Fitzgerald to be first conference circuit pastor

David Burke


The Rev. Dr. Richard Fitzgerald’s new role with the Great Plains Conference will be somewhat of a 21st century circuit rider, traveling throughout Kansas and Nebraska to work alongside small churches where clergy might not be available. 

Fitzgerald, senior pastor of Salina First United Methodist Church since 2019, will begin July 1 as the conference circuit pastor. 

“Richard will be traveling around, coordinating with the local churches and the lay people in the region, defining what a circuit is, doing training for the lay leadership in that space,” said the Rev. Jeff Clinger, director of congregational excellence. “The training will include everything from Sunday morning worship leadership and preaching rhythms to pastoral care rhythms, even doing funerals.” 

The Rev. Dr. Richard Fitzgerald, seen here in 2021, will begin his new position in July. File photo

Circuit riders are unique to the Methodist heritage, where a pastor would be appointed to be a traveling minister (on horseback) to small and emerging churches with the expectation that he would visit each charge once a year. 

The expectations for Fitzgerald, Clinger said, are in-person visits to each circuit once a month. 

Fitzgerald said he was looking forward to the new role. 

“It’s an exciting offer,” he said. “It’s something that I have thought was needed for some years, and it’s right down the line of my passion — small churches and helping lay people move into a greater expression of God’s call in their lives.” 

The newly forming circuits, Clinger said, may include churches that remained in their parish after another church voted to disaffiliate. 

The work is an expansion of what Fitzgerald has already been doing with five churches near Salina. 

Clinger said the Rev. Karen Rice Ratzlaff, Salina and Hutchinson districts superintendent, has been complimentary on the work Fitzgerald has done while serving at Salina First UMC. Fitzgerald has been “helping coordinate some of the churches that do not have a pastor assigned to them,” Clinger said. “She has credited him with several churches staying connected and seeing the value in that.” 

Fitzgerald said it has been difficult to balance the work with the smaller churches and his duties as a senior pastor of a larger church. 

“There’s just not enough time to spend focusing on the little churches when you have a church that has 200 people and two services a week,” he said. 

Clinger said the new position was part of a “three-year experiment.” 

“We’ll see if we can get to the other side of disaffiliation, the other side of General Conference (in 2024) and have a better idea of how the alignments work in different parishes, and see if something like this needs to continue,” he said. 

Clinger said the new position reaches out to smaller churches in a concerted effort to help them adapt to years of change and uncertainty. 

“I hope people receive this as the conference experimenting and investing how we can best serve smaller churches in rural areas that might not be connected in traditional ways after disaffiliations,” he said. 

Fitzgerald, 59, earned a bachelor’s degree in math and science from Northwest Missouri State, a master’s of divinity from Saint Paul School of Theology, and a doctorate in Wesleyan practice from Ashland Theological Seminary. After 20 years as an associate pastor at a nondenominational church, he moved to the former Kansas East Conference, where he directed lay speaking ministries. 

He has served as pastor at Wellsville, Greeley-Garnett and Johnson-Richfield before his appointment to Salina First. 

A native of northwest Missouri and the son of a United Methodist pastor, Fitzgerald said he has always had a heart for small churches. 

“I’ve been involved with lots of people on lots of levels, and I have lots of connections,” he said. 

Fitzgerald said he is looking forward to working with the variety of challenges in the conference, and the differences between the east and west, north and south areas of each state. 

“Even in a settled time, this kind of position would require the ability to be flexible and operate within different contexts all the time,” he said. “I do think that given this kind of situation with the unsettledness, with disaffiliations and other things, that the complexities of what I have to be flexible with increases.” 

Fitzgerald said he is looking forward to the new role. 

“I like starting new things, so this is a good thing,” he said with a laugh, “I like organized chaos.” 


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