I just returned from the South Georgia Annual Conference in Macon, Georgia. Each year, almost 1,000 delegates of the United Methodist Churches in South Georgia gather to worship, study, and order the work of the conference. Conference begins with opening worship on Sunday night and concludes with a time of worship and sending forth on Tuesday afternoon as the Bishop “fixes” the appointments of all clergy.
One of the most sacred times of conference is the service of commissioning and ordination on Monday night. During this service, the candidates for ordained ministry are commissioned (the first step toward ordination after the completion of seminary) or ordained (the final step, which occurs two years after seminary graduation, completion of probationary time, and passing written/oral exams). This year was special for Wesley United Methodist Church at Frederica because one of our own, the Rev. Bill Culpepper (you may officially call him Rev.!) was commissioned during the service. His family was present and many from Wesley watched the live streaming online.
The biggest item of business was the discussion on whether or not to reduce the number of districts in our conference. We currently have 9 districts with a district superintendent in each district. A study committee brought information to look at the possibility of 9, 7, or 6 districts in South Georgia. After debate, the Annual Conference voted to reduce to 6 districts beginning June 2014. What does this mean? Why make this decision? In my opinion, there are two major rationales.
First, the biggest reason most people cited was the cost savings. By reducing to 6 districts, the grand total of savings in the conference budget will be $550,291 (see page 22 of district study report, corrected from $537,529). This savings will reduce the conference budget approximately $225,000 in 2014, and the full $550,000 in 2015. For the local church, this MAY mean less apportionments. For me, its not so much about the local church’s share of apportionments as it is about the big picture conference budget…which consistently finishes in the red each year, dipping into conference reserves each year.
Second, and the most important reason for me, is that moving to 6 districts will (hopefully!) force us to do things differently. We’ve had 9 districts since the South Georgia Conference received our own Bishop in 1988. Bishop King reminds us that since 1988 we have lost membership every year. Our connectionalism has deteriorated, membership has dropped, and apportionment payment has declined. The current system of 9 districts do not hurt us, but it is obviously not helping. By reducing, as many other conferences have done, we are now forced to think more strategically about how to engage in mission at a conference, district and local level. My hope is to see an effective Conference Core Leadership Team working with a District Leadership Team to assist the local churches in mission and ministry. Our best and brightest clergy and laity need to be a part of this. Our strongest churches need to step up and participate. Churches, clergy, and laity should take an active leadership role within their districts and the conference. Unfortunately, we have a very “top-down” structure in South Georgia which disenfranchises the voices and the leadership at the district and local level. This must change if we are to be successful.
Let’s pray that some innovative steps are taken. I talked with a lot of clergy and laity in Macon who are ready and willing to help in this new direction. I hope they are called upon.