This week I was in Athens, Georgia, for the North Georgia Annual Conference, alongside a couple thousand United Methodist pastors and laypeople. I’m pleased to confirm that this blog post, which I wrote in 2012 in the wake of another Annual Conference, remains applicable today.
Last week, when a parishioner found out that Annual Conference was this week, he asked me if there would be any surprises. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Don’t you find out whether you’ll be moving at Annual Conference?”
In case you’re not Methodist, you may not know that we ordained elders are itinerant. This means that we serve our churches or other ministries on a year-by-year basis. Each year, we are appointed (or reappointed) to a church or other ministry. That appointment or reappointment officially takes place at Annual Conference. In the early days of Methodism in America, circuit-riding preachers would often find out at Annual Conference where they would be serving in the upcoming year and ride off to their new appointment.
Things have changed since then. We pastors usually know weeks in advance of Annual Conference where we’ll be serving. We may be surprised, but the surprise occurs long before Conference. As I told my parishioner, there would be no surprises this year. I have been reappointed as an associate pastor at Alpharetta First—and happily so.
I love this church. I love my ministry with the Vinebranch community. I love the people I work with. And I have a lot of work that I still want to accomplish here.
That being said, I’m well aware that itinerating can be painful for my colleagues in Methodist ministry—as it will be for me some day. So consider this post a letter to my future self—when it’s my time for me to move to a place I don’t want to go to.
God is in charge, not me. Did you hear that, Brent? God is in charge—of my life, my family, my marriage, my home, and, of course, my pastoral ministry. God is in charge of the place I’ll be sent to next, and the place after that, and the place after that. In fact, even though the bishop is the one who calls my name and tells me where I’m going, God is the one who does the sending, not him or her. I don’t even have to like it. But God is still in charge.
There is a theological word that describes God’s being in charge. And it’s a word to which some of my colleagues in Methodist ministry are allergic: sovereignty. God is sovereign. We Methodists don’t like to use this word because we fear that it means we’re only a few inches away from believing that God predestines some people to hell—or whatever. It’s ridiculous. Or maybe we think that believing that God calls the shots in our ministry means that we forfeit the right to complain about it.
No. Complain all you want, I say. Complaining to God is downright biblical. But God is still in charge.
Wesley believed in God’s sovereignty in a way that might shock our modern Methodist sensibilities. He even adapted and prayed the following words for our covenant prayer:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
So, Brent, when you are tempted to complain about a future appointment; when you feel entitled to a more prestigious, more lucrative, more geographically attractive appointment; when you feel like you’re being treated unfairly by the system; when you feel like less-deserving colleagues are being appointed ahead of you, please ask yourself: what part of “let me be… laid aside for thee…” and “let me be empty” do you not understand?
Who knows? By kicking against the goads of an itinerant system that you signed up for when you chose to become a Methodist pastor, you risk missing out on the blessing that God has for you in your new appointment. Maybe, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, it will be a severe blessing, but a blessing nonetheless. God has his reasons for sending you there. Trust in him—not in the United Methodist Church or the bishop or the itinerant system. Trust in God. God is in charge.