Conference asked to study redistricting

By Jessica Connor

Instead of simply reducing districts, members of Annual Conference are now being asked to consider more strategically whether district lines need to be changed.

The Rev. John Culp, who submitted a resolution in February calling on clergy and laity to cut the number of districts from 12 to 10 when they head to Annual Conference this June, has resubmitted his resolution. Now, members will decide whether to establish a task force on redistricting, which would evaluate the number of districts in the conference and present a recommendation to the 2012 Annual Conference.

If approved, the task force would comprise 14 members appointed by the bishop (seven lay and seven clergy), each skilled in interpretation of business management principles and financial/demographic statistical analysis.

The resolution requires that the task force examine several things during their evaluation: The Book of Discipline, along with reports from other annual conferences that have redistricted; financial and statistical data from our, and other, annual conferences; demographic data from the present 12 districts; district surveys related to district superintendents’ time structuring; articles from national church leaders on district structure; and presentations and testimony from consultants on district redistricting from General and Jurisdictional conferences.

“Just like a corporation or a business, we need to review, evaluate and project; to do visioning on what the church is going to be in 10 years,” Culp said. “We want to really get conscientious about this and not just be doing maintenance (of old systems).”

Culp said he has listened to much input on the resolution since he submitted his initial version, and he feels the revised resolution reflects good stewardship and aims to use the conference’s people and finances in healthy ways.

How have other conferences fared?

Other conferences in the Southeastern Jurisdiction have reduced the number of districts in their conferences.

Bishop William H. Willimon, of the North Alabama Conference, said their move from 12 to eight districts proved to be one of the most important changes they have made in the way they work.

“Not only did it save us about 1.5 million in administrative costs, but it also forced us to work differently, to refocus the work of the DS,” Willimon said. “We believe it improved the quality of the Cabinet’s decisions and our ability to lead the conference in transformation. A rapidly shrinking church has got to right-size itself to be good stewards.”

The Rev. Deborah A. McLeod, former district superintendent for the South East District of the Florida Annual Conference, said their conference’s shift from 14 to nine districts worked well; she chaired the redistricting transition team.

Their shift was done not to save money but to help them do ministry differently, she said. They redrew district boundaries for every district, renamed each district, increased communication, and reorganized and standardized the committee structures for each district, including nominating new leaders for the new districts.

“It really helped that every district changed,” McLeod said. “One of the things we debated was just dropping off two of the districts, … but we looked at the whole geography. That helped.”

McLeod also said it was helpful that they enacted the new districts in 2004 but waited until 2005 to implement it. She said Florida has seen more cooperative ministries out of the experience.

Carol Goehring, director of Connectional Ministries for the North Carolina Conference, said her conference is in the midst of a similar redistricting study right now; their report is due at Annual Conference this year.

Goehring said that until recently, the N.C. Conference was continuing to grow, and because reducing districts can be quite costly, they didn’t have a compelling reason to consider reconfiguring them.

However, as they have watched other conferences go through redistricting, and as they have been experiencing issues such as smaller churches in decline, they are now looking at new possibilities.

“We didn’t begin with the thought, ‘We will redistrict,’” Goehring said. “We began with, ‘What is the optimum number of districts … what works?’”

Their study’s report will be made public in June.

Local reaction

The Rev. Michael Henderson said he thinks a redistricting task force would be a good thing because it evaluates systems to make them more responsible to the local church – and more economical and effective.

“Every major organization, including most denominations, have done it in the last 15 years,” Henderson said. “(Assessing our districts) is not a bad thing to do.”

The Rev. Willie Teague, director of Connectional Ministries for the S.C. Conference, said he thinks a task force to study redistricting is a much better idea than simply cutting districts. While he does not think South Carolina is ready yet to consider reducing districts because district superintendents already have so much work to do, he thinks it is never a bad idea to carefully examine our districts and district lines for improvements.

“I just think the resolution starts at the wrong place – it should start with the local church, not top down,” said Teague, who wishes the S.C. Conference would do a larger study of the means by which we determine viability and vitality of our congregations, instead.

View text for this and other resolutions in the Annual Conference 2011 area of the conference website, http://www.umcsc .org.

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