The Re-Districting Debate

A very wise person once said, “The highest form of insanity is to do the same thing over and over expecting different results.”

The United Methodist Church exists in a world that is constantly changing, yet we often seem slow to adapt. A few conferences in the United Methodist Church have taken bold steps in redistricting to help local churches in their mission of making disciples. These conferences are attempting to respond to changing culture and demographics. The Florida and North Alabama Conferences come immediately to mind. Florida recently downsized from 14 to 9 districts. North Alabama voted in January 2006 to downsize from 12 to 8. The resulting dramatic decreases in the number of districts were intentional. Both conferences wanted to force the new districts to implement new and radical ways of doing ministry. This past year, Bishop Timothy Whitaker of Florida penned a letter to North Alabama making the case for dramatic cuts in the number of districts. He shared how Florida was compelled to think and act differently about district structures because they made the decision to downsize radically. If they had only downsized by one or two districts, they would have been tempted to engage in business as usual. This would have led to overworked district superintendents and would have proved all the naysayers correct. Instead, they acted decisively which forced fundamental change.

The South Georgia Conference formed a task force in 2005 to study district structures. South Georgia has discussed this issue before. In years past, those who fought against downsizing and restructuring insisted South Georgia’s growth would be hindered if the number of districts were cut. South Georgia has shown more net losses in membership than gains in recent years. Maintaining the number of districts is apparently not the answer for producing evangelistic growth in our conference.

Maybe it is time to think in new, unconventional ways. Maybe we should take a new approach. Other conferences could study North Alabama and Florida to see what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to restructuring districts. North Alabama is asking some challenging questions about the work of districts. Some of the questions they are asking include: “Can a group of elders assist the DS in the supervision of churches and clergy?”; “What projects will occupy the DS?”; “What will be the priorities in the DS’s time?”; “What will the DS say NO to that previous DS’s could not?”; “Will the districts set up an accountability team for the District and who will serve on it?”; “How will the new DS and district keep itself spiritually formed and theologically committed rather than simply administratively, bureaucratically preoccupied?”; “How will the new district constantly evaluate itself and its faithfulness to its mission?”; and, “How will it hold itself accountable to results and outcomes of its work?”

Reducing districts is not a magic answer, but it might be one bold change that could ignite the creative energies of a new generation. It would certainly force us to do ministry differently. It would compel us to utilize new decision-making processes, and call us to work more closely together, strengthening our connection.

Finally, many people I have talked with would like to see radical downsizing of districts solely because it would save money. The financial impact could certainly open up other avenues for ministry and allow the strategic reallocation of staff, but our primary reason behind making these changes should be missional.

Some people might say change for change sake is unwise. Why risk it? Another wise person once said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you always get what you’ve always got”. It might be time for a change.

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