The itinerancy of ministry

“Foxes have dens, and the birds in the sky have their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” So said Jesus during his years of ministry as he wandered from town to town.

Boy, I know how he feels. It hit me tonight, when I was eating at Sally’s Apizza in New Haven. (Pizza is called “apizza” out here–a Southern Italian dialect thing, apparently.) Yale students like to argue about the best pizza in town, and two of the main rivals–Sally’s and Pepe’s–are on the same street in the Little Italy area of Wooster Square, New Haven. We change our pizza loyalties frequently, wandering from pizzeria to pizzeria.

I tried Sally’s for the first time tonight, and while I was eating, the waiter was joking around with the customers in the booth behind me. They have been going to Sally’s Apizza on Tuesday night, always ordering the same thing, for THIRTY years. He knew exactly what they wanted. (The waiters and pizza makers look like they’ve been there for thirty years, too.) And then, I made a newbie error: I tried to pay with a debit card, but they only take cash. The woman at the cash register looked at me as if I should have known this, but how could I? I wasn’t a regular. I haven’t been a regular any place except Yale Divinity School for two years.

The reason this struck me, as I ran out into the cold evening to find an ATM machine, is that I haven’t been any place for thirty years, and I don’t know that I ever will, given my future ministry. I lived in the same town during my childhood, but after that, it was college in one place, grad. school in another, then a few years in one place, a few years in another place.

While I’m in divinity school, the ground is always changing beneath me too. In a few weeks, I will be done with my internship parish and will move on to another one with a whole new set of people. After June of 2012, I have no idea where I will be or what I will be doing. And the phenomenon of itinerancy isn’t limited to seminary life: I know many people in ordained ministry who move every few years.

Some churches encourage that to avoid the cult forming around a church leader or a certain inertia setting in. I know ministers who refuse to stay any place for more than, say, seven years. Some of them point to the apostle Paul’s itinerant ministry as a model.

I can definitely see the advantage of avoiding a cult forming around a church leader, and I can see the excitement of a new town, a new church, a new university, a new call, a new mission. But tonight, I am counting the cost of having to run out into the cold night to find an ATM machine because I am not a regular. And I am wondering when I will be in a place long enough to know others really well and to be really known by them.

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