A Moving Witness
Life was going well in my St. Louis-suburban
parish ministry. Just eight months earlier, the congregation I served
took a bold and faithful step to reach out to the more than 50,000
unchurched people in our growing area by launching a ‘second site’
contemporary worship service in a local elementary school. This
new outreach worship service added to the already vibrant ministry
life of an established congregation with two blended worship services.
A three-year vision was beginning to bear fruit beyond my wildest
And then the phone call came. My husband answered
the phone. It was 9 p.m. From the look on his face, it wasn’t a
family member. It was the district superintendent. “Amy,” she said,
“I’m calling about an appointment.”
My family flashes before my eyes. I think of
Doug, my husband, who has moved with me to four parishes in just
12 years since seminary. He’s finally found a niche in the new band,
and a move would require his leaving the corporate headquarters
of the company where he works. Nine-year-old Hannah and six-year-old
Chloe are making friends at church and school. Their cousins and
grandparents, who live near our current church, have been such a
source of comfort and constancy.
And what about the home we purchased 10 months
ago, when the congregation decided to sell its parsonage (a decision
we heartily agreed with) as a part of its long range vision?
Then the faces of those whom I’ve cared for, buried,
married, baptized and loved surround me. I see Chloe Grace, the
one-year-old I baptized who, every time she comes to church to see
me, pats her head in the place where water poured from my palm.
I see Margaret, the double amputee, whose spirit
died the day her husband did, but whose body didn’t die until last
spring. I see William, the tough and stoic church leader, who wept
as his wife with lung cancer, his three daughters, and 10 grandchildren
celebrated communion with small plastic medicine cups the night
before her cancer surgery. I see Kim and Brian, who have poured
their money, time and efforts into this new vision, always reminding
me that it isn’t about us, but about the God who dreams big.
My love for these people seems more real than
it ever has. I know the grief has begun, because the virtues of
those relationships are far more accessible than the struggles and
shortcomings of our ministry together.
But along with the faces and names, come the
words of a promise made long ago at ordination: “In covenant with
other elders, will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church,
accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine and discipline, defending
it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and accepting
the authority of those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?”
The words are rooted in an experience of a grace-filled covenant,
initiated first by God. They require a covenant response to live
under authority and to itinerate according to the church’s discipline.
In her enlightening article “Willingness to Move”
(Circuit Rider, May/June 2005), Laceye Warner explores
how the early practice of itinerancy in the Methodist tradition
was a very pragmatic plan for deploying clergy. Itinerancy was a
necessary method for fulfilling Methodism’s mission to spread scriptural
Both as an itinerating Elder in the United Methodist
Church and as one who serves on our Conference’s Board of Ordained
Ministry, I have experienced, very personally, the implications
and difficulties of this historic practice for our Church in the
21st century. In this most recent move, however, filled with discernment,
prayer, grief, excitement and holy conversation, I have embraced
the notion that the United Methodist Church needs to wrestle with
this practice as a counter-cultural, theological witness for the
Roman Catholic priest and civil rights leader
Richard John Neuhaus, writing about ordained ministry said, “When
we are afraid to act upon the difference to which we’ve been called,
we inhibit others from acting upon the difference to which they
are called.” (“The Pursuit of Holiness,” as excerpted from Pastor:
A Reader for Ordained Ministry, William Willimon, Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 2002)
The theological act of itinerancy is a real-life
response of obedience and discipleship. Itineration witnesses to
our biblical story of leaving and going in obedience to the call
of God. In this age of reality-TV, the practice of itinerancy invites
a congregation to look on the lives of a pastor and her/his family
and consider how the gospel calls us all to live changed lives.
As I spoke and prayed with members of the congregation
I had been called to leave, I was struck by how my calling challenged
them. Many asked themselves, “What am I called to let go of?” and
“What does my life of obedience look like?”
Carol, the timid disciple who shared time-and-again
how she is the Samaritan woman in John 4, shared that she felt called
to leave her home and work and, after years of consideration, relocate
to Hawaii to live with relatives who needed her help. Michael, an
engineer and the church finance chair, shared that he felt led to
consider putting off retirement for another year so that he could
donate those earnings to the ministry vision of the church—all done
in obedience to God’s work in his life!
The practice of itinerancy also witnesses to a
theology of covenant-keeping in response to God’s covenant with
us in Christ. In a culture that seems to encourage the casual making
and breaking of commitments, the priestly role of guarding and keeping
covenant with our very lives is both sacred and sacramental. We
are drawn closer into the body of Christ.
I am encouraged by the spirited and creative dialogue
within our denomination about the issues surrounding the practice
of itinerancy in today’s church. I trust that the church will be
blessed and strengthened as the conversation balances both the practical
and theological realities of this historic tradition.
When I look on my ministry in the context of those
who serve Christ throughout the world, I realize there is very little
that I do to make a counter-cultural witness to a life changed by
the gospel of Jesus Christ. I enjoy a pension, health insurance,
a guaranteed appointment, a generous salary, a home to live in,
and the privilege of a community that surrounds me in shared ministry.
Itinerancy becomes a gift that allows us to live out our faith in
a sacramental and incarnational way.
As I move another household, help my kids transition
to new schools, encourage my spouse in career and relationship changes,
and ask to be graciously received into a new congregation’s life
and story, I feel blessed to be included in our amazing Covenant-story,
and in obedience and hopefulness, I go.
Rev. Amy Gearhart Sage D’93 currently
serves as the chair of the Missouri Conference Board of Ordained
Ministry and senior pastor of historic Central UMC in Kansas City,