We are 21st Century Circuit Riders and We Rock

“I really wish I could stay longer for fellowship time, Jim, but if I don’t leave now, I’ll be late to church #2.”

“At least you don’t have to ride a horse.”

“Does a 1969 Grabber Orange Mustang count?” (my first car)

I honestly thought it would never happen.  I sailed through 31 years of ministry, grateful to have served in almost every type of appointment: rural, downtown, urban, and county seat; pastor, program, and corporate size; associate pastor, co-pastor, solo pastor, and district superintendent.

Oops.  I forgot something.  So guess where I was appointed next?  A two-point charge.  After 5 months I’ve concluded that all clergy should have the joy of serving a multi-point charge.  How else will they know what it’s really like to be a Methodist circuit rider?

Every Sunday morning we wake up not knowing how the day will turn out but simply praying for energy and grace.  We gas up our car rather than feed our horse.  If we’re running behind, we take along breakfast, a snack, a water bottle, and even lunch if there are extra meetings after the last church service.  We carefully lay a towel across our lap so that our clothes don’t get dirty.   Although a clergy robe would neatly hide food stains, most of us don’t wear one.  Who has time to change?

We are 21st century circuit riders, and we rock!  If you’re lucky, you’ll be appointed to a multi-point charge someday as well.  I go through the checklist every Sunday before I leave:

√  Cell phone and ear piece (in case the pianist for the 2nd service calls in sick or  construction between churches appears overnight, and you’re going to be late)

√  Food (ever try preaching while your stomach is competing for attention?)

√  Extra pair of hose just in case (does not apply to all circuit riders)

√  Coat and gloves in the winter (if the heat is out in the sanctuary)

√  A fan in the summer (air conditioning is a dream in most multi-point charges)

√  Sermon and worship materials for each church (good luck keeping sins, debts, and trespasses straight)

√  A pen and pad of paper (essential for noting follow-up items in church #1 before switching gears to  give full attention to church #2)

√  A second pair of comfortable shoes (wearing heels for 6 hours doesn’t work for everyone)

√  Patience, flexibility, and good humor (in case the liturgist forgets to show up or half of the already small congregation is gone for the weekend)

We are 21st century circuit riders, and we rock!  The genius of United Methodism’s explosive growth in post-revolutionary America was its circuit-riding clergy.  In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s most Americans lived in widely scattered farms or remote villages.  Bishop Francis Asbury, the leader of early Methodism in America, ordained itinerant clergy who rode on horseback between different stops on a circuit.  The clergyman’s job was to preach, deliver the sacraments, establish weekly class meetings, and train lay people to care for each other in the clergy’s absence.  Because the circuit riders crisscrossed the frontier as America moved west, Methodists were the only religious group to conduct services in many areas.

Bishop Asbury once urged one of his circuit-riding preachers, “Feel for the power.  Feel for the power, brother.”  I now understand what Asbury meant, for the life of a circuit rider was extremely difficult.  Bishop Asbury did not want his preachers to marry lest they choose to settle down with their families and refuse to ride their circuit any longer.

A typical circuit rider was a single young man with a common school education and trained as an artisan (no women clergy yet).  After a dramatic conversion experience he would be appointed to a rural circuit of between 200 and 500 miles, which was normally completed in two to six weeks.  The average circuit rider in 1800 earned $80 a year.

These itinerant clergy rocked around the clock!  They preached almost every day of the week, starting at 5 a.m. in the summer and 6 a.m. in the winter, sharing practical religion with zeal and passion to a spiritually hungry young country.  The pace was brutal, with uncertain lodging, uneven food, poor weather conditions, illness, the danger of attack, and horses pulling up lame in the middle of nowhere.  Life expectancies were short.  At the same time the church exploded in membership.  In 1771 there were 600 Methodists in America.  Forty-five years later, when Bishop Asbury died, there were 200,000 Methodists.

In 1836 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church organized the Michigan Annual Conference, which sent a preacher to Grand Rapids every year.  The Grand River circuit was part of the Marshall District, and in 1838 two preachers were assigned to the circuit, one of whom was Allen Staples.

According to the written history of First United Methodist Church, Grand Rapids, Staples was licensed to preach in 1836.  “An ‘attractive speaker, unwearying and unceasing in the salvation of sinners,’ he over-worked himself, causing his death at the age of thirty-seven.  He had a revival on each of his charges, and after his death it was computed that he had received over 1,300 into the church during his ministry of a single decade.”  Poor Rev. Staples rocked himself to death. 

Pastoring a multi-point charge is not as grueling today as it was 200 years ago.  After all, our Mustangs are cars, not horses.  Nevertheless, the challenge is enormous.

  • Early circuit riders had very few sermons, but today the same sermon cannot always speak effectively to churches with different needs.  One size doesn’t fit all, but it’s the best we circuit riders can usually do.
  • How do you maximize your gifts in each congregation at the same time as you train, equip, and empower the laity to be the church without your full-time presence?
  • How do you treat your “children” fairly in terms of time and energy without hearing grumbling about favoritism?
  • How do you handle the grind of never having a break from preaching unless you’re on vacation?  Even when one church has a guest speaker, thinking it will help you out, they don’t usually realize that you still have to prepare a sermon for the other church.
  • How does a perfectionist learn to say “good enough,” knowing that it is impossible to give more than one church what they need in terms of pastoral leadership?
  • How do you connect with people in church #1 when you have to leave immediately after the service for church #2 and then maybe church #3?  Forget about teaching Sunday school.
  • How do you cope with the administrative demands of several churches, let alone mounds of church conference paperwork?  You think one church is a handful?  Try doing nominations work for two to three churches and attending two to three Staff Parish Relations, Trustees, Finance, program, and church council meetings.  Got any more complaints?

I often hear grumbling about small membership churches. “If they can’t grow, why don’t they close or merge?”  “Small churches can’t be vital, and their buildings are way too big.”  “Why waste our valuable clergy by making them spend hours every week in the car driving endlessly between churches that are going nowhere?”

Now that I’m rocking in the circuit rider trenches, my perspective has changed.  I love the small churches that I pastor and see their potential.  Some small churches will never grow significantly.  However, vital, transformative ministry that effectively reaches their community is usually possible.  The laity in many multi-point charges step up to the plate and assume responsibilities that are expected of pastors in larger churches.  They are committed, generous, persistent, savvy, loyal, flexible, and spiritually mature.

In addition, the possibilities are great for small churches to engage in collaborative ministry.  It’s the way of the future.  Why can’t we do youth ministry, Stephen ministry, Bible studies, outreach, and small groups together?  Why can’t we share staff?  We can, and we are!

It’s afternoon on the second Sunday of Advent.  I and my fellow 21st century circuit rockers are utterly spent, having prepared the way of the Lord, offering up to God and our churches everything that we have and are.  We are acutely aware that the energy to keep at it day after day does not come from us.  Rather, we preach what the 19th century itinerant circuit rider Henry Smith referred to as an “irresistible holy knock-em-down power.”

We are local pastors, provisional members, DSA’s, retired clergy, elders, and even bishops, and we rock!  We don’t often receive awards and accolades for church growth, but we rock.  Our churches and ministries are usually under the radar, but we are faithful, persevering, and resilient, and we rock.  We are still feeling for the power, but right now we can hardly keep our eyes open, so we rock ourselves to sleep until the Sunday night Christmas program.