While we Methodists don't use the term, being a D.S. is akin to being a suffragan or auxiliary bishop in the Catholic or Anglican traditions; you don't ordain or make rulings of canon/church law, but, because an episcopal area is so large it is impossible for one sole person to perform all the tasks of oversight, you perform the administrative and managerial work of the Church, and assist the bishop in the appointing and overseeing of pastors and churches.
At one time, D.S.'s were chosen based on seniority, who was "due", or where you were located on the infamous "salary sheet" that some clergy had obtained (but don't tell anyone where you got it!) that had been photocopied so many times as to be almost illegible. In a day where United Methodism is in so need of change, however, I think we are seeing a shift towards adaptive leadership, and bishops are giving new thought to who should be on a cabinet. While Bishop Will Willimon has often provoked ire among many, I think his new book Bishop is helping the UMC clarify the role of bishop and superintendent: Bishops need to be primarily leaders, D.S.'s need to be primarily managers. There is of course overlap; leadership and management are companions, and in these days in the Church, both need to be adaptive. How we used to do things has GOT to change, if we want different results. And that means the way D.S.'s are selected, necessarily, has changed. To quote Willimon:
Persons to be considered for the role of DS need not have been in their clergy careers the greatest preachers, the most learned teachers, or the most caring pastors. They must be leaders who have taken opportunities in their churches for risk-taking in order to produce change and managers who are willing to shoulder the responsibilities of supervision.Later in the book, he raises the difficulty that few clergy have the experience of making tough decisions and making critical judgments about other people. However, in the UMC, if bishops and D.S.'s don't do this, no one else will. I suspect the best candidates for D.S. might be second-career folks who were previously in management where they evaluated others job-performance, hired and fired employees, and made decisions directly bearing on the life or death of a business. One of my colleagues on the cabinet is a former nurse who supervised other nurses and made life-or-death decisions every day. While I have been in ordained ministry longer than she has, I envy her supervisory and managerial experience. I suspect 20+ years as a college and high-school basketball and baseball official, learning good listening and game-management skills, has been as helpful as anything in dealing with pastors and congregations.
Several things keep me humble:
- The UMC, at least in the U.S., is dying.
- While I've been in ministry 25 years, most of the people I supervise and deal with are older than me (the median age of our denomination is between 55-59).
- I am the shepherd of 8900 laypeople and 60-some clergy. Not as large as some districts, or even as a few UMC churches, but large enough to make my insides quake.
- Assisting in making pastoral appointments is hard, given that the local church is (and should be) the priority, that pastors are less willing to fully itinerate, and that over the years we clergy (myself included) have not obtained the skill-sets we need for the 21st century Church.
- I used to be one who looked at D.S.'s with disdain, being anti-authority as most younger adults usually are. Now I'm the bureaucrat who probably can't preach his way out of a wet paper bag.
- The UMC, at least in the U.S., is dying.
The biggest humbler? Jesus Christ is Lord. And as the apostle Paul told us in 1 Timothy, the job of bishops/overseers is to take care and manage God's church. If it's dying, then I am failing.
So have I "arrived?" I can answer that one quickly and succinctly: hell no. At best, being a D.S. is a side-step, not a step up. And in a denomination that is dying, being a manager in it probably isn't the best thing to put on one's resume.
My prayer is that I am being faithful, am always faithful, and that in making tough decisions and taking risks, I may also be the clay that God can mold and adapt for His will and purpose.