John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, used an itinerant (appointment) system to assign pastors. The goal was to spread scriptural holiness deploying pastors to grow disciples, grow congregations and start new congregations. Pastors generally served circuits in which there were a number of congregations on the same circuit. In the 1800’s some circuits had as many as 18 churches.
Appointing pastors was very effective, particularly in America where the population was growing and mobile. Pastors traveled from church to church to share the Good News. The system depended on the laity to form and lead weekly class meetings (small groups) where disciples worshiped, fellowshipped, studied, served and witnessed to keep the Methodist movement growing.
In the early years of Methodism, the itinerant system moved pastors within the first year and certainly by the second year to a new circuit. Lay leadership was the stabilizing force that kept the church growing and changing as the population grew and evolved. Often, class meetings were organized and a congregation started before a pastor was assigned.
As the population began to settle and reside in a particular area, towns were established. Pastors also settled, which changed the dynamics of pastoral tenure, pay, and responsibilities. In the early 1900’s, pastors began to stay in an appointment longer, assumed responsibility to organize small groups, led studies, evangelized, and provided care for the sick The laity began to relinquish much of their ministry to pastors. This is about the same time that the Methodist Church, which had been the fastest growing denomination, began to level off in its growth.
While short tenure appointments served the church well in the early part of Methodism, today’s experience indicates that short-term appointments is one reasons for decline. Congregations with appointments of seven or more years in which laity are called, equipped, sent, and supported to do the ministry as the early Methodist laity did, are more often growing disciples and congregations.
There are many issues facing the itinerant system today: rising benefit costs, salary needs, and the wide range of types and styles of congregations. The appointment system will continue to emerge and evolve as a system to address the changing needs of congregations and pastors. Through these changes, the goal of the itinerant system is to be a dynamic vehicle for making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The Greater New Jersey Conference is blessed with Spirit-filled pastors and laity who through the appointment system capture the evangelistic and social action fervor of John Wesley. The conference supports and resources pastors and congregations through leadership development ministries so that all of the churches are faithful and fruitful congregations and each pastor is fulfilled in her/his calling.