When last I wrote about unity in The United Methodist Church, I suggested that connectionalism, or a web of relationships between pastors and members across churches, was the true source of denominational unity. If one accepts that answer, then the question for those who want to promote denominational unity becomes how one can foster true connectionalism.
There are a number of possible answers here, all worth pursuing. Certainly, the church already has in place a number of systems that encourage people to work with and therefore get to know pastors or members from churches other than one’s own. These range from Annual and other Conferences to ministry projects to denominational interest groups and beyond. The internet is already an important way of promoting connections and will certainly increase in the future.
I’d like to suggest an additional possibility, though. One of the ways connectionalism was fostered in the early Methodist church, both in England and America, was through pastoral itinerancy. Itinerancy means moving around. In the early days of Methodism, preachers would rotate from place to place on a yearly or even weekly basis. This rotation allowed them to get to know people in various locales, carry news between locations, and building connections across geographic space. The circuit riders would change their scheduled rotations frequently, ensuring that a single preacher could end up with a broad geographic range of connections, as is evidenced by the surviving correspondences of the early preachers. Furthermore, they would meet with each other yearly if not quarterly, building connections with one another. Thus, in early Methodism, itinerancy was at the functional heart of itinerancy.
The UMC still theoretically has itinerancy for its ministers. Ministers can expect to be moved between churches, though the average frequency of such moves has fallen from every year to every seventh year. Furthermore, the number of ministers who are appointed to have charge of more than one church has decreased dramatically to only a minority of pastors. Therefore, ministers are not itinerant in the same ways they once were. I’m not saying that’s bad or we should go back to the old way; I’m just saying that ministerial itinerancy can’t play the same role in fostering connectionalism it once did.
If ministers are unable to foster connectionalism through itinerancy, then how are we to foster connectionalism? One possibility is for laity to take up a form of itinerancy. Ministers may be unable to move frequently between churches, but lay members are not tied down to a local church in the same way. Sure, many lay members have weekly responsibilities at church: teaching Sunday school, serving as greeter, etc. But these aren’t their paid employment, and laity usually have more flexibility than a pastor has.
Hence, I would like to challenge United Methodist laity to consider choosing to intentionally worship at another United Methodist church on occasion, say once every month or two. The purpose in going to another UMC congregation is to learn about them, form relationships, extend the sense of connectionalism between congregations, and create the opportunity for collaborative ministry. It’s important that such visits be distinguished from church shopping. The idea is not for the lay itinerant to look for another church, but rather to visit other churches for the sake of developing connections between them and their home congregation. I think it’s important that lay members be rooted in a congregation so that they have something to connect other churches to, so I don’t recommend itinerating every week. Nevertheless, I think occasional, intentional visits to other UMC churches would do a good deal to help us feel connected as a denomination.
It requires some courage to do this. Breaking established patterns and getting to know new people and communities always does. Nevertheless, I believe that such a form of lay itinerancy could be a real and really important form of ministry. Ministry always involves risks and takes courage. What courageous lay people will respond to this call to ministry?