Becoming a movement again through circuit ministry

February 24, 2020
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In response to a changing world, the Iowa Annual Conference is in the process of going through some major structural shifts right now. One of the biggest changes in the works is the adoption of a circuit model that is designed to bring clergy and lay leaders together for missional accountability and to provide a sense of connection between each other and with the conference. 

If the idea of circuits sounds a bit old-fashioned to your ear, that’s because it’s a concept that was originally established in the frontier days. Once upon a time, elders were appointed to be circuit riders and would go into different communities to preach and establish bands (essentially the “small groups” of the day) that would read scripture and pray together. The circuit riders would revisit these communities once a quarter to provide sacraments and offer leadership instruction, hoping they would eventually blossom into churches. 

Riding the circuit in the 21st century 

Fast forward to today, and new circuits are being piloted. Rev. Bill Poland, Director of New Communities of Faith, envisions them as the future of ministry in the Iowa Conference. “It’s our intention that for at least eight hours a month, the leader of the circuit will gather together all those who are pastoral leaders and a circuit lay leader who will come together to focus on leadership development around the L3 process, which is loving, learning, and leading.” 


Click here to listen to the podcast “Iowa Conference Conversations” with Rev. Bill Poland 


Rev. Poland knows from personal experience how valuable the L3 process can be. “As you meet together, trust grows. A sense of spiritual intimacy happens when we’re sharing our covenant together, when there’s spiritual accountability to how we’re living a Christian life with one another,” he explains. “That draws us nearer to each other, and that relationship can spark a transformation in the church.” 

It can also help in addressing the feelings of loneliness and isolation that many clergy members experience. “It’s hard to do ministry if you’re not feeling like others are with you, if you’re disconnected—and sometimes that disconnectedness can lead to despair,” he says, noting that they hope one of the first benefits of the circuits will be to provide a way for clergy to support one another.  

Another potential benefit is that as these lay and clergy leaders study together, and reflect on their own ministries, that they will be emboldened to reach out into their communities and to take more risks. “Because we’re so focused on survival, we become fearful of taking risk, the very risk that God has asked of us. Ministry is not intended to be a safe thing, and if we’re only doing what provides for our survival, we’re not being the church that Jesus calls us to be.” 

Getting started 

Already one circuit has been piloted, and the church communities that were involved have seen some great results, particularly with worship attendance. “They all have experienced growth and renewal in their worship service,” Rev. Poland reports. “So we see what can happen when people have a spiritual accountability built in with accountability to their mission.” 

Rev. Poland is part of the team now working on establishing several more circuits to pilot. It’s definitely an involved process, and it includes determining where those circuits will be located, who will serve as circuit leader, and how the leaders will be trained. Then pastoral leaders (who may be clergy or lay) in those circuit locations will be brought together to learn about the vision, share their concerns, and decide if they’re ready to pursue it. 

Church leaders will also learn about what the circuit model means and its benefits. “They won’t be losing their identify, but rather invited into a relationship that hopefully strengthens all. This is a way to make sure that we’ll be able to provide growing, gifted leadership, even our smallest of churches.”  

Once the pilots are up and running, they will have regular meetings with the superintendent and with conference leaders, who will be providing leadership development, while also learning how to improve the circuits by getting feedback from the pilot groups.  

“It’s our hope, as we get to July 1st of 2021, that we’ll use that leadership base to help multiply the number of circuits that we have in the Annual Conference. All through this process, it’s about leaders developing leaders—a generative process of leadership development,” he explains. 

Building from the ground up 

There will be legislation at the Iowa Annual Conference this year aiming to reduce the number of districts from eight to five, but the boundaries for these new districts have not been determined yet. “Our intention is that those lines will be malleable,” says Rev. Poland, “and the reason is because the base unit of connection as we’re going forward is our circuits, so we want to draw the district lines based on the circuits they are intended to serve. This is a way for us to help determine our structure from the ground up based on missional needs and the needs of local congregations.” 

With this new structure, churches will be able to better work together to identify ministries or missions that are important to them and their locality. “For instance,” Rev. Poland suggests, “it may be difficult for a small church to think about starting a food pantry. But with the other churches in their circuit, they can probably easily begin a ministry that’s more effective in helping to feed the hungry in the area.” They can also identify existing ministries – Women at the Well, for example – that are meaningful to them, and then come together to support them. 

Rev. Poland does counsel that patience will be necessary in this process. “It’s going to take a while for these ministries to gain shape, for the circuits to take shape. To quote the words from John in the first epistle, ‘We do not know yet what we shall become.’ God is still opening up a vision of what this might look like, and it’s going to change over time.”