Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Not Your Parents' D.S.

Recently passed legislation changed the job description of a district superintendent in the United Methodist Church for the next four years. New language is highlighted:
¶ 419. As an extension of the office of bishop, the district superintendent shall oversee the total ministry of the clergy (including clergy in extension ministry and ministry beyond the local church) and of the churches in the communities of the district in their missions of witness and service in the world. 
   1. The Church expects, as part of the superintendent ministry, that the superintendent will be the chief missional strategist of the district...working with persons across the Church to develop programs of ministry and mission which extend the witness of Christ into the world.
I've always believed that superintendents were largely managers in the denomination, basically functioning as suffragan bishops for a particular geographic area. But in many ways, this new Disciplinary language is reshaping the superintendency - and I think for the better, with more emphasis on mission and ministry and less upon administration. But like so many things in the United Methodist Church, it's a radical shift in thinking and doing. Some conferences (like North Carolina) are beginning to hire assistants to the district superintendent (mostly laity) to aid in the transition. My conference has had district lay resource leaders in place for a few years that serve as deployed conference staff in our districts (and they do a fantastic job!). So already, some conferences are transitioning and adapting to a new way of helping local churches be more vital and have more clarity in focus and mission.

I wrestled last winter and spring on how to handle charge conferences for 2012. Some church leaders believe that having individual charge conferences are outmoded and worthless. Others say that resorting to cluster charge conferences adds to the crisis of relevance and disconnect. After a lot of prayer and discernment, I resolved to do individual charge conferences, but to make them more of a dialogue and conference - in the spirit of John Wesley - where we talk about the things that matter: vision, mission, what was effective, what was not.

Having completed about half of them, I've learned quite a bit:
  1. There is a lot of distrust out there. We superintendents have sometimes kept congregations in the dark and often made clergy the priority instead of the local church. In short - we haven't always been transparent.
  2. Both clergy and laity are uncomfortable using language about mission, evangelism, and salvation. In the defense of clergy, it hasn't been a priority of seminaries who train clergy or boards of ministry who credential them. Superintendents really didn't mentor pastors very well - again, in their defense, it wasn't a priority: keeping "the machine running," making sure apportionments were paid, and getting appointments made were the priorities.
  3. There are more than a few churches who are 1 or 2 funerals away from having to make very tough decisions about budgets and personnel - affecting not just the local church and district, but the annual conference and larger Connection as well.
But I've also learned something wonderful and encouraging: we have some wonderful, talented, gifted, and very generous laity in our churches! And despite the mistrust and misgivings of many, their faithfulness endures! I can't explain it otherwise in a local church which is, in essence, a voluntary organization. In our annual conference, the work of the district lay resource leader is becoming pivotal in short and long-range strategies, giving local churches a model for effective lay leadership. God is FAR from done with us! As our bishop, Bishop McAlilly continues to tell us: expect greater things!

I am slowly realizing that, like John Wesley, we district superintendents need to "submit to be more vile and proclaim the glad tidings of salvation." Being the "chief missional strategists" of the district, I think we can do no less - and Christ expects no less.



John Meunier said...

Sky, I missed this when you first posted it. When you say clergy and laity are uncomfortable with the language of mission, evangelism, and salvation, could you cite some examples of what you mean by this?

Sky McCracken said...

Language such as "being saved," going out to win people for Christ, proclaiming Christ crucified and resurrected, atonement language (too bloody), etc.

John Meunier said...

Thank you, Sky. I wanted to be on the look out for language I want to be explicit about using and explaining -- as best I can.