Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
June 1st, 2015 by Joel Watts

Reexamining the evil #UMC Itinerancy, “Behold, it is good”

English:

“Joel, dude, we are going to have to do something about your titles.” English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every July, some United Methodist in some jurisdiction, in some conference, in some congregation will lose a beloved pastor to the infection we call itinerancy. This disease is rampant among United Methodist Clergy and will continue to attack The United Methodist Church for some time.

This year, we are going to lose our beloved Senior Pastor. As a United Methodist I’ve only known this senior pastor . This is from my letter to the District Superintendent describing my soon-to-be-former Senior Pastor:

When I first came to Christ Church, I had not yet begun to recover from my upbringing and (32) years in a cultic fundamentalist sect. I was given this space by our then lead pastor, Rev. Dr. Flanagan, who told me that the UMC does not require one to think a certain way, only that we think. He told me of the great love the UMC wants us to have to one another, especially of those we disagree with — especially to those who we see as sinners. Not only with this, but in so many other ways, Dr. Flanagan gave me the space I needed — my family and I needed — to start to climb out of the darkness that is fundamentalism. I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Flanagan, one that I can never repay. But, I am not the only one. While my story is known, I know of others who are just now coming to Christ Church, who are looking to come, and who are watching us as we navigate becoming a Christian at Christ Church. This past Sunday and since, some of us have hobbled together a safe space to share our tears and our fears regarding the change of leadership. 

I hear this often — we had a safe place to simply “be” at Christ Church. Whether that is to be unknown — quiet — thinking — doubting — faithful — recovering… because of Dr. Flanagan’s pastoral abilities, more than a few of us found a place we could recover from the worst visions of Christianity and come to actually know what a relationship with a healthy Christian community, and through that community, Christ, is actually like. 

My family and I are saddened still at his loss, and another congregation’s gain. We will, as my oldest daughter recently said, miss him many times over, such as at Boar’s Head when he would skip down the aisle. This is not normally something to remember, I guess, but the senior pastor is something like 8 feet tall.

But, even with this loss, I am reminded of what I wrote a few years ago. Perhaps it is better to say it this way: I remind myself of what I wrote a few years ago through this change in leadership.

My fear with hearing that the lead pastor was to ever leave — although he has already established an expiration date for himself — was to wonder if I would still like Christ Church. I know this is the same feelings some of my family have about Shauna. The simple answer is, of course, sure we will. I guess.

And then I wrote this:

This is not the pastors’ church. Even with the episcopal system in place, this is still very much the congregation’s church. Previously for us, it was the pastor’s church. You didn’t cross the pastor, you had no free will, nothing. What the pastor said, was what the congregation did and believed. So, when you lose a pastor, you’ve lost your church, or as with the case of one parishioner at the former church, you lose your mind. But, what about here? If we lose a pastor, is Christ Church still the same?

Have we lost the heart and soul, leadership, drive, and the like, if we lose a pastor?

No… no of course not. Some of us will be rather mournful for a while, and others may not care, given that this is the however-many-it-is-now pastor to come and go. And others may mourn with each passing of the pastor. They are not ours to keep, but God’s to send where he so pleases. But, coming from the fundamentalist church where a great fear was what to do if you wake up one morning and the pastor is dead (because pastors don’t leave usually because no one kicks them out), having to face this soon into our new residence the changing of the guard is a rather emotional thing.

No, the itinerant program is not evil. Today, I am not a fan of it. But, it serves its purposes to insure that the Church is not a social club where we can join the cult of a pastoral personality. Instead, we go to our church to a part of the wider community. We entrench ourselves there and will outlast pastors and others who must by necessity come and go. I am saddened at the expression of Methodism today, but I am reminded that this is what has prolonged Methodism, that we focus on Christ, rather than the pastor — that it is not the pastor who is supposed to be the heart and soul of the congregation, but the Spirit knitting us together.

