Sheep and Shepherds in the Methodist Ministry: Andrew C. Thompson

***Disclaimer: this post is not written by Will Willimon.

Bishop Willimon invited Jason Byassee and Andrew C. Thompson to respond to criticism about his focus upon numbers as an evaluating tool in accessing effectivness in ministry for United Methodist clergy and congregations. This is Rev. Thompson’s response to that invitation.

One warm autumn evening a few years ago, my phone rang. I had been lying on my living room couch, half-dozing while a Red Sox game played on the television. The cell phone jingle woke me up, and I looked at the display of the incoming call.

It was my district superintendent.

In early September.

Now I was only serving my first pastoral appointment. But I knew enough to realize that a D.S. calling in September probably meant trouble.

The conversation that followed confirmed the worst of the possibilities that flashed through my mind when I saw the incoming call: An associate pastor’s position had opened up quite unexpectedly, and the bishop had tapped me to fill it. He had considered letting the position lie vacant until annual conference the following year, but it was a large church with a lot of ministry going on. The senior pastor at the church was already overloaded, and 10 months seemed too long to leave him without a junior colleague. As a campus minister, I could be moved without causing the “domino effect” familiar to Methodist clergy who get caught up in mid-year moves (a factor the D.S. was frankly honest about, though he was also careful to explain that the bishop’s decision had only come after a careful consideration of the congregation’s needs and my particular pastoral gifts).

All of a sudden the itineracy became very real for me. And the end result of that fateful September phone call was, in fact, a mid-year move. In accordance with the needs of the church in my annual conference, I left a campus ministry appointment where I was finally building momentum after almost 3 years and where I had many friends. And I moved to a town and a church where I knew practically no one.

I gotta be honest. It was tough at first.

But it was also what I accepted when I entered a Methodist ministry. I realized that at the time. And I bring it up in this post because I think that experience helped me begin to think about what it really means for those of us called to be Christ’s shepherds to give the whole of our lives to ministry in the church.

It helped me begin to think about what it means to live a life that is not my own.

The Contentious Nature of Itineracy

As I see it, the itinerant system in the United Methodist Church is seen as contentious by the clergy for two reasons – one practical and the other cultural. The practical bone of contention has to do with fear and mistrust on the part of individual pastors, namely that they and their families will get caught up in the gears of a bureaucratic machine and be sent to a ministry setting not because it fits their gifts & graces but rather because an episcopal cabinet is simply trying to fill slots.

I see this issue of the itineracy process as a real challenge, both for bishops and their superintendents as well as for elders under appointment. I also don’t see any magic pill we can all swallow to make the challenge disappear. Clergy need to continually remind themselves that they are yokefellows in the gospel with every other member of their annual conference as well as with their bishop. Bishops and their cabinets should look upon the fear of their pastors with understanding, realizing that trust in an ecclesiastical polity led by human beings (even human beings guided by the Holy Spirit!) is liable to error and that some their preachers have been on the receiving end of those errors. We all need to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, recognizing that we have been fitted together as stones in the same spiritual house that Christ is building.

I recently heard a reading of Queen Elizabeth I’s speech to her coastal militia prior to the English struggle against the Spanish Armada in 1588. It reminded me how much strong leadership depends on those being led having the sense that their leaders stand with them rather than simply over them. Even more, that those leaders are willing to suffer and die along with their followers if needs be. I think it would be a real gift to the church for God to call more of us into martyrdom as a witness to the gospel. That may happen in our day, or it may not. But bishops and superintendents do at least have the opportunity to preach before those they lead – as Elizabeth had the opportunity to speak directly to her army – and they should consider addressing (and modeling) the deeply connectional nature of our covenant together. The connection in Wesley’s day was, after all, rooted in the common fellowship of the preachers.

The second contentious aspect of itineracy for clergy is a cultural one. It is related to the time in which we live. And it is, if anything, more difficult to address. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has an insightful view of modernity where he says that the story of modernity is that we have no story except the story we chose when we had no story. (You might want to read that again.) Basically, Dr. Hauerwas means that our culture teaches us that we should be self-made, constructing our lives and futures and even our very identities according to our own felt desires. This deeply embedded idea assumes that we come into the world like baby sea turtles hatched from eggs on the beach – needing no instruction, no formation, no catechesis. We live in a world that tells us to “Have It Your Way,” which is both a Burger King slogan and modernity’s overriding motto.

It’s all wrong, of course. Those of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death (Romans 6). The lives we live now are possible only in his resurrected life. And the stories we inhabit are, finally, his story.

