Avoiding the Short Circuit

What would happen if…we appoint pastors to circuit-based ministries to develop new faith communities, language ministries, innovations, and shared ministry/staffing under the supervision and leadership of a circuit leader?

The first church I attended after my conversion at age 13 was the Prague UMC in Prague, Oklahoma. Our pastor, known as “Brother Larry”, had a two-point circuit. Prague was a small rural town of about 3,000 people. His other “point” in that circuit was in an even smaller town to the north. Each Sunday he made the trek between the two locations. There are many locations here in the west where pastors do the exact same thing each week.

The struggle we face in the west is that the nature of rural ministry has changed dramatically. Rather than serving only one cultural community, our rural churches are facing issues of poverty and immigration as a normal part of their work. The complexities of rural life in the west have serious implications. How can our small rural churches face the complexities of rural ministry?

The same issues face many of our urban ministries. The criminalization of poverty, the “school-to-prison” pipeline, and a whole host of other issues make the complexity of ministry staggering. How can a small church (less than 100) in the urban center hope to grow their ministry and impact their communities for Christ?

When most of our churches were part of the dominant Caucasian-European culture, pastors and leaders were somewhat interchangeable. Pastors, like my beloved Brother Larry, could serve in a variety of places and would be expected to perform similar duties. With rural and urban ministries now so complex and diverse, the way we think about our clergy, locations, and appointments need to change. Could the entire itinerant system used for appointments be calibrated for a world that is no longer here?

As a local church pastor for over twenty years, I have heard countless times about mission areas, clusters, groups, and circuits of churches. All of these efforts have been well-intended, but seldom have they been effective with a coherent strategy for church vitality. There is a way to use circuits to engage the diversity of our ministry together. It has to do with appointment making.

Last week I shared about how every local church needs to have a “vocation” for its location. The deployment of clergy leaders needs to be the same. Some pastors have a deep set of skills in community development. Some have skills that are entrepreneurial. Others have skills dealing with age-level ministries like children and youth. Some are strategic leaders. Some speak more than one language.

Consider for a moment looking at an area’s needs, rural or urban. What are the needs in the communities in that area? Poverty? Immigration? Isolation? Now, where do we have locations in that area? Where do we NEED new locations in that area? Once those needs are named and we look carefully at our current and potential locations, we now need a team. What are the skills, gifts, and callings needed to address those needs? Perhaps that area needs a church planter, a community developer, a social innovator, and a Spanish-speaking leader. What would happen if Bishops and Cabinets appointed teams to that area and call it a circuit? Pastors with particular skills and gifts serving not just one location, but an entire area.

Pastors can rotate and move between locations serving with their best gifts while allowing other members of their team to use their gifts. Team ministry. We can leverage the very best gifts of our clergy for the area, or circuit, they serve. One of these pastors is the circuit leader who supervises the overall ministry and reports to the district superintendent. (Administrative functions could even be housed at one of the circuit churches.)

However, if circuit-based appointments are to work, the role of lay leadership needs to be completely redefined. Programs like Lay Servant Ministry and Certified Lay Ministers must be shaped to make them ministry leaders and innovators. Serving alongside their pastoral counterparts these leaders support the “vocation” of each location. Pastors move between locations whereas most of the highly trained and competent lay leaders serve as the primary stewards of the vision and vocation of their respective locations.

Imagine how this would redefine connectionalism! Our ministries would be shared between locations. We would have deeper resources for language ministries, new congregations, faithful discipleship, and robust social engagement. Lay persons in each church would see the connection at work in their churches. By serving and working as teams, both lay and clergy, each location would have a much broader “vocation.”

There are challenges here. How do local churches shift from having their “own” pastor to a team? How do pastors manage the travel between locations on a weekly or even daily basis? How does pastoral care happen? With highly developed teams, both lay and clergy, these questions can be addressed. Will the solutions look like they always have? Certainly not. But new solutions will emerge. Our current methodology of trying to have one small church do just about everything no longer serves us well.

If each circuit has a leader who supervises the other pastors, how will this change the work of the district superintendent? It will radically change the nature of that work.

Next week let’s explore what it might look like to have superintendents supervise no more than 12 circuits rather than 75 different churches.
This blog entry is part of a larger series about a shared aspiration for the future of the United Methodist Church. These aspirations are framed by three things: 1) making the local church the center of our life together, 2) innovative leadership marks our future path, 2) a connectional church that is inverted for the benefit of local ministry. Over the next few months, let’s explore each of these in detail and how we might live out a new way of being Methodist.


  1. I believe your thoughts are right on if we are to really live into making disciples that make disciples…and become a movement once again

  2. In George G. Hunter III’s “The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement,” he contends that “…our recovery of Methodist Christianity and our move from institutional to movemental Christianity would involve the recovery of at least three bold directions in ministry…: lay ministers, small groups, and missional Christianity.” You’ve begun to color in the outline he provides! Why not begin to experiment?

Comments are closed.