In the end, my sentiment still stands. I am saddened our senior pastor is leaving, and not in the least because he has helped my family and I through this tough time of leaving a horrible fundamentalism — not in the least because he was my Church Administration professor and Preaching professor — not in the least because I can carry on a rational theological discussion with him — not in the least because I felt safe letting my children grow up listening to his sermons. And I will miss him not in the least because he chose to honor his vows — vows made long, long before I was born — to uphold the Book of Discipline and to be itinerant.

To be truthful, and oddly out of character, I have met the new pastor and his wife already. Before this, before he was named, we had heard a few possible senior pastor names floating on the fumes of the gossip mill. I was not impressed with them. When I heard of the new one, I was oddly at ease. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t buy into hokey stuff. I’m just saying that for some reason, my heart and mind was settled about the new senior pastor almost immediately. Then I met him.

The itinerant system does attack The United Methodist Church. But not maliciously. It acts like white blood cells, attacking cults of personality, saving churches, and saving clergy. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but I’d wager still that it works more often than not. Even when I don’t like it. It still allows us to focus on Christ, both clergy and congregation, even when I don’t like it.

We are with our local congregation through thick and thin. That is our goal. We are going to survive the leadership changes, and we are going to work within the community for a solid community because it is our community. We will understand when loved ones are pulled away and hope that pastors feel that sense of sadness when they leave and when they arrive. But, we will not let that sadness prevent us from accepting new leaders. Rather, we will use that sadness to accept the new one. Why? Because maybe they are leaving friends and loved ones as well. We can mourn together and then get up and laugh together.

To the pastors having to leave this year or any year and do so because of their vows, even when — especially when — their heart says otherwise, I salute you. I honor you.

Yes, I had the brief chance to meet the new pastor and his wife recently. For a handshake. My initial sense was confirmed. There is a gentle presence around the new pastor.  I believe, as our senior pastor says, “God is in this” and the more so upon meeting the soon-to-be-senior pastor. It is the oddest feeling, I swear, and I promise not to get too non-Stoic with you ever again.

I hope those experiencing the pains of the itinerant system will feel the same way soon enough, that God is in this.

The senior pastor is dead, er, gone; long live the senior pastor.

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

2 Responses to “Reexamining the evil #UMC Itinerancy, “Behold, it is good””
  1. Rev Tony Buglass says

    Thank you for this. It is interesting for me to read it, coming as I do from the viewpoint of a minister in the British Methodist Church. We also have an itinerant system, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it feels as if it hasn’t. On at least one occasion I had to uproot my family and move because the local churches got it wrong. There is no other way to put it – they were wrong to make us move away when we did, and it was damaging. However, I can say that even so, God did use the occasion; I was exactly the right type of person for my next appointment, and I feel that I was the one who was used to save those churches from a catastrophe. That isn’t to blow my trumpet, as some sort of super-pastor – I was an ordinary superintendent minister, bringing my experience and inexperience into a situation where God was able to use both to hold together a situation which had been in danger of falling apart. It was God who had the overview, and was able to use the people our crazy system gave him to do what was needed.

    Crazy system? Well, yes. It was originally designed by Wesley to make sure no minister ever became more important to the local folk than the overall work of the Methodist movement. In the UK, that now means that we will move on after 5 years unless the majority vote for us to stay, and then the decision is made again a few years later. My own feeling, which I have argued and agreed with our General Secretary, is that the default at 5 years should be to stay unless the majority vote you out: we’re working against all the best understandings of ministry and church growth by moving ministers too soon.

    However, the main point (and my reason for commenting) is to say that God is able to work through whatever we do, and although changes in staff always feel uncomfortable, things soon fall into place. I hope your new pastor and his family feel welcome, and when he does something that the old one wouldn’t have done, you are able to accept it as part of he gift that God has given you in the new person and his family. And in a few year’s time, you’ll be saying how much you don’t want this one to leave…

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