has the gifts and graces for building the relationships that lead to a long term pastorate. And not every United Methodist pastor has the capacity for candor needed to be a change agent. Fortunately in the clergy pool of every Annual Conference there are both. In addition to gifted long-term pastors, we are also blessed with “relief pitchers”, with “back-up quarterbacks.” These mature, gifted, experienced pastors with natural skills for starting quickly, analyzing effective, planting seeds and motivating change now, plus a capacity to move on while knowing that the most obvious fruits of their labors will be borne during the pastorate of another are perfect candidates for Interim Ministry.

Trained Transitional Interim Ministry Specialists: Heralds of a New Itineracy

Specialized training is offered for those who will make themselves available as Interim Ministers.

The Intentional Growth Center is affiliated with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry offering this training. It is a time of learning and practicing new tools for timely short term ministries of healing in congregations whose ministries are diminished by circumstances for which they are unprepared.

This article is reproduced with permission from the Intentional Growth Center.

The Intentional Growth Center has a 28 year history of providing continuing education experiences in the work of ministry for both lay and clergy leaders of the Church. Its founders chartered IGC to be both ecumenical and national in its focus. IGC is located at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina but conducts training events throughout the nation.

To learn more about Interim Ministry Training Seminars or for further information about Interim Ministry in general, contact Rev. Dr. Jan Hill, Coordinator for Intentional Interim Ministry Training at the Intentional Growth Center at janhill@intentionalgrowthcenter.orgor call 800-482-1442.

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