But modernity’s false promises haunt us. And so we find ourselves falling into the rut of the self-created story time and time again. So hear me on this: The reason many of us fear being sent as Jesus sends his disciples is that we’ve bought into the myth that the life we live should be of our own choosing. For those who follow Jesus, I simply don’t think that can ever finally be the case.

Anxiety over the “Guaranteed Appointment”

There’s a lot of anxiety amongst Methodist clergy right now over the possible alteration of the so-called “guaranteed appointment.” That anxiety – like all anxiety – is born out of fear. For the record, I think the guaranteed appointment is a bad idea with no biblical or Wesleyan basis. I know why it was instituted and the good intentions with which that happened. But like so many lamentable parts of our Book of Discipline, it attempts to make a rule out of something dependent on character and virtue. That “something” is our covenant relationships in the annual conference. And while character-building takes longer than rule-making, it is by far the more worthwhile activity.

Trees that do not produce fruit are nothing worth. And shepherds who cannot do the work of shepherding should not be entrusted with sheep. These convictions seem as necessary to the vitality of the church as anything I know related to leadership. Fruits can and must be judged in different ways, depending on the variety of settings in ministry. In fact, a reassurance of that fundamental aspect of episcopal oversight on the part of bishops might allay some of the anxiety we see over the possible change in the guaranteed appointment. But even so, those who continually cry out that they “don’t trust the system” might ask themselves why they assume such a de facto cynical posture and why on earth they’d want to be a part of a “system” that they fundamentally distrust in the first place.

In the end, I think the debate over the guaranteed appointment is symptomatic of our wider struggle with itineracy. That makes me hesitant to speak about it separate from the itinerant system in general, and it certainly makes me hesitant to consider it apart from core Christian virtues of patience, trust, repentance, and love. We have several layers of shepherds and sheep in our church, and we need to realize at every level that flocks only maintain health and grow when they realize that they’re all in it together. And yes, it is an inescapable quality of such healthy flocks that the shepherds are competent for the tasks to which they’ve been given.

Oh, and by the way, that mid-year appointment I was asked to take turned out very well. I experienced the Holy Spirit at the very center of the whole process, in fact. I took that as a sign of providence. And I continue to think that God has got work for the People called Methodists to do.

The Rev. Andrew C. Thompson is an elder in the Arkansas Conference of the UMC. He writes for the United Methodist Reporter and maintains a blog at

12 thoughts on “Sheep and Shepherds in the Methodist Ministry: Andrew C. Thompson

  1. "It’s all wrong, of course. Those of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death (Romans 6). The lives we live now are possible only in his resurrected life. And the stories we inhabit are, finally, his story."With the United Methodist adoption of normative doctrinal pluralism (from which we have, in some areas at least, tried to withdraw), we have as an institution unlinked ourselves from the story of Jesus – or so multiplied the STORIES of Jesus (divine being, savior, social activist, peasant, preacher of success, cynic, etc.) – that as people under appointment we're rarely sure which story line is moving us in any particular conference action.We also have the cultural (and biblical?) expectation that we take care of our families. In Wesley's day – and in some of early Methodism – fewer preachers had families to care for. Forsaking all for the mission worked in a different context. inevitably our families pay the price of our sacrificial ministry. Good comes from this – but not only or necessarily.Finally, the word of total abandon to an appointment system is easier to hear when the distance from the "top" to the "bottom" is not so great, if the system, backed as it is by oodles of "God talk," didn't look so thoroughly human.


  2. One more thought, since this post was put in the context of Bishop Willimon's concern with "numbers."One feature of our system is that, at least in our annual conference, there are moves that look like promotions. There are moves that look like promotions to both insiders and outsiders. This idea of a "promotion" is rooted in our culture's story of success, not the story of Jesus. Very few of us, however, have been able to set is fully aside. We talk about numbers. Some of us act as if a rise in professions of faith, in attendance, etc., is a good thing. Because we count these as goods, we sometimes think that those who seem more adept at producing them are worthy of some sort of promotion – "Faithful in little, now entrusted with more." Though we understand that principle, we don't see it applied with any consistency. We see pastors who are fruitful by various sets of criteria – perhaps the "never ran off with the organist, was a good old boy" set or the "added people on profession of faith every year, paid apportionments" set. Of course it might be that we reject the modern principle of leadership, i.e., the notion that what "success" – whatever we mean by that – is a result of the actions of the appointed leader, but are instead merely (merely!) the sovereign work of God. I haven't noticed the UMC consistently rejecting that position, however.A step in the right direction, though hard to do, would be to add some transparency to the process. If each appointment is solely based on the leadership of the Holy Spirit, whether that leadership be communicated by drawing lots, rolling dice, throwing darts, or a heart strangely warmed, then no more transparency is possible. It's simply a black box. We put in the inputs (pastors, appointments), shake it, and – hey! – look what popped out!But if we can admit some role for human judgment (and having never served on a cabinet or gotten close to one, I don't know if that can be done), then we can add some transparency. We can find a way to deal with the appearance of promotions in the system – and maybe become honest enough to admit that there are some.


