Come to the Eastern Shore of Virginia two centuries ago and more and you would have found Methodist preachers traveling their circuits in pairs. It was the normal way in the early days of our denomination. Going solo was the exception. The first American Methodists formed their clergy by sending them straight to ministry with a senior preacher.
In 1788, a young William McKendree was sent to ride the Mecklenberg Circuit. He remembered the experience this way:
Mr. Cox, with whom I was appointed to travel, was an instructor and father to me. The old professors knew how to sympathize with young preachers…In this circuit there were many deeply experienced Christians, by whose walk and conversation I profited much. I hope I shall never forget how sweetly they used to talk of the triumphs of grace and the love of Jesus. After a sufficient trial, I expected the preachers would be convinced that I never would make a profitable preacher; that I should by that means returns to the comforts that I had left behind. But the year rolled round, and I was “continued on trial.” The dear people seemed unwilling to part with me, for we had spent some sweet moments together.”
—quoted in Russel E. Richey, Formation for Ministry in American Methodism: Twenty-first Century Challenges and Two Centuries of Problem-Solving [GBHEM, 2014], p. 28.
We live in a very different world now. The normal route to Methodist ministry evolved through time, enhanced by the development of seminaries and courses of study. Circuit riders settled down and located, mostly becoming lone pastors.
But maybe things are changing again.
In December I was privileged to attend a gathering of denominational leaders at Duke Divinity School to discuss the future of ministerial formation. We all agreed that there were significant challenges. Support for United Methodist students and institutions is declining, student debt is increasing, and the mission field is changing. Ministry in this new era will mean finding ways to form pastors who know how to collaborate, learn continually as they do ministry, and innovate.
I can’t help but think this means going back to the future in some ways.
The old apprenticeship model had much to recommend it. Younger clergy had the benefit of long hours spent in the company of a seasoned mentor. McKendree’s experience suggests that Methodist lay people were a significant part of his formation as well. Those new pastors were part of a team, a connexion, if you will.
At the Duke conversations in December we discerned five key themes that should be part of every pastor’s development. Some of them would have been familiar to those early circuit riders, such as biblical study and knowledge of our Wesleyan roots. Others, like developing an entrepreneurial spirit, are new to our context. But all of it could be done by pastors in active work serving in their communities.
How are we developing new leaders, lay and clergy, for ministry on the Eastern Shore? What could we do? Whatever we do, the age of the lone ranger is over, and traveling together is back.