Clergy Coming and Going at Duke Memorial

Duke Memorial United Methodist Church is preparing to participate in one of the most distinctive aspects of Wesleyan Christianity – itinerancy of clergy.   In plain speech this means that the pastor whom the bishop sent to Duke Memorial for a season (all United Methodist clergy are appointed one year at a time) is now handing this church off to a new pastor who has been appointed to serve Duke Memorial. The United Methodist practice of itinerancy is deeply countercultural and demanding of clergy and laity. Some wonder if we will be able to sustain it into the future.

Our appointive (rather than a congregational call) system is against just about everything Americans believe. And yet John Wigger[1] has taught me that Francis Asbury’s great contribution to the formation of Methodism in America was his ability not simply to organize hundreds of Methodist congregations in this new land but also to persuade thousands of American Christians that our way of being the church, specifically Methodist, episcopal polity and the itinerating, appointive assignment of pastors, were gifts of God to the mission of the church. Asbury’s contributions as Methodism’s first bishop are acknowledged in his inclusion in our great Wesley Window at Duke Memorial.

Asbury convinced a Republican culture that the most effective polity was for powerful superintendents to send (usually) unmarried, circuit-riding itinerants to where they were needed to accomplish the mission of the church – a decidedly countercultural practice when compared with those church families that relied on married men who were located where they chose to be. The subordination of family, marriage, and career advancement to the mission of the church makes itinerancy a clergy deployment system that is demanding.

As a refugee from the Sixties, a student on the margins of the Civil Rights Movement’s disruption of American culture, I have loved participating in the odd, risky, requiring-constant-defense notion that the mission of the church is more important than the church’s clergy. I tell students at Duke Divinity that if they think they can stop learning, and stop growing in their ministry when they earn an M. Div. degree, they need to find a church to serve other than United Methodist! When our appointive system works best, it prods congregations and clergy into being all that God has called them to be, taking risks, changing lives for Christ. Most congregations crave continuity and overstress the value of stability, balance, and longevity. The result of these (dare I say, “unbiblical”) notions are staid congregations that fail to adapt and reinvent themselves to reach a future generation. Itinerating clergy give a church an opportunity for fresh leadership, new ways of doing ministry, and openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Methodist itinerancy may be the most demanding and dangerous clergy deployment system in Christendom. I found that one of the greatest challenges of being a bishop and administering the UM appointive system was to honor the risk, danger, and adventure that our ordained women and men sign on for when they become UM clergy.  And did I say that it can also be fun? To have your little life caught up in the larger purposes of God, going where the church says you are most needed, making new friends in Christ, and marveling at the work of God out of the way places can be a great joy.

Although Patsy and I will continue to attend this great church, I will no longer be in a leadership role after our new pastor, Heather, arrives.   Pastoral change can be invigorating for a congregation, as all UM clergy (especially all UM bishops) come from elsewhere and eventually depart. Roger and Ginger labored here for a time, then I came for a couple of months and stayed a year, and now a fresh, young pastor comes to us giving us the benefit of her insights. A stated priority of our congregation is ministry to/with young families. How fitting that the bishop is sending us the mother of young children as our pastor.

While there’s much to be said for longer pastorates, there is also value in short, focused pastorates in which we pastors do the best we can to follow God’s leading and then high tail it out of town under the cover of darkness. Clerical desire for permanence, enduring legacy, longevity, and eternality are aspirations unworthy of those who work with a living, peripatetic, itinerate, always-on-the-move Trinity.

What a joy to have had the privilege of being your pastor. Great days are ahead for Duke Memorial. Pray that God will give us the energy to keep up with a living, demanding, moving God. What fun to be the Body of Christ in motion!

Will Willimon


[1] John Wigger, American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).


3 thoughts on “Clergy Coming and Going at Duke Memorial

  1. “Surely you jest,” I said, as the DS told me the church he had in mind for me. I then rattled off the twenty reasons why this was the wrong church and why they would send me away bloody and wounded. “Yes,” he said, “If that happens, we will know why, but I was sitting in that chair over there and the Holy Spirit told me you were the guy.” Fourteen years later, it was clear this church was the most creative and energetic pastorate I ever had.


  2. Because of your teaching at Duke I have learned more about being a Christian in the last few months than I have my entire life,, How I hate to see you go ,,, best wishes for you and yours in the future ,, Russell Null St. Augustine, Fl


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