  3. "…those who continually cry out that they “don’t trust the system” might ask themselves why they assume such a de facto cynical posture and why on earth they’d want to be a part of a “system” that they fundamentally distrust in the first place."So why did you join a system where guaranteed appointments exist? Just because there is one aspect of the system that we believe should be changed does not invalidate the mission of the Church or the call on our hearts. (And I not only agree with itinerancy, I like it!)Shifting the authority for Elder retention from the Conference of Elders to the Episcopal Office would mark a major change in the Methodist structure that is fundamentally different from all of our history. Even if a bishop would not be technically removing a clergy member's credentials, all of the practical implications are there. We should tread very carefully in undoing our historical structures.


  4. Andy highlights an important point: "But even so, those who continually cry out that they “don’t trust the system” might ask themselves why they assume such a de facto cynical posture and why on earth they’d want to be a part of a “system” that they fundamentally distrust in the first place."This question has been asked many times over the years, in many forms and contexts:- Why would liberals want to remain part of a system that is so fundamentally conservative?- Why would conservatives want to remain part of a system that is so fundamentally liberal?- Why would those who favor full inclusion of GLBT… folks want to remain part of a system that has so repeatedly and determinately rejected their position?I can think of several reasons: – While we might imagine that people and the institutions they inhabit are fully – and ONLY – rational and consistent, they are not.- We first encounter these systems through people and human relationships, not in their rules, regulations, structure, and rationalized practices.- Our system is not fully coherent. Thus the part of the system through which we entered might be very different than some other region of the system or than the system as a whole.- We might believe that the system has been corrupted and it is our duty to bring it back to its true ideals.- A variant: we might believe that the current operation of the system is not an indictment of the system (on paper), but the system as currently expressed.


  5. Hi Andrew, I appreciate you're thoughts on the itineracy and the guranteed appointment. What I am having trouble with is the connection you see between the two. I thoguht that the struggle with the guranteed appointment is not about fear of itineracy, but about fear of not being appointed because the numbers are down. Am I missing something here? Perhaps you could clarify why you see guranteed appointments as a symptom of unrest with itineracy.Tom P 🙂


  6. Fear and distrust are at the heart of the anxiety I have as a 48 year old working my way toward Certified Candidacy. My hope lies in Christ and in my confidence in His call on my life. Many times I feel like Noah when I tell my friends and family about my call. "You have a good job and do good things for the Church now." "How can you go into debt to take a cut in pay?" "Lay Leaders are needed too."The idea the UMC may move away from guaranteed appointments feeds that fear. It is not easy for a 50 year old male to re-enter the work place. All of this tension and fear deepens my commitment to Christ’s call. Trust is something God wants to teach me. Trust is something I am willing to make personal sacrifices to learn. Please pray for all of the “second career” ministers called to serve.


  7. I agree that measuring numbers focuses all involved to improve those numbers. However, the problem is when the numbers are not based on biblical or Wesleyan objectives. I did not grow up Methodist but became exposed in college thru a Methodist/Presbyterian college center. I am an elder in the Presbyterian church ( a life time commission). I really appreciate the Methodist church organization but recently find it so offensive that bringing people to METHODISM is more important than bringing people to Christ. The dashboard's numbers of people serving and people served are so much more important than membership. Attendance is a pretty basic indicator of people involved and most likely serving. The dashboard numbers have no reality to what may be happening in the local congregation on serving others. Where is the number that reflects the kind of stewards we are to be?? Producing numbers for Methodism is not producing numbers for Christ. The conference is so intent on meeting numbers that the great commission has taken a back seat and resources are being wasted.Despite the focus on numbers, our congregation is taking a recent hit on attendance (active membership & stewardship) because the conference is focusing on these numbers.In the business world I endorse the setting of goals and the corresponding measurements. But I also understand limited resources and the need to apply them in the most optimum manner.In this case serving others and bringing them to Christ and not Methodism.


  8. this argument goes in several directions; but the key is the relationship between the guaranteed appointment and the intineracy… as much as those at the top would like to deny it! i'm willing to itinerate only if my appointment is guaranteed… because we all know the system is political to the core. at some point, pastors realize that, regardless of what they do or don't, they'll rise no higher and others realize that, regardless of what they do or don't, they'll rise like cream to the top!right now the fad is youth, "old is out" and "young is in"… consider recent appointments with "whopping" raises for no apparent reason other than "young is in." next year or the next, the fad will move on to the newest "let's try this" idea. and we'll always have the "my daddy was a (fill in the blank) in the conference."so if you un-guarantee my appointment; i'm less willing to put my life (and the life of my family) in your hands. without any guarantees, i'll take my chances with a congregational call system. it's not a perfect system; but without guarantees, i'd like a jury of more than one to decide my fate.


