By: Sherri Gragg
The Itinerant system of the United Methodist Church has deep roots in the brave circuit riders who ministered to pioneers on the American frontier.
Saddle-Worn and Spirit-Led
“La, me! Has a Methodist preacher come at last?”
Twenty-six-year-old Methodist itinerant preacher, Jacob Young, stared in stunned wonder at the woman before him. Weary and saddle-worn, Young was desperate for someplace to lay his head for the night. When he came upon the lonely cabin in the woods, and the pioneer woman standing in its doorway, darkness was near. At first, she had denied his request for shelter.
Until, that is, he told her he was a Methodist circuit rider sent to minister to the spiritual needs of the early settlers of the Kentucky wilderness. It turned out, his only option for the night’s shelter was a Methodist family from North Carolina who had been waiting for the circuit riders to catch up with them. The cabin in the woods became a regular stop on Young’s circuit as he joined hundreds of other Methodist circuit riders from 1776-1844. (Holy Knock-‘Em-Down-Preachers, John H. Wigger, The Christian History Institute.)
It wasn’t an easy life. Over half of the 800 circuit riders died before the age of 30. Two hundred of them perished within the first five years of ministry. They were driven by the conviction that self-sacrifice was worth the cost of spreading the gospel. (Methodist Circuit Riders in America, 1766- 1844. William A. Powell Jr.)
Circuit riders faded into the pages of history along with the wagon trains and homesteads of the Westward Expansion, but their example of servitude for the sake of the gospel lives on today in the practice of pastoral itinerancy in the United Methodist Church.
Humility and Service
At its most elemental level, itinerancy is the commitment of clergy to go wherever they are needed. Assistant to the Bishop, B.T. Williamson says, “Pastors understand that they serve the Bishop. At any moment, our Bishop could call and say, ‘I need you to go,’ and we will say, ‘Yes sir,’ or ‘Yes, ma’am’ and gladly serve.”
Itinerancy enables the Bishop and the Appointive Cabinet to consider the needs of the district as a whole, balance those needs against the gifts and strengths of clergy, and then make the best matches.
Williamson asserts that the appointive process is undergirded with a spirit of utmost humility and prayer. The cabinet listens carefully to each church. They want to understand their history, needs, opportunities, strengths and weaknesses. “It is amazing how often, by the grace of God and hard work, that the process works well,” he said. “We never begin working on appointments without prayer. We understand that we cannot do this without the help and leading of the Spirit.”
On average, United Methodist Pastors move every 5.6 years, but there are exceptions. Some pastors and churches spend many years together. It is rare for the appointive board to move a pastor against his will. If he and his church feel strongly that he should stay, the board takes that into consideration. In the unusual occasions that the Bishop overrides those desires, it is to meet a greater need. In those moments, pastors draw from the UMC spirit of service that was first trod out by circuit riders on horseback along the trails of the American frontier.
“We understand as pastors that we are under authority,” Williamson said. “We go because we respect the authority of the Bishop. We trust the will of the Bishop and the Cabinet.”