Circuit Riders

Circuit Riders

Dear friends…

The earliest expressions of the Wesleyan movements included limited licensed/ordained preachers, and relied heavily on the organization of circuits. You may recall the stories of Circuit Riders in early U.S. Methodism, as traveling preachers would visit local congregations and/or meeting groups to provide care and to preside over the sacraments.

Dr. Robert Simpson, writing for the General Board of Archives and History of the UMC, notes that these Circuit Riders:

preached daily or more often at any site available be it a log cabin, the local court house, a meeting house, or an outdoor forest setting. Unlike the pastors of settled denominations, these itinerating preachers were constantly on the move.  Their assignment was often so large it might take them 5 or 6 weeks to cover the territory.

This was a difficult life, with many of these traveling preachers riding 200 to 500 miles on horseback and preaching as much as every day. Exhaustion, illness, animal attacks, and unfriendly encounters were constant threats. Freeborn Garrettson, an early mentee of Francis Asbury, wrote this of his experience: “I was pursued by the wicked, knocked down, and left almost dead on the highway, my face scarred and bleeding and then imprisoned.” Statistically, the life expectancy of these traveling preachers was grim with many less than 30 years old at the time of their death.

In some ways, we live out this history of our denomination today. These traveling preachers were appointed to serve these areas by a bishop, sometimes for a few months and sometimes as long as a year. Today in The United Methodist Church, clergy who are commissioned and ordained commit to go and serve wherever the bishop sends (or “appoints”) them to go.

In the not-so-distant past of this denomination, Methodist pastors were moved every couple of years. I have heard clergy families tell stories of moving frequently, sometimes not even knowing where they were moving until the Annual Conference gathering. While this frequency is far less common today, the idea of one-year appointments is still part of our structure. While I have had the privilege of serving this congregation for just over five years, this has been made possible by five successive appointments. The practicality of longer appointments these days is made possible through annual appointments.

There is much conversation about whether longer appointments or shorter appointments are best for congregational growth. In a message to clergy in 2016, Bishop Grant Hagiya cited studies indicating that longer appointments make for more effective pastors. As a clergy person, I suggest that the stability of longer appointments is better for children and families. But there is healthy disagreement.

My father, Jerry, suggests that longer appointments have a tendency to allow churches to rely too heavily on their pastors. As a former SPRC chair and frequent lay speaker, he has a great passion for celebrating vibrant lay ministry. I think his understanding of the importance of lay leadership is exactly right, and would even suggest that John Wesley’s early organizational instincts with circuits and traveling preachers were effective in part because of its reliance on strong lay leadership.

Of course as a modern leader, I ask this question: is it too much to have both? If pastors are statistically more effective as they remain in a community, and if strong lay leadership leads to effective congregations, then the best chance to sustain and grow a congregation may be to have both a long appointment and strong lay leadership.

Leadership and vision are a large part of what will be taking place in the coming months. We have already announced the upcoming visioning event planned for later this month, and a sub-group of our Administrative Council is exploring ways to structure our committee leadership to be more nimble in our decision-making. Adam M-L is leading us into greater discipleship through learning and spiritual growth, and Jessee H is seeking lay persons to participate in congregational care.

As we envision the future of PB UMC, where are the greatest opportunities to serve our community? Where can we experience growth? What does “success” look like for churches in the 21st century? And consider this critical question: where do you feel God calling you to participate in the ministries of this faith community?

May we continue to seek God’s voice together…

Pastor Bob