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When Itinerant Ministry Means Staying Put

By Scott N. Field D’79


I n 1980, the year after I completed my master of theology at Duke, I was appointed to a rural congregation with worship attendance of less than 50 and a Sunday school of 18.

A member of that pastor parish relations committee told me recently, “We figured when the district superintendent came to that meeting and introduced you as our new pastor, either we had to take you, or we’d be closed.”

Since then I have been reappointed to Wheatland Salem United Methodist Church 30 times. During those years our church has become the second largest in terms of worship attendance and apportionments within the Northern Illinois Conference. We’ve bought, built, expanded, relocated, and expanded again. We’ve launched 10 persons into full-time ministry, sent six full-time missionaries into cross-cultural work, and currently support five seminarians from within this congregation.

At a 30th-anniversary celebration last fall, the congregation surprised me with a book filled with more than 200 letters of appreciation, presented by Eileen Schroeder, 91, who was among the members I met at that first meeting. “Thirty years is a good start,” I said, “but we’re still growing. We’re not done.”

Here’s what I’ve learned during the 30 years of my first appointment:

  • If you don’t take care of yourself, nobody else will. You are worthless to lead ministry unless you are well enough to do and be what God calls you to do and be.

  • There is not a job opening in the Trinity. Don’t even attempt an internship. You are a servant of Christ, not the other way around.

  • Congregations can have a number of different pastors. Neither your spouse nor your children have another you. Set boundaries that let your personal relationships thrive.

  • The Pareto principle applies to ministry as well as mathematics: four out of five days you’ll be dealing with matters you consider unimportant; one out of five days you’ll have genuine missional opportunities. Make the most of the 20 percent, which will provide 80 percent of your results.

  • Think, dream, pray, and plan about what “doing church” will be like in 50 years. Prepare your congregation to help today’s baptized babies do church in 2060 by the kind of Christian education, confirmation, worship, and spiritual formation provided now.

  • Give your best efforts to confident, gracious, informed preaching of the Word of God for your particular congregation on that particular occasion. Burn, shred, or delete your old sermons. Leftovers won’t sustain a community of believers.

  • Spend enough time with God and with God’s Word that your people will recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd in the words of their local shepherd.

  • Don’t believe more than a quarter of the wonderful things people say about you; don’t believe more than half of what they say against you.

  • Be cross-cultural: if you are not a digital native, make sure you have one to show you the way in the world of communication technology. There are no other options here.

  • When your initiative for positive change is met with “no,” take your time and provide additional opportunities to say “yes.”

  • Don’t hide behind your collar or your stole. Share your life and faith in appropriate ways with those you lead.

  • Your people need you to be a pastor, a priest, and a prophet, but rarely require you to be all three at the same time. Figure out which role is most needed at what time and show up appropriately.

  • The missional community of the church is often a zero-sum equation. If you press the missional side to move forward, the community fabric will stretch and fray. If you tend to the stretched and frayed fabric of the congregational community, the missional momentum will dissipate. Be aware of which side of the equation requires resources at any given time.

  • That part of the Bible about “avoiding every appearance of evil”? Follow it carefully.

  • Renewal is a work of the Holy Spirit, not getting the right program. You are responsible to gather and arrange the kindling; the Holy Spirit brings the fire.

  • At least once each year propose something sure to fail unless God makes a way.

  • Never agree to kiss a pig, shave your head, or yodel from the steeple if a fundraising goal is reached. You trivialize yourself, your calling, and the congregation’s need for regular, proportionate financial stewardship.

  • The most important question before you and your congregation is always: “What year is it?” This is 2010. A critical part of your role is engaging your people in contemporary reality.

  • Tithe.

  • To accelerate spiritual formation, get your parishioners out of the United States on a cross-cultural, short-term, hands-on mission trip.

  • There are two myths about church growth: first is that churches can grow without change; second is that churches can change without conflict. Don’t fall for either myth.

  • If you spend more time looking in the rearview mirror than keeping your eye on the road ahead, it is time to move, retire, or find a different line of work.

Scott N. Field is the senior pastor at Wheatland Salem United Methodist Church in Naperville, Ill., where he has served since 1980. Learn more about the church, which is involved in missions in Tanzania, Haiti, and India, at