Itineracy and Guaranteed Appointment: Neither is the Key to Growth

November 1st, 2010
This article is featured in the Calling & Career (Nov/Dec/Jan 2010-11) issue of Circuit Rider

One of the distinctive characteristics of the United Methodist Church today is the itineracy system coupled with a guaranteed appointment for ordained clergy. Whereas other denominations have been plagued by both an oversupply of clergy and a shortage of pastoral leadership in its small, rural churches, the United Methodist system has avoided both of these inefficiencies by controlling the supply of ordained clergy and by guaranteeing elders to serve in even the smallest churches.

Yet the interim report of the Study of Ministry Commission for the 2008-2012 quadrennium suggests a major re-imagining of this system with the elimination of guaranteed appointment. Although on the surface the change is a small one—the commission recommends changing the language regarding appointments from “shall continue to be appointed” to “may continue to be appointed”—the implications are huge. While denominational leadership expects that ending guaranteed appointment will allow them to re-train or dismiss those less well suited for pastoral ministry, for clergy it introduces a significant degree of uncertainty into their futures. Even clergy confident in their ministry may be disconcerted by the fact that they will be subjected to a “to be determined” evaluation system that makes their futures even more dependent on the bishop. Any evaluation system, no matter how broadly or narrowly defined is sure to be a politically fraught issue.

Itineracy without Guaranteed Appointment

While the interim report of the commission suggests doing away with guaranteed appointments, it proposes to retain the ability of bishops to move clergy to different assignments and churches—itineracy, also called “controlled appointment.” If one adds this constraint onto the uncertainty of being relocated on a regular basis, the denomination may see an increase in clergy resignations, particularly from clergy with children, who are most vulnerable both socially and financially to the costs of moving and relative job insecurity. (Itineracy in general is already more difficult for clergy with young families, which may partially explain why only 5 percent of the commissioned and ordained elders are under 35.)

If used judiciously, controlled appointment can benefit women and minorities because as behavioral scientists know, “birds of a feather flock together.” Congregations, if left to their own preferences in a call system, are most likely to hire clergy who resemble insider group characteristics like ethnicity, social background, education, and income. They will thus be less willing to hire minorities, and possibly women, without an appointment system in place. Controlled appointments also make it easier for bishops to staff small isolated churches that might not otherwise be attractive to many clergy.

Has Guaranteed Appointment Caused Decline?

Since 1964, United Methodist membership has decreased 27 percent, despite an overall growth in the American population of 54 percent, much of that from immigration. The percentage of youth membership has also declined dramatically in this period and roughly 41 percent of the U.S. churches received no members on profession of faith in 2005, according to an article by Linda Green in 2007. Some bishops have attributed this lack of growth and vitality to the guaranteed appointments of clergy. Seattle Area Bishop Grant Hagiya, who is a member of the Commission, has said that job tenure creates a “culture of mediocrity” that fosters laziness and complacency.

The decline in membership statistics is undeniable. However, one wonders how the Commission came to the conclusion that the problem is best addressed through eliminating guaranteed appointments. Similar measures of institutional decline have been reported in the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America during the last generation and each of these denominations have a call system, holding their clergy accountable to their congregations and leadership. None of the clergy in these denominations have guaranteed appointments, and yet in each of these denominations membership has declined and/or remained stagnant. This would suggest that the proposed elimination of clergy tenure will not reverse have Methodist decline as some bishops hope.

If the UMC Wants to Grow

Churches essentially grow through two methods. The first, which is clearly implied by the decisions of the current commission, is to put effective leaders at the heads of congregations and increase outreach to new members. Social network theory has shown that existing members will reach out to people similar to themselves, usually friends and family members in the area. Like attracts like, and thus a church with an elderly congregation is going to be most successful in reaching out to other elderly and be less successful in drawing in young members. The same goes for ethnic churches, middle class churches, youthful churches, etc. In other words, this kind of outreach is good for maintaining the status quo but not for increasing diversity. In small or homogeneous churches there is also the problem of overlapping networks, the dilemma that everyone knows the same people. For these reasons it is hard for these churches to grow.

The second method, which relies on new church starts, recalls the most vibrant period of growth in the American Methodist tradition in the early 19th century. The Methodists, along with the Baptists, were the fastest growing denominations owing largely to their attention to spreading the Gospel through the use of itinerant lay preachers rather than a fully educated, institutionally ordained clergy and bricks and mortar churches.

Preachers were organized into territorial circuits that would bring them back to each location roughly once every two weeks to preach, give guidance, and teach the Methodist discipline. In this way the itinerants reinforced the spirit of the small groups and were able to cultivate a large number of small religious communities. These communities were then periodically brought together in regional conferences or revival meetings, introducing socially distant enclaves to one another and facilitating the growth of social ties and relationships. These networks eventually grew and strengthened, paving the way for their merger into larger and stronger religious communities that would eventually be able to gather the resources necessary to build a permanent local church.

The genius of this model of growth lies in the itineracy system. But what about itineracy fostered such dynamic growth? It was not simply that preachers moved around, but that itinerants started new communities which they then linked together to form stronger and larger social networks with a common faith and discipline. These networks were the foundation of new churches. By linking together socially disconnected groups, the itinerant could draw resources from many different pools, rather than a single pool linked to the same resources. Because this method brings people from different social groups and networks together, the potential for outreach is wider and more dynamic and thus more likely to expand in a vital fashion.

The lesson to be learned here is that neither guaranteed appointment nor itineracy are—in and of themselves—linked to church growth or decline. Rather, growth comes from reaching out to people outside of our own social networks and starting new congregations that can more easily attract and connect diverse peoples. If we look at the experience of both history and other denominations, eliminating clergy tenure will clearly not reverse the decline. Let us think again about what might actually work before acting to further frustrate and alienate the our elders and the valuable resources they bring.


[i] The UM Sustainability Advisory Group estimates a surplus of 784 clergy, compared to thousands of surplus clergy in other mainline denominations.

[ii] David Briggs, “Commission Takes Aim at Clergy Job Guarantees.” United Methodist News Service, May 19, 2010.

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