We Methodists have long wrestled with this problem. The first attempt to deal with it by changing the Discipline was in 1976. But no matter what we have done, we have had difficulties coming up with a rational, theological, proper approach to sacramental ministry, since not all UM pastors are ordained. I raised a few eyebrows in our interviews today when I mentioned that the First Council of Nicea in 325 -- the first Church-wide gathering in history -- wrestled with this very same problem. It was the problem of the "country-bishops," the chorepiskopoi. Or, as we would call them, the pastors who are not "Elders in Full Connection."
The country-bishops were a class of pastors left behind by the division between bishop and pastor as the Church developed. In the beginning, "bishop/pastor" was the head elder in the local church. He was assisted by the other elders. Eventually, larger towns' congregations grew to the point where multiple parishes had to be developed to accommodate the number of Christians available and the distances between their homes. The "bishop/pastor" was the head of all of them; this is why, in Roman Catholic parlance, a "local Church" = "diocese." But the "bishop-pastor" was not able to effectively look after so many sub-groups and their various sacramental needs, so the "bishop/pastor" became simply a bishop, with presbyters (elders or priests) the pastors of the various congregations that made up what was now called a diocese (a Roman administration term).
Meanwhile, out in the hinterland, numbers didn't grow like they did in the big city. The local church in that desert oasis town started out with a "bishop/pastor," but he never had much of a crew of elders to assist him; they weren't needed. And there weren't going to be any satellite congregations to grow into full-fledged parish churches. The isolated village's "bishop/pastor" wasn't going to be able to grow into a supervisory position like the diocesan bishops who were emerging around the empire. He remained a pastor, but he had the dignity of a bishop. He was a one-man band, you might say: a one-man diocese. Without other elders to assist him, he couldn't even get ordained without asking a bishop in another locale to assist.
And so "country-bishop" came to mean "unordained pastor," and figuring out how to get the sacraments to his parishioners -- and how to pigeon-hole his ministry in the newly emergent triad of deacon-presbyter-bishop -- became an on-going problem, which I Nicea attempted to address. Chorepiskopoi continued to be employed throughout the Church for several hundred years before the status died out among other minor orders.
By the way, Elizabeth I faced the same problem when the Puritans began agitating for a learned clergy. There were thousands of parish churches across England, many of which could not provide enough of a living to retain the services of a fully qualified priest. Figuring out how to staff these tiny churches -- or to get the sacraments to other churches whose salaries went to non-resident clergy -- was an ongoing problem in the Church of England.
And then came the Methodists. They kept a high view of clergy, while yet encouraging lay preaching and lay spiritual supervision. Sacramental and pastoral issues have been lively and difficult issues since the beginnings of the Methodist movement. But our present wrangles do not represent a new problem. The Church of Jesus Christ has been wrestling with this problem for over eighteen hundred years, in one form or another.
Maybe if our leaders actually paid attention to their required Church History classes in seminary, they might look at the situation with fresh eyes. Maybe we could make our clergy system more rational and less ad hoc if we realized that the problem didn't just materialize when we hit the American frontier.