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Open itinerancy

Open itinerancy

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Open itinerancy

April 1, 2008    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0824}

NOTE: This is the second of three articles on the appointment process. The first, “Making appointments” [March 12, 2008 {0812}], is available at A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

The United Methodist Church has a policy of “open itinerancy” in the appointment of pastors to local churches. This is Methodist-speak for the policy of appointing pastors to churches regardless of the difference in race or ethnicity between churches and the pastors.

This is easier said than done in a church whose membership is 92 percent white. Because of this sociological reality, we United Methodists have developed a habit of talking about “cross-cultural appointments.” While this might mean the appointment of a white pastor to an African-American church or a Haitian-American to a Hispanic church, it usually means the appointment of an ethnic pastor to a predominately white church. Pastoral wisdom requires that the bishop and the cabinet try to identify churches and clergy that are “ready” for a “cross-cultural appointment” and prepare the way for it.

I do not have much appreciation for the notion of “cross-cultural appointments.” The factors of race and ethnicity should not matter much in appointments except when there are missional requirements to consider them, such as appointing a Portuguese-speaking pastor to a mission of immigrants from Brazil.

Here is where we must learn from the Roman Catholic Church. It is commonplace in the Catholic Church for predominately white congregations to be served by ethnic priests, many of whom are first-generation immigrants. No one thinks twice when the Catholic bishop appoints a black or Latino pastor to a mostly white congregation. The people accept their pastor because he is the priest. Ethnic differences do not matter in the context of the ministry of a priest to lead the people in their worship of God, their mission in the world and their spiritual pilgrimage.

Simply put, we United Methodists need to grow up. The fact that the appointment of pastors to churches sometimes becomes some special occasion called a “cross-cultural appointment” is simply a sign of our theological and spiritual immaturity. A church that wants a pastor with the same ethnicity as the members does not realize the meaning of church according to the revelation of God to the prophets and apostles in the Scripture or the Christian tradition by which the church is called to be “catholic.”

What usually happens when churches receive gratefully their new pastor who is different from them is a new growth in faith and love in the congregation. They experience being the church where “there is no longer Jew or Greek … (Galatians 3:28).” It gives them confidence to reach out to all people in their community. This is the joy the cabinet and I want to offer to you as we observe the policy of “open-itinerancy” in The United Methodist Church.


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.