This past Sunday my brother Jim retired from 45 years as a Methodist minister. During the course of his career, he pastored nine different congregations. I wonder how many infants he’s held and whether he feels old thinking that some of those babies are now middle aged.
The Methodist church has a storied history of circuit riders: clergy who, initially on horseback, would traverse a region, ministering to the scattered congregations. John Wesley, well known as the father of Methodism, started the notion of circuit riding. He also famously issued 19 questions to be asked of clergy during the service of Ordination. One is whether he or she will visit from house to house.
Although simplistic on its surface, that question begs a deeper one: Will you minister directly to people in need? Like so many other Methodist pastors, Jim answered the call—which meant four decades of hospital visitations, comforting the frightened and the bereaved (not to mention hundreds of potlucks consumed and surgery scars shown). It is difficult to imagine another profession that is called upon to be there in such a personal way when humans are the most vulnerable.
When I was a young teen, during one of my brother’s first appointments, a little girl named Rosa in his church was tragically killed in her front yard. I was so struck by the horror of it that I wrote a poem about her—a maudlin mess of a poem that deflated the mood in my seventh period Friday high school English class. It didn’t occur to me until many years later that pastors are always one phone call away from tragic news, from irreconcilable, senseless losses.
Many people, even Methodists themselves, no longer use the term “circuit rider.” It is a label that has been obfuscated by the changing tide in organized religion. We are directed as congregations to minister to each other, and perhaps that’s the essence of making disciples, but is that enough? Have we lost that house-to-house mindset that showed we cared?
It is not lost on me that the term “circuit”—in this sense referring to a route—also pertains to an electrical charge. I wonder how many of our society’s ills could be ameliorated by such a surge of energy, from a visit from a circuit rider. Do we have circuits we ride—groups of friends we minister to—or does self-absorption keep us siloed?
Gordon Lightfoot coined the term “rainy day people” in his song of the same name. He captured the essence of what we all need, what the circuit riders have been providing for years:
“Rainy day people always seem to know when it’s time to call
Rainy day people don’t talk, they just listen till they’ve heard it all
If you get lonely, all you really need is that rainy day love
Rainy day people all know there’s no sorrow they can’t rise above…”
Although I honestly strive to be a rainy day person, I often feel more like a fair weather friend. How much do I really listen? I have been blessed, though, by circuit riders throughout my life—so many of whom have passed on. Some of these were clergy; others were dear friends who did “seem to know when it’s time to call.” In his life as a pastor, Jim would probably say he gained more than he gave. He met his wife Linda through the ministry, and she was called upon numerous times to be his rainy day person. She did so graciously.
We no longer live in an agrarian society where circuit riders deliver human contact and hopefulness to the troubled, the weary. Our pastors are no longer paid in chickens. Yet as connected as we are via our phones, computers, and social media, it feels as if we’ve lost the emotional sinews that bind us together. In a time when we are never alone, why are we often lonely?
Our circuits need mending, and our flocks are still scattered; God bless those who tend the sheep.