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 imagination.
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 holiness.
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 21st century.
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, Mo.