Pastoral Appointments Not Always Popular

July 2022
Anna Louise Bates, Church Historian

Methodist pastors are itinerant, appointed to their stations by the bishops of their respective Annual Conferences each year.  This has always been the practice of Methodist churches, and it is largely because of itinerant circuit riders that membership in Methodist churches grew rapidly during the early years of the American republic.  Today, the trend of regularly changing appointments continues.  Bishops struggle to meet the changing needs of Methodist communities and churches, trying hard to meet the needs of the churches under their charges. 

Are the appointments always welcomed by the pastors and the congregants?  Apparently not.  In 1881, the New York Times ran a story about an unwelcome appointment to the Johnson Street Methodist Church of Brooklyn.  The Trustees of that body, unlike most Methodist churches, owned their church, and felt entitled to choose their pastor.  Their choice was John T. Hargrave, pastor of the New Paltz Methodist Episcopal Church.  Hargrave, a resident of Esopus, had been a well-liked pastor in New Paltz.  He facilitated the purchase of a new organ and organized a choir, both popular accomplishments.  However, Hargrave apparently agreed with the Trustees of the Johnson Street Church that he should be their pastor.  Despite being reappointed to New Paltz by the New York East Conference in 1881, he showed up to preach at the Johnston Street church in Brooklyn on Easter Sunday that year.  The duly appointed pastor of that church, Rev. Barnabas Reeve, was also present, and he ascended the pulpit for that service and remained the appointed pastor for the duration of his appointment.  Hargrave returned to New Paltz.  Regarding the congregants at Johnson Street, “…though outwardly acquiescent are far from satisfied, and declare themselves firm in their determination, of which determination they have sent word to both Mr. Reeve and the Conference, not to pay Mr. Reeve any salary.” (New Paltz Times 1881)  More than that, Reeve said that he “… would not stay 10 minutes if he did not have the help and sympathy of the congregation.”  Reeve won in the end.  He remained at the Johnson Street church, and an article in the Brooklyn Union later in 1881 affirmed that he was “working hard for the church, “and was “very popular.”  (The Brooklyn Union 1881) 

Hargrave remained in New Paltz for the year, but clearly incurred the wrath of the Trustees.  The New Paltz Times reported on April 5, 1882, that Hargrave “preached his farewell sermon in the M.E. Church … on Sunday morning last.  We did not notice any of the Trustees of the church present.” (New Paltz Times 1882)  More than that, Hargrave “… asked by letter to withdraw from the Conference because his views of the polity of the Methodist Church had changed.” (New Paltz Times 1882)  What is annoying to me as a historian is because he withdrew from the connection, his pastoral memoir is not in the Methodist archives.  His successor in New Paltz, J.A. Keogan, preached his first sermon to larger than usual attendance, and the New Paltz Times reported that he “made a very favorable impression.” (New Paltz Times 1882) 

This is an interesting story to ponder currently when pastors of the New York Annual Conference are settling into their new and sometimes distributed churches.  Pastors returning to their churches find themselves juggling multiple appointments due to shifts in church membership and the scarcity of pastors.  We, as United Methodists, need to appreciate more than ever the careful discernment our Bishops make when deciding pastoral appointments.