The Methodist denomination has many things in common with other Protestant churches. However, one of the unique aspects of the tradition is that many Methodist churches change pastors every few years. Why do they do this?
Methodist churches routinely change pastors because the tradition’s founder, John Wesley, believed it was best that people hear from different preachers. Methodists bishops, in cooperation with others, assign pastors to churches. Appointments are for one year, but pastors can be reappointed to the same church.
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What exactly did Wesley say about changing pastors? How do bishops and churches decide when a pastor should stay or be reappointed? Does the pastor have a say? Does the church? Keep reading to learn more.
““‘And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” Jeremiah 3:15 (ESV)
Why did John Wesley support changing pastors?
The Methodist tradition of changing pastors is rooted in John Wesley’s preaching ministry. By any measurement, Wesley’s preaching ministry was tremendously successful and so it’s not surprising that he would be persuaded that it would be wise to duplicate his methods. So what was unique about Wesley’s methods? (Also see Do Methodist Churches Have Female Pastors?)
The itinerant preacher: Wesley was an itinerant preacher, which means that he traveled to different locations to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Methodist historians estimate that he preached 40,00 sermons in his life. Wesley believed that there was great effectiveness in people hearing a new voice delivering a timeless message. When people hear the same voice over and over again, there is a risk that the message becomes stale. (Also see Methodist vs Anglican: What’s the Difference?)
Methodist societies: When Wesley traveled from town to town, he would set up “Methodist societies.” Many Methodist churches today can trace their roots to a Methodist society that Wesley started through his itinerant preaching ministry. (Also see Methodist vs Baptist: What’s the Difference?)
The “iterant pastor”? Wesley not only used the method of iterant preaching to establish Methodist societies, but he also developed an itinerant model of providing pastoral care to congregations. In a letter to the Reverend Samuel Walker in 1756, Wesley wrote,
“We have found by long and consistent experience that a frequent exchange of preachers is best. This preacher has one talent, that another; no one whom I ever yet knew has all the talents which are needful for beginning, continuing, and perfecting the work of grace in a whole congregation.” <1>
The first Methodist itinerant preachers, also called “circuit riders,” often ministered in one geographical region for about three months before being reassigned. As mentioned above, the motivation behind the reappointment was to provide unbelievers and perhaps young Methodist societies, a fresh voice explaining the gospel and how to live it out. (Also see What Do Methodists Believe About Heaven?)
Is there a biblical basis for changing pastors? Teachers in the Methodist tradition often point to passages in the New Testament that describe leaders traveling from region to region to conduct their ministry as an illustration of their methods. Paul’s missionary journeys are often cited as examples (e.g. Acts 13:2-14:7; 15:36-18:22; 18:23-21:19).
While Methodist circuit riders no longer ride horses from town to town, the tradition remains committed to frequently changing pastors in churches. <2> (Also see Methodist vs Lutheran: What’s the Difference?)
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.” Ephesians 4:11 (ESV)
Who decides when a Methodist pastor gets moved?
Methodist bishops decide when pastors are reappointed to other churches, though they seek wisdom from the church and the pastor in making their decision. Bishops also consult with district superintendents and follow the procedures outlined in The Book of Discipline. (Also see Why Do Methodists Say the Apostles Creed?)
While frequent moves can be difficult on a church and a pastor’s family, both parties understand the tradition and see value in it or they wouldn’t participate in it.
What is the bishop’s priority in making decisions to placing pastors? While bishops care about the desires of the church membership, as well as those of the pastor, what’s best for the church and the wider region is most important. A bishop may feel that it’s best to send a pastor who has had ministry success elsewhere to a struggling congregation, even though that pastor and their church would prefer to remain together.
What does the bishop consider when placing pastors? Bishops consider what a particular congregation needs with a pastor who has those spiritual gifts. For example, a bishop may believe that a certain church would benefit from a skilled evangelist. The bishop then considers who among the pastors in their jurisdiction has that skill set. (Also see Why Do Methodists Sprinkle in Baptism?)
How long are pastors appointed to a certain church? Bishops often appoint pastors for a year, though they have the liberty to remove them when they think its best. A pastor may be reappointed to the same church every year.
How is a new Methodist pastor hired?
Methodists pastors are “called” to ministry, but they are “sent” to churches. Other Protestant denominations use those terms differently, but the distinction between them in Methodism is important. (Also see Methodist vs Pentecostal: What’s the Difference?)
What is the Conference Cabinet? The Conference Cabinet is made up of the regional bishop and the superintendents of each district in a region. Every year, the Cabinet discusses which pastors will move churches. This decision isn’t made independent of churches and pastors. The Cabinet seeks input in the form of job evaluations, conservation with pastors and their families, and of course, a significant amount of prayer. (Also see What Do Methodists Believe About Death?)
Does the Cabinet decide on their own? The Cabinet, the church, and the pastor all have a vote and most of the time two out of three determines whether a pastor stays or is reappointed. For example, if the pastor and church want to remain together, they can.
Or if a church and the Cabinet think it’s best for a pastor to be reassigned, then they pastor may be moved, even if they don’t want to be. A bishop, however, can make an executive decision based on the needs in the region. (Also see Do Methodists Wear Crosses?)
The chain reaction: Often when one Methodist pastor is reappointed, there is a ripple effect in the region. The newly vacated position is filled by a pastor from another church and then that person’s position is filled by a pastor from another church and so on.