A district superintendent is an ordained elder who is appointed by a bishop as a conference superintendent and assigned to one district in which he or she has responsibility to supervise the pastors and local churches. This elder serves the entire conference but has direct supervisory responsibility for one or more districts.
Who We Are
A district superintendent is an ordained elder assigned by a bishop to the “ministry of supervision.” The superintendent is appointed to the conference and assigned to a district. Districts vary by number of churches and geographical size.
Ordering the life of the church
From the time of the apostles, certain ordained persons have been entrusted with the particular ministry of superintending. Once called presiding elders, district superintendents carry responsibility for ordering the life of the church. (The Book of Discipline, ¶401)
The nature of the superintendency and the specific responsibilities of district superintendents are delineated in The United Methodist Book of Discipline (¶¶401 and 419) These responsibilities include supervision of clergy and local churches for their empowerment for witness and mission in the world; encouraging personal, spiritual, and professional growth; participating with the bishop in the process of making appointments; working with ecumenical partners, and serving with leaders of other faith communities. The specific tasks of a superintendent are categorized into five areas as follows:
- Spiritual and Pastoral Leadership (¶420)
- Supervision (¶421)
- Personnel (¶422)
- Administration (¶423)
- Program (¶424)
The district superintendent’s leadership on behalf of the church is an important part of the United Methodist Church's itinerant ministry. Led by the bishop, district superintendents try faithfully each year to appoint pastors and deacons to local churches who will provide the kind of leadership needed to lead churches in accomplishing the mission and ministry to which they have been called.
Beyond making appointments
A district superintendent provides leadership in many areas of the church’s life. He or she is instrumental in implementing the annual conference’s vision. Superintendents serve as supervisors to clergy and congregations and enable the mission and ministry of the church through the establishment of systems of support and accountability and clearly communicating the gospel.
Ministry of Supervision
The ministry of supervision is both heart-rending and exhilarating, says the Rev. Clarence R. Brown, Jr. Brown serves the Norfolk District of the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church and is in his seventh year as a district superintendent.
“I was perfectly happy in parish ministry,” Brown says. “I had been serving a predominately Caucasian church that had decided to live out the gospel more fully by becoming more welcoming, more diverse.” The membership of that church grew to include more than 40 percent non-white with black, Filipino, and members from other racial-ethnic backgrounds.
“I loved the people there, but like most Methodists, I believe we are called to tasks in season,” he said. So when his bishop called him to serve on the cabinet, Brown was ready.
Brown, who is African-American, recounts one of his first thorny encounters as a superintendent. The members of a white rural church were extremely unhappy that an African-American minister had been appointed their pastor – so unhappy that they demanded to see their district superintendent. Brown set up a meeting to hear their concerns. “The evening of the meeting, when I walked into the room and they saw my face, their faces changed in a way I’ve never seen faces change before. We had an interesting – and long — meeting.”
Raised Catholic, Brown left the church at age 11 or 12. After he married and had children, he returned to church, getting involved in an African-American Baptist Church in Atlanta. “The pastor was a scholar, and his preaching got to my head. He pushed me to think about my faith,” Brown said.
By the time he felt the call to preach, a minister at an African-American United Methodist church in Atlanta asked him to be a part-time assistant. “It was at this church, under this man’s leadership, that I caught the fire in my heart for my faith,” Brown said.
Brown went to Gammon Theological Seminary, received his Master of Divinity degree, and served both rural and urban churches as a United Methodist minister.
The three most important things he learned as a pastor were to preach the gospel, to love the people, and to have a vision to guide the church. Now, his “preaching is no longer in one church, but in many churches, in many settings. And loving the people includes the pastors in my district, along with laity,” he says.
“The downside, the tough side for me is churches and pastors who have given up, who don’t have the tools to discern their place in their communities and in the wider world. Having to deal with clergy misconduct is incredibly painful — for the clergy, for the churches, and for me.”
The upside is the privilege of meeting laity and clergy who are intensely committed to their faith, to leadership in the church, and to a daily walk with Christ. “Because of these people, I get up in the morning full of joy and anticipation of what the day will bring,” he says.
One of the most critical tasks of a district superintendent is to care for, honor, and support the bishop, Brown says. He says the job of a bishop in an isolating and exhausting job. “To be there, in any way you can, for the bishop is a sacred trust,” he said.
The ministry of supervision for a district superintendent is based on two books: the Bible and The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. The Bible, Brown says, guides our hearts and minds in search of the truth about faith and life. “The Discipline points us to our history, to how we are as a church universal, to how we wrestle with our faith, and to how we organize ourselves for nurture, witness and outreach in the world,” he said.
“Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world — that is my charge, as a Christian, as clergy, as a district superintendent. It’s a task I take up with joy every morning.”
The Ministry of Supervision is Challenging and Demanding
District superintendents are called to provide pastoral support as well as counsel for clergy, consecrated, commission and certified personnel concerning matters affecting their ministry and personal life (The Book of Discipline, ¶420). They are expected both to support and to hold accountable the churches and leaders for whom they are given supervisory responsibility. They are called upon to be skilled in organizational process and design and to be creative preachers. It is no surprise, then, that many district superintendents report that the demands of their ministries can be overwhelming at times.
Elders are often asked to serve as district superintendents without an adequate background in supervision or organizational leadership, even though district superintendents need organizational wisdom as well as theological knowledge.
The church has proposed studying the superintendency in order to consider the role and responsibilities of the district superintendent. This would include identifying current practices and trends, as well as considering the implications of current practices for supervising ministry.
One of the trends in recent years is a decrease in the number of districts in many annual conferences. In 2000, there were 518 districts. In 2005, there were 488 districts. In 2011, there were 448 districts and 447 district superintendents. Fewer districts mean district superintendents have larger areas and more churches and pastors to supervise, significantly impacting the way supervisory responsibilities are carried out.