The Restrictive Rules in the United Methodist Book of Discipline indicate that itineracy, part of United Methodism’s proud heritage, is here to stay. This does not mean that it will not continue to change as we discern how best to reach out to the society around us and the changing demographics of those ordained to word, service, sacrament, and order.
- MUTUAL DISCERNMENT. As larger numbers of second-career pastors, women, and people in two-income families continue to join the covenant of traveling preachers, the brutal life of the early itinerants will no longer be the best way to reach the world for Christ. Some pastors will be appointed to longer tenures, and this should be accompanied with the model given by other denominations that are developing intentional interim pastors. A model that the church might want to engage is the model of the British Methodist Church, in which pastors and congregations engage in mutual interviews and then begin their ministry together with an understanding that the pastor will stay at least three years.
- MOVEMENT. In our global society, more movement between conferences—and cooperation among different bishops and appointive cabinets—is crucial. To accomplish this, salaries should be standardized to the extent that experienced ministers are not precluded by salary from ministering in low-income areas where congregations need their leadership; this will involve a raising of minimum salaries while likewise capping some of the largest churches and salaries.
- PRACTICE. The itinerant system would be strengthened if practiced the way that it is laid out in the Book of Discipline. Many of the problems in our current practice would be solved if we adhered to the regulations that we already have. For example, parsonage guidelines are only effective if enforced. In a more serious example, many women and racial/ethnic minorities still find doors closed to them even though the UMC technically guarantees appointments for all elders (¶337.1). Bishops and appointive cabinets need to be pro-active in not allowing congregations to refuse pastors of a certain race or gender.
The strengths and challenges of itineracy have been present since the early days of American Methodism. Traveling preachers are dependent on others for their basic needs. In exchange, they gift the church with their diverse experiences while adhering to the gospel that does not vary despite various pressures.
This does not mean that itineracy is easy or that the system should remain static. Just as the Church has adapted the itinerant system to meet the needs of a changing world, so the Church will continue to adapt the form of the itineracy while keeping the twin functions of strengthening the body and extending our reach.
No matter the form, God can and does work through this historic connection… but what is the best form for this to happen?