  9. Upon joining the UMC the first commitment one makes is to the Church of Jesus Christ, then the UMC, then the local church. As a member of the universal church it is not incongruous with one's calling to challenge issues within the denominational church. We are on our way to maturing in the stature of Christ, not only as individuals, but more so as a community whose being derives from the acts of God in Jesus Christ.A system that exists in the world will always, always, always have need of leadership that is sensitive to features acquired from its contextual society in order to scrutinize their worth and comportment in accordance to the Spirit of Christ. For one to implicitly "trust" the system requires missing the point of the community of Christ on the rise to perfection. At best it is naive to assume that a human system is absolutely trustworthy.Still, one must also acknowledge and admit one's own complicity, derivation of benefit, and contribution to the system's forward progress and its wayward sway. Being part of the system gives one a better position for critique, especially considering that a negative critique works against one's own investment in systemic benefits.Therefore, I do not "trust the system" to be perfectly aligned with God's best purposes, because I find that I also am not always perfectly aligned with God's best purposes. Put another way, I perfectly trust the system to make some selfish, foolish, callous, and even destructive decisions in the name of Jesus Christ: it all started with Jesus' original disciples. Even some who agreed in purpose didn't agree in method or direction (see Paul and Barnabas).In this situation of "modernity," as Bishop Willimon calls it, hopefully we in the church have matured enough to understand that those on the front lines, though their sight is partially obscured because of proximity and such, do have an understanding of the true needs facing the church. Upper administration surely understands the present inner workings of the system. seeing that they are the principal drivers of it. In our Christian maturity, not fully trusting in our own devices and wisdom, couldn't we have discussions that include the knowledgeable input of those being "itenerated" as well as the cabinet? My own personal story is that I came from a situation that involved congregational call. Upon receiving the call from Jesus into UM ministry, my objection to having "a human tell me where God wants me to go" received a reply from Jesus: "You'll just have to trust that I can get you where I want you through human inconsistency."I've done that. Not always liked it. But have always found a point of ministry wherever. I have also noted that my "congregationally called" friends experience just as much uncertainty of place as we.As far as guarantee of appointment goes, in considering the pros and cons I have encountered, I still have to say, if the game changes and I suffer from the changes, it will be up to Jesus to keep his promise to me. Though, if I had a vote on the issue, which I don't because I am an associate member, I would vote to keep it, because I love security as much as anyone else. I just hope that I would maintain my integrity to preach and minister the way God has directed me (not that I can really escape that either).


  10. if we get back to basics, there are only two criteria on which we can base our ministry… quality or quantity. the powers-that-be want to base it on quantity because it's easier to evaluate.if they were doing their jobs, which i understand to be overseeing the ministry of their ministers, then they'd know enough to evaluate quality. but that's hard to do from the office or, more often than not, from the meeting rooms, which are often simply an excuse to be with the bishop. it's much easier to have all the ministers send in some numbers and then use them to evaluate those ministers. there is a problem; that number game gives the advantage to the liars and cheats among us. i went to a church with 30 (reported) young people and we all (five of us) went to a movie in one car! my wife and i worked hard to build a youth group with 29very active young people, and a year after we moved, those young people and their leaders were meeting with over 100 local young people… but our record (if anybody's counting) was a negative one!!!there is another problem; quantity never generates quality, but quality almost always generates quantity. so quantity is a dead end and quality is the door to success!our focus on numbers is killing us; filling out forms is the "new ministry!" we're drowning in numbers… and they are going down every year.


  11. I'm not a UMC pastor (I'm in the Church of the Nazarene), but I see a couple issues at play in the guaranteed appointment system.1) As has already been mentioned, we all must take care of our families. Pastors who are willing to take the step of joining a system of iteneracy in which one goes where one is told to go, when one is told to go, the guarantee that wherever or whenever one is sent, one will be sent and one will be able to provide for one's family. It seems to me that one without the other (iteneracy without guarantee) would be a very dangerous thing and may have the unitended consequence of producing a serious clergy shortage.2) The guarantee protects the prophetic ministry of the pastor. Since we all know how political things can be, the guarantee of appointment allows a pastor to speak the truth of God, as unpopular as it may be with the higher-ups, without fear of losing one's job. Sure, there are still ways of "punishment" if it is desired, but at least you would still have a job and be able to care for your family. (also see the idea of "tenure" in universities)


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