Experiment in NC Keeps District Superintendents in the Field
When the North Carolina Annual Conference decided to sell district offices and parsonages in order to move the district superintendents completely into the field, the Rev. Linda Taylor took it one step further.
Taylor, who chaired the two-year task force that developed the new plan for district superintendents, decided to spend each week in a different bed and breakfast in one of the four quarters of her district.
“I really wanted to circuit ride the district. And this lets me meet other people who are not United Methodists. I met a Swedish couple when they were staying at one of the B&B’s and I told them all about the mission of The United Methodist Church. There are so many opportunities to share the Good News that you don’t have sitting in an office,” Taylor said.
The seven other DSes have not made such extreme arrangements, but all are working in virtual offices, sharing documents electronically, keeping in touch with their assistant by cell phone, e-mail, and texting. Armed with laptops and smart phones, they are on the road, in the churches, and meeting with pastors and congregations. A receptionist answers the phones for all eight districts and transfers the calls to the DSes assistant, who decides if they can handle something or if the issue needs to be referred to the DS. There is a coordinated Web site with shared calendars.
“We wanted to recapture the presiding elder,” Taylor said. “We want the DS to be a coach, mentor, teacher, team builder, and vision caster.”
“Who knows where God is going to lead you because you’re out there,” Taylor said. For instance, she was able to be with the pastors of Rhems UMC in New Bern, N.C., as they worked with a Burmese population and outgrew their building. “I was really able to be there and support them. If I were tied up with administrative stuff, I wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward was appointed the episcopal leader of the North Carolina Annual Conference after the changes were made, but she fully supports the experiment.
“The virtual offices help us meet people in their own space, help us stay connected with people,” Ward said. “We are embracing the new Disciplinary language of the DS as chief mission strategist. We believe it’s good language.”
“We want very much for our supervisors to be spiritual leaders as they are mission strategists,” Ward said. “None of this is a quick fix for the church, but we think it is a promising path forward, and we are learning more as we get into it.” Ward said most clergy in the annual conference seem to support the change – only two spoke against it – but one pastor asked for a Judicial Council ruling on whether the DSes were violating The Book of Discipline by delegating duties that are disciplinary to their assistant. Ward said the assistant is not involved in appointment making or supervision.
The Judicial Council said they could not rule without clarification about the role and duties of the assistant and asked the conference to clarify the role of the assistant, which Ward said will be done.
The Rev. Gwen Purushotham, associate general secretary for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s Division of Ordained Ministry, said experiments can open to new ways of thinking and practicing the ministry of superintending.
“It will be good to check back with the bishop and these superintendents, pastors, and churches in a year or two to see what they have learned from this experiment about the ministry of supervision,” she said.
The Rev. Greg Moore, pastor of All Saints United Methodist Church in Raleigh, said he believes the new system is taking the district superintendents back to their historic role of presiding elder. All Saints is a new church start that meets at Brier Creek Elementary School.
“I feel like they are more present. . . . I see my DS once a week. She prays for me and my church,” Moore said. “It feels like more of a partnership.”
He said the only wrinkle for him so far had been that it is sometimes difficult to figure out where to have a confidential meeting if you don’t want to have it at the church for some reason.
The changes will save money, but Taylor said that is not the driving force. Funds from the sale of the parsonages were put into a fund to provide housing allowances for the DSes.
“It was mission driven,” Taylor said. “It was a group of eight pastors asking: ‘What is God saying to you, and what are you going to do about it?’”
Taylor said she isn’t sure how long she’ll move around and said she’ll review that and get feedback from her pastors. She believes that pastors who see the DS all the time will feel that “you are someone who cares.”
But pastors love the virtual office when it comes to charge conference, because they can do forms online and don’t have to make multiple copies anymore. Taylor said all documents are secure and the tech staff creates multiple backups.
The Rev. Ray Broadwell, another North Carolina DS, said he thinks the change is a good thing most of the time, but sometimes does miss having an office.
“Sometimes I would like to be able to walk into the next room and talk to someone. But I don’t feel isolated, we’re with pastors and churches all the time,” Broadwell says. “The best thing about this is the freedom to be with pastors all the time, when they were used to seeing us only at charge conference and evalution.”
*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.