Traveling preachers and tricky situations

A holy moment from the 2017 Service of Ordination and Commissioning at the 2017 Michigan Annual Conference. The Rev. Jack Harnish speaks of ordination as the authorizing of a person sent to be "the pastor in charge." ~mic photo/John Woodring

What does it mean to be “sent” not “called” to a local church? Rev. Jack Harnish reflects.

JACK HARNISH
Michigan Conference, retired pastor

We were loading up in the jeep to head out for our first evening animal drive in Africa. The delightful young guide was originally from Sweden, now living in Malawi but still carrying a touch of Scandinavian accent. He gave us all the basic instructions–stay in the jeep, keep hands inside, no loud talking. Then he ended with a line I will  never forget:  “…and if we get into any tricky situations, just do what I tell you and we will work it out together.” Considering the likelihood of encountering elephants, lions and cape buffalo, I wondered just what constituted a “tricky situation” and exactly what my part would be in working it out together.

I’ve been thinking about his advice this month as each week more clergy appointments are announced for the coming year. Time was when Methodist preachers went to annual conference in June not knowing if they were going to have a change in appointment until the bishop read their name. When I was the pastor in Ann Arbor, I wondered what it would be like to be sitting in the conference, hearing the bishop read someone else’s name for Ann Arbor, then waiting while the bishop read down the list of churches until my name was matched with another appointment. If you were going to Ypsilanti or Zilwaukee, it could be a long wait! Then the preachers would make a mad dash for the phone booths (remember those?) to call their wives and say, “Honey, start packing. We’re moving!” Thankfully, today it’s a much more civilized process with consultation and announcements made months in advance giving time for clergy and churches to prepare for the transition.

A few reflections …

First, looking back over my career, I am grateful for the Methodist itinerant tradition. From the time of my first appointment, I have valued the fact I was “sent”, not “called” to a local church. The fact I was going there under the authority of the bishop gave me a feeling of confidence realizing I was not the “hired hand” of the congregation, but rather I was the representative of the large mission of the church sent to serve in a specific place. For 40+ years I’ve carried the weight of Bishop Roy Nichols’ hand on my head and the weight of the ordination command in my heart: “Take thou authority to read the Holy Scriptures in the Church of God and preach the Word.” I knew I was being sent to be the “pastor in charge” to lead the congregation in mission and ministry. From the days of John Wesley and Frances Asbury, we have been known as Traveling Preachers who are sent on a mission, and I love it.

Second, as I think about some of the tricky situations pastors find themselves in, I am thankful for the connection of the Methodist itinerant system. I’ve seen the stress and divisions that can happen in the call system or independent churches when there is no “middleman” in the process so I am grateful for bishops and district superintendents who help guide the way through troubled times. True, all bishops and superintendents are not created equal–some do it well, some do not. But at least there is the hope they will be there to seek the best outcome for the church and the pastor.

I’m thinking of two friends in two different conferences who are going through tricky situations right now. In one case, the appointment in which he was serving has closed. At mid-50, it would be hard to find a new position in denominations with the call system, but with the help of a bishop he is being appointed to a church where he can use his gifts and the church will thrive under his leadership. In another situation, my friend has been through some difficult times in her church and thought she wanted to move, but the Bishop determined it was in her and the church’s best interests for her to stay and work through it. In the process, the superintendent has come up with some creative ways of dealing with the situation and I feel confident it will be successful. Like my Malawian tour guide, they will work it out together.

Now in retirement, I’m no longer holding my breath waiting for a call from the DS with the offer of an appointment. My name no longer appears on the list at annual conference when the Bishop “fixes” the appointments for another year. Yet even today, I carry with me the sense of my calling and my ordination.I carry with me the honor and the humbling joy of being a Traveling Preacher and I guess I always will until, as the old hymns says, “…when traveling days are over, not a shadow or a sigh.”

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