Clergy in the United Methodist Church serve as itinerant ministers. "Itinerant" literally means "to travel from place to place." Ministers are appointed year-to-year by bishops who oversee geographical areas. 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. During my childhood, the maximum time increased to four years. Today there is a growing recognition of the value of long-term pastorates.
Despite the changes, however, all ordained elders in the United Methodist Church are still itinerant ministers who promise to go where we're sent. At our ordination, we are asked: "Do you offer yourself without reservation to be appointed and to serve as the appointive authority may determine?" And we're supposed to answer "Yes" with a straight face.
In many ways, it is like signing a blank check with the currency of your life ... and your family's lives. Elders place themselves under a bishop's authority to serve anywhere within the bounds of an annual conference. This is a sacred and scary proposition. There is an implicit belief that God works in, through, and sometimes despite the appointive system.
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. I think the strengths of our appointive process far outweigh the weaknesses. Overall, I have seen God's hand at work through the itinerant ministry. I have been sent to five appointments, and each has been a blessing in its own way. Although I will say the greatest blessing at one church came the day I left!
When we moved to Cartersville, my children were in fifth and first grades. Today my daughter is a rising junior at Emory University and my son is entering 11th grade at Cartersville High School. My wife just completed a decade of service in the Cartersville City School System teaching third grade. Ten years ago I was a spry 42-year-old -- 10 years later I'm a not-so-spry 52-year-old.
My tenure at Sam Jones has encompassed 10 years of weddings, funerals, baptisms, confirmations, Easters, and Christmases. The decade has included three capital stewardship campaigns, two major building projects, and additional property acquisition. One hundred and twenty months of sermons, Bible studies, devotions, and articles have filled the years.
I cannot begin to express how richly God has blessed me during the past 10 years. I am doubly blessed: I am blessed to be a part of this congregation and community -- and I know it.
Ever a paragon of etiquette and couth, I looked up the appropriate gift for a 10th anniversary. The traditional gifts are tin or aluminum, and the contemporary alternative is diamond. After racking my brain, I finally decided to give a gift of paper instead. This newspaper article has been 10 years in the making.
Thank you -- and thank God -- for such a grace-filled decade.
Dr. Bill Burch is the senior minister at Sam Jones Memorial United Methodist Church in downtown Cartersville. www.samjonesumc.org