I have recently wrestled with the age-old problem of ecclesial supply and demand: too many churches, not enough pastors.
In the case of the Cameroon Mission, the problem is particularly acute because of poor transportation and communication networks, as well as a lack of adequately trained people.
I was comforted by the fact that John Wesley had the same problem in 18th century England during the revivals. And I became intrigued by his solution â€“ organize the cell groups and societies into â€œcircuitsâ€ and train a team of lay preachers to visit them in a kind of rotation. On the American frontier, this idea was exploited to its fullest to reach pioneers and on-the-go adventurers.
When I served as a pastor in England ten years ago, I discovered that the British Methodists are still organized in this way. In my case, I served as one of three clergypersons in a circuit of five congregations. Every week, I preached in one of the five churches, though I had pastoral responsibilities for only two of the churches.
Wes goes on to add that they are re-inventing the Circuit to suit the circumstances they find themselves in.
For me, one of the gifts that Methodism offers to the wider church is its connexionalism (we always spell it with the ‘x’ in British Methodism). Congregations are not isolated units, but accountable to and for one another. One of the ways we express this sense of connexion is through the Circuit, which in Britain is the local focus for mission. Every church belongs to a Circuit, and it is Circuits, not churches, to which ministers are appointed. Preaching appointments are organized by the Circuit Superintendent, and services (in some circuits, the majority of services) are conducted by ‘Local Preachers’ whose calling has been tested by the church and who have gone through a programme of rigorous training.
In my perfect church set-up, I agree with Wes that there should be a pastor in every church. But even where that is possible, I would still want to retain the Circuit. Usually we say something like ‘Through the Circuit, the strong churches support the weak’, but I don’t think that is quite right. Rather, I’d say that through the Circuit, local churches are able to get a wider perspective than that of their own immediate neighbourhood. The Circuit enables mission and ministry to continue at the margins, but the traffic is not one way because through the Circuit the ’stronger’ churches (by which we usually mean, the ones with the most money) are obliged to listen to the voice of the margins.
I’m glad Wes has rediscovered the Circuit system. I wish the British church would rediscover it too.