Training for a Job that No Longer Exists ©

I was ordained Deacon in 1974, graduated from seminary in 1976, and ordained elder in 1977. The church I entered was basking in the setting sun of cultural Christendom. As a newly minted pastor one of the primary points of my reference was my District Superintendent (DS). In ecclesiological terms a pastor under appointment to a local church reports to the congregation’s Pastor-Parish Relations Committee and to the District Superintendent. DSes were to serve as the pastor’s guide and mentor, supervisor and evaluator. The DS represented the Pastor in Cabinet meetings where appointments were made under the authority of the bishop. In short, the position of DS was designed to carry both pastoral and managerial functions. Evolving from the frontier days of missional outreach and connection, it was the natural outgrowth of a management culture. That job no longer exists. A DS who operates out of the 1960s management culture is a failure- and even worse a problem for both churches and clergy. Unfortunately this job, which no longer exists, is one which I was mentored to do. For many the height of their ministry was not pastoring a local church but serving on Bishop’s Cabinet as a DS with supervisory responsibility for somewhere between 30 and 45 churches. Good DSes kept the system running. They settled conflict. They negotiated dilemmas. They coached younger clergy helping them to assimilate into a bureaucratic church culture. One of my mentors, Rev. Bob Grimes, who was himself both a very effective pastor of large regional churches worshipping over 1,000 in average attendance and a District Superintendent, used to comment: “There is nothing as useless in the Methodist system as a DS when you don’t need them, and there is nothing as vital as a DS when you do need them [usually in a situation of crisis, conflict and pastoral change].” Yet today the job of DS is so different that it effectively no longer exists as originally designed in a pastoral/bureaucratic structure. Our culture has changed dramatically. Typically pastors do not move as often. The tenure of a pastor changes the relationship with both the church and the denomination. Furthermore, we have slowly and painfully learned that someone can be either a pastor or supervisor but not effectively serve as both. Additionally, there is a skill set need for a DS that relates to church transformation/renewal/revival which involves a highly flexible collaborative and adaptive learning. It used to be that a DS ran her or his own district and conference staff did not interfere with his/her area of supervision. Now a DS that cannot work effectively with conference staff (and vice versa) needs to be replaced. The day of territorialism is dead and gone. My list could go on but the reader gets the drift. I learned how to parent from watching my parents. Those who have served as DSes have learned to be a DS by watching those who went before. Today, however, the job is so in flux and change; the needs are so different and compel collaboration, adaptively and experimentation that length of tenure is no longer a critical criteria. Over the years, various General Conferences have added responsibilities to the position of DS. They have done so with the best of intentions. Unfortunately now there are so many different disciplinary requirements for the job that no one can effectively meet all the requirements. As it is written in The Book of Discipline, the job is designed for failure. Which brings me to today. Over the last 3 quadrennium (12 years), all across the United Methodist Church in America, experiments have been going on over the deployment of DSes for the stated mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. There is widespread agreement that a District Superintendent is to be the “chief mission strategist” for their district. What is far from clear however is just what is meant by the phrase “chief mission strategist.” Those who carefully understand the full implication of the Exodus Project for the Central Texas Conference will realize that over the past 6 or 7 years there have been a great deal of changes in how our Cabinet operates. Appointments are made based on mission-field effectiveness and not tenure. There is a high level of collaborative interaction between the conference staff and the districts (both HCI and our various Mission initiatives are examples of this morphing change). The role of the DS is far closer to that of a teacher and coach than as a pastor/supervisor. In truth we don’t yet fully understand the role of the District Superintendent in this new post-Christendom world we seek to minister to. We are learning and experimenting. This is a good, godly thing. The Holy Spirit is leading us. My old friend and mentor Bob Grimes, gone now over 10 years, was and is right. “There is nothing as useless in the Methodist system as a DS when you don’t need them, and there is nothing as vital as a DS when you do need them [usually in a situation of crisis, conflict and pastoral change].” In a period of great adaptive change, we need good effective courageous DSes who “get it” now more than ever. We need the kind of people leading Districts who have themselves been faithful and fruitful building vital congregations. We need leaders who love the local church and are willing to go the extra mile to help in the development of a new generation of clergy and lay leaders. We need people who can put aside ego and territoriality to work joyfully with others. And most of all, we need people who are sold out on Christ – his ministry, mission and salvation.