This week I am attending the North Georgia Annual Conference in Athens—Georgia, not Greece. Clergy and laity from across the state are gathered to discuss God’s work in the United Methodist Church. Annual Conference is a unique blend of business, worship, reunion, revival, celebration, and remembrance.
Traditionally, the final order of business is the fixing of appointments. (The phrase somehow suggests that the previous pastoral appointments were broken.)
In the old days (and please note I did NOT add “good”), the bishop announced the church appointments during the closing moments of conference. Ministers, spouses, and church members waited anxiously for the bishop to read the list. Pastors appointed to a new church returned home to pack, preach, and then move the following Thursday.
Thankfully, the appointment system has changed over the years. Today’s consultation process begins in January. The bishop and district superintendents make the pastoral appointments in the spring followed by an adjustment session a few weeks later. By May, every minister and church knows what to expect. This Thursday the fixing of appointments will only be a formality.
One of the unique characteristics of the United Methodist Church is that clergy are itinerant ministers. “Itinerant” literally means to travel from place to place. The bishop who oversees a geographical area appoints ordained elders to serve in local churches. This form of deploying pastors enjoys a long and rich history in our denomination.
The appointive process has changed over the decades with the evolving needs of church and culture. At one point, ministers never stayed over one year at a particular church or circuit. In my lifetime, the maximum time increased to four years. Today there is a growing recognition of the value of long-term pastorates.
Despite the changes, however, each ordained elder in the United Methodist Church is still an itinerant minister who promises to go where we’re sent. At ordination, we are asked: Do you offer yourself without reservation to be appointed and to serve as the appointive authority may determine? And we answer Yes!
In many ways, it is like signing a blank check with the currency of your life . . . and your family’s life. Elders place themselves under a bishop’s authority to serve anywhere within the bounds of an annual conference. This is a scary proposition. However, we believe that God works in, thru, and sometimes despite the appointive process.
I once heard a minister say: It is the worst system in the world—except for all of the rest of them! Most Methodist clergy would say, Amen!
Please understand that I am not complaining. The strengths of our appointive process far outweigh the weaknesses. Overall, I have seen God’s hand at work through the itinerant ministry.
I thank God for the continued opportunity in the coming year to serve the First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville. The Lord has exciting plans in store for our congregation. However, I also realize that the same system that brought me to Lawrenceville will someday send me elsewhere.
When Jesus called the first disciples, he simply said: Follow me. We don’t know what the future might hold, but we know who holds the future. And that’s enough.