The ministers and their families are unpacking dishes, spreading shelf paper, and meeting parishioners. But, by sundown tonight, the frenzy will have subsided and the Great Methodist Move of 1987 will be official.

It happens every year at this time. Methodist ministers receive new appointments from their bishops, and they're off. In Virginia, more than 200 ministers switched parishes on the same day -- last Tuesday.

In Maryland and the District, scores more have swapped churches and parsonages, musical-chairs style, in the past two weeks. "It's the great chain of humanity," said the Rev. Thomas L. Brunkow, "moving from pillar to post."

Brunkow, his wife Katherine and their dog Kabuki are in transit between the Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Georgetown and the University United Methodist Church in College Park.

Moving -- it's a tradition in many denominations, but especially among the United Methodists. Their ministers aren't called "itinerant pastors" for nothing. It goes back to the early 1700s, and the foundations of Methodism.

"The theory was not to have the person stay too long because they tended to get their roots down and become more concerned about their personal agenda than how to best serve the people," said Lyle E. Harper, superintendent of the Washington Central District of the United Methodist Church.

By rotating pastors, congregations also would benefit from different people with different skills, he added.

"This year, it was a short move for us," said Jessie Blalock, whose minister-husband, Charles, was transferred last week from the Dumfries United Methodist Church in Prince William County to the Graham Road United Methodist Church in Fairfax County.

"How many times have we moved?" she asked. "I'd have to stop and figure them up. Let's see, there was Lekies, Thalia, Tabernacle, Fox Hill, Elkton, Covington -- Fairmount Park was in there somewhere -- Friendship and, now, Dumfries. That's all I can think of."

"She missed one," said Charles Blalock. "There was the Beulah United Methodist Church in Richmond."

Like many families accustomed to frequent moves, the Blalocks have developed a system. "I always try to unpack my bed, the kitchen and the bathroom first," said Jessie Blalock, "and I work on the rest of it as I have time."

As she attacked cardboard boxes, her husband was at his new church office, shelving books, and pondering his first sermon. "I think I'm going to preach on 'The Direction of Your Life.' "

In the United Methodist Church, anyone can initiate a move -- the pastor, the parishioners or church officials. And everyone gets a say in the process. But, unlike many Protestant denominations, the ultimate decision is hierarchical, made by a bishop.

Some Methodist ministers stay put for a while; others move frequently. In Virginia, a minister remains in the same spot an average of 3 1/2 years, said Robert M. Blackburn, bishop of the church's Virginia Conference.

The actual moving logistics are so complex that they're worked out by computer so one family doesn't descend on a parsonage while another is still in residence.

There's even an official moving checklist so outgoing pastors won't forget crucial information: Provide for someone to welcome new family when they arrive. Adequately identify fuse box circuits. List of those needing pastoral care. Helpful comments about neighbors in your block.

In the past two weeks, roughly 20 of the area's United Methodist families have been moved by Beltway Movers Associates.

"All preachers have a lot of books," said Bernie Secrist, vice president of Beltway Movers.

"You can pretty much figure that just about everybody has a library, and just about everybody has a piano," said Secrist. "It's like 'he preaches, and she plays the piano.' Or, in the case of the Methodist ministers, 'she preaches' -- because a lot of them are women."

And the loads are big.

The reason, said Secrist, himself a Baptist minister's son, is that ministers are pack rats. "They waste nothing," he said. "Whereas, you might throw something out, or I might, they won't -- either they need it, or they'll find someone else who does."

Often, leaving seems to be more traumatic for a minister's family than for the ordinary person because, as Secrist said: "They know everybody. The whole world's been over to their house for dinner, and they've been over to everybody else's house."

Brunkow was so initially distressed about this summer's appointment to a new parish that as soon as he learned the news, he formed a grief therapy group.

"It was a wonderful thing for all of us," he said, "and for me, it was just so important to have a place to meet with parishioners, to tell them what it was like to leave them."

For the Rev. John Henry Coursey, feelings were mixed when he received notice of a new assistant pastor's appointment to the Foundry United Methodist Church on 16th Street NW.

The appointment, he knew, was prestigious, and a challenge. But he had been at his McKendree United Methodist Church at 24th Street and South Dakota Avenue NE for seven years.

In addition, Coursey was on the brink of announcing his Ward 5 candidacy for the school board when he received news of the appointment.

But, like his Methodist colleagues, Coursey heeded the call of itinerancy.

His goodbye reception was held in the church fellowship hall, and more than 200 people came. All the best parish cooks made cakes -- pineapple, coconut, lemon and pound.

"We felt that the only thing we could do was give him a public 'We thank you, we appreciate you' and wish him the best on where he's going," said Frances Barnett, 77, a retired Census Bureau supervisor, and head of the church's pastor-parish committee.

Coursey preached his last sermon at his beloved church on Father's Day.

"I didn't have a really empty feeling," he said, "until I was standing outside afterward, and some of the parishioners came outside, crying. They hugged me, and we just spent almost an hour hugging and crying."