Is Less More? Reducing Districts in South Georgia

A few years ago, I made a motion on the floor of conference to study the organization of districts in the South Georgia Conference. The motion included the focus of restructuring/downsizing to enable our conference to better make disciples, which is our primary mission. A study commission was formed and they came back the next year recommending we keep our current 9 districts. Some good came out of the motion…they did consolidate the accounting practices/procedures of the districts so that all budgeting/accounting now goes through the conference office. (If you are not sure why that is a good thing, we’ll talk later.)

This year, Mrs. Helen Rhea Stumbo made another motion to study the number of district in the South Georgia Conference. She asked the Bishop and the Cabinet to engage in this study and bring back a report in June 2012.

In going through some older files, I came across notes from my motion that were never included in the study commission then and thought I might share some of them with you. Much of this information came from the North Alabama Conference which studied the same thing several years ago. They decided, like the Florida Conference before them, that a reduction of districts was necessary for two primary reasons: 1) it saved the conference a tremendous amount of money, and 2) it forced the conference to think differently about how it functions and carries out its mission of making disciples. Here are a few of the factors that I pulled together, including quotes from Bishop Whitaker in Florida and Bishop Willimon in North Alabama.

  1. Most conferences have geographical boundaries that were set many, many years ago around old lines that are in some cases, irrelevant;
  2. While South Georgia may not have undergone incredible demographic shifts as a whole, some districts lines don’t make a lot of sense. You know as well as I that the Statesboro District lines make little sense to anyone. Why couldn’t it be absorbed by Savannah and Waycross? Don’t argue the current district setup as to drive time for DS’s or number of churches (we have to think differently about when DS’s are present in local churches), rather revisit the boundaries based on missional needs and changes over the past 30 years.
  3. Several years ago, I argued that relevancy cries for the South Georgia Conference to relate differently to the local church, especially regarding the potentially transformational role of the district superintendent; the problem with this point is I think I’ve changed my mind. I think larger districts should force the job of the DS into a more supervisory/administrative/visionary creative leadership role for churches that need it rather than “pastor to the pastors” and “visit every church in the district”. The pastoral role should come out of the covenant of elders, deacons, and local pastors. And the truth is, some churches don’t need the DS’s assistance or presence…others desperately need them involved.
  4. I think we should reduce districts by 3 to 6 districts in South Georgia, but I believe our focus should not be only financial. There should be careful-purposed alignment of all the resources (all!!!) around the mission of the church of making disciples for Jesus Christ. This would not only pull in Connectional Ministries and NRCD for greater function and responsibility, it could actually financially resource them MORE so they could actually assist in training around disciple making in district work. We also need to recapture a coaching/mentoring mentality where larger/stronger churches partner with smaller/weaker ones.
  5. One argument I hear from Bishops is fewer districts means less connectionalism – as if the episcopacy/superintendency of our denomination was the glue of our connectionalism. I don’t believe that has to be the case. Fewer districts can increase connection by including more lay, clergy, and local church leadership in district strategy, leadership, and implementation. We just have to have the right leaders to make it happen.
  6. Currently, we have 9 districts and most all of them have part time administrative assistants. If we would reduce South Georgia to 6 districts with full time administrative assistants and possible additional part-time help from retired elders (as the missional work needed) it would cost significantly less and could be much more productive.
  7. Another argument revolves around Charge Conferences. How will the DS make it to them all? Charge conferences do not have to be led by a DS. Elders may be assigned by the DS to oversee a charge/church conference, or churches could hold combo charge conferences/rally’s. THIS would increase connectionalism by allowing us to see how we are connected to other local churches in our communities.
  8. DS’s should be required to be in districts more and serve on conference committees less. Why can’t we broaden leadership and make more use of a Leadership Forum for leadership representation in various committees and boards.
  9. Major changes in the number of districts (such as Florida’s 14 to 9, or North Alabama’s 12 to 8) require fundamental changes at every level. This is why South Georgia doesn’t need to trim one district. We need to be forced to make bigger changes in the way we do our work.
  10. Here’s a great testimony for major change in districts from Florida Bishop, Timothy Whitaker, “The Florida Conference approved a plan involving major changes rather than modest adjustments because major changes require an organization to function differently. We could have reduced districts by two and continued with business as usual; we chose instead to develop a new district structure consisting of only nine districts. From the beginning we have known that we could not make such a major change without also reforming the internal structure of the districts and the role of the district superintendent and creating a culture of different expectations in the Conference. Such reform requires thinking through the fundamental purposes of the district, the office of district superintendent and the missional objectives of the Conference. We are now involved in implementing new approaches, and we believe that being intentional about our objectives and our ways of meeting our objectives is having a very salutary affect upon the life of the Florida Conference. We continue to try to figure out how to be effective in every dimension of our work, and this on-going process of evaluating, planning, and changing has lifted us out of an institutional rut and liberated us to discover more effective approaches.”
  11. In North Alabama, Bishop Will Willimon related the following points:
  • All districts would be reformed to address some of the huge inequities that exist in the Districts that we have inherited from the past. Moving from twelve to eight districts would enable us to decentralize much of the work of the Conference utilizing District Resource Centers in every District, designed to facilitate the work of the churches in each district. We would also utilize clergy and laity to organize churches intoclusters that are based upon shared characteristics of the congregations.
  • We would realize significant monetary savings in the downsizing of our Conference administration. We have lost one third of our members in the past two decades without a corresponding downsizing of the costs of our administration. This is poor stewardship. The savings (4 DSs, their housing and offices) could then be used to hire full-time administrative assistants (who could be clergy or laity, depending upon the specific needs and goals of each district) to free the DSs for more mentoring, coaching, and training of churches to grow into the future. Funds would be available for a network of consultants that would be provided to congregations in need.
  • Eight DSs would work more efficiently and adaptively than twelve. We must spend more time supporting the work of our pastors and churches and less time in routine management and administration.

I have been in conversation with several Chairs of the Order of Elders from around the denomination. Many conferences are looking at the reduction of districts. While it is true that the money seems to be driving the train here, I truly believe an organizational shake-up is what we need in the United Methodist Church. I believe the Call to Action report is just scratching the surface, but it is giving us permission…permission to act. Let us use the gifts God has given us to come together and construct a viable, powerful, and Spirit led disciple making conference that fits our churches and our personnel. It’s time to start doing things differently.

One thought on “Is Less More? Reducing Districts in South Georgia

  1. Dr. John,

    I just have a comment about point 5. I am new to the Methodist church and connectionalism in general, but as I have read, studied and thought about the polity of the church I have come to believe that the bishops may not be the glue, but they are the hinge. What makes the connectional system make sense, in my mind, are the bishops. They are the guardians and enforcers of the Discipline. While the connection should not be the sole responsibility of the bishops, until there is greater ownership of it among both the clergy and laity of each district and conference, the bishops must bear the lions share. One of the main reasons that I have enjoyed and chosen to stay in the Methodist church is the connectional nature of the church and the bishops place in the system to drive the momentum. While this may be idealistic and naive because of new-ness I would hope that this not be one of the aspect of the church that changed.

    Just some thoughts. Thanks.

    Victor Scott

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