Too big, too small or just right?

Task force begins study on number of districts in S.C.

By Jessica Connor

Does the S.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church have too many or too few districts — or is the system fine as-is?

A conference-mandated task force of clergy and laity across the state has started evaluating the current number of districts, 12, and will make a recommendation to the 2012 Annual Conference in June.

The 16-member diverse group of clergy and laity from across South Carolina, chaired by Spartanburg District Superintendent Dr. Paul Harmon, held their first meeting in November and expect to meet monthly from now until June analyzing research and dialoguing in preparation for making a recommendation to Annual Conference.

It s too early to tell if we can finish our work by next June, Harmon said, citing the incredible amount of data and research required. But at the very least, I hope we ll be able to recommend a well-defined action plan of how we would like to proceed step-by-step.

The resolution to create the task force was brought by the Rev. John Culp, pastor of Virginia Wingard UMC, Columbia, who called for the study because the current model was developed nearly 40 years ago, in 1972. The resolution noted a detailed assessment of the current number of districts could result in more productive administrative systems and more strategic use of lay and clergy persons in leadership, and perhaps result in financial savings.

The question is how are districts organized? How does the way we organize our districts help us carry out “ or hinder “ the mission of the church? explained the Rev. Ken Nelson, congregational specialist for African-American Ministries and member of the task force. What could we do differently to make us more effective disciples?

At their meeting Dec. 9, task force members explored S.C. Conference statistics, reviewed data from other conferences that recently reduced their number of districts, and brainstormed about next steps.

Rev. Tim Rogers, conference secretary and task force member, cited figures from the Florida and North Alabama conferences of the UMC. North Alabama, which cut their districts from 12 to eight in 2006, saw their average weekly conference-wide worship numbers and annual professions of faith spike after the redistricting, then drop back down to the level they had been before the change. In Florida, which went from 14 to nine districts in 2005, conference-wide worship numbers and professions of faith have consistently gone down since the change.

But task force members were quick to point out that research evidence cannot stand alone and often does not apply to the unique situations in South Carolina.

Causation is incredibly illusive, said task force member the Rev. Michael Turner, Wightman UMC, Prosperity. Research evidence does not predict the outcome. ... I think we have to start with what we expect from superintendents, because anything after that is putting the cart before the horse.

Rock Hill District Superintendent Sara White, also on the task force, said the group must superimpose South Carolina on every piece of research they examine.

How do we apply this to South Carolina? What is a good plan for South Carolina? she said. Florida is an entirely different animal from South Carolina.

Task force member Myra Heath said the group needs to approach the study by first determining the role and goal of the district office in the conference, district and local church. Then ask how many people can we do that with, she said.

At the December meeting, task force member David Braddon presented the group with hard data about South Carolina:

¢ Total church membership at the close of 2010: 235,977

¢ Total number of UMCs, 2010: 1,011

¢ Average change in yearly membership from 2006 to 2010: A drop of 1,305

¢ Average worship attendance at the close of 2010: 93,612

¢ Average attendance per church: 93

Braddon presented the spread of members in districts statewide, and noted the percentage of United Methodists in the total population of the state dropped from 6.1 percent in 2000 to 5.1 percent in 2011. He also cited a rough estimate that districts cost the conference on average about $190,000 each to carry out all the work they do.

We re looking at what s South Carolina like; which other conferences have done this and what are they trying to accomplish; what has been the outcome “ did they get what they expected or did they get things that were not expected, positive or negative, Braddon told the Advocate. Through the lens of South Carolina, We re trying to learn from them and see if there is some way we can be more efficient and effective.

The group discussed a few unconventional things other conferences are doing to address the district administrative workload. Harmon cited how, in Arkansas, a colleague is now managing two districts but only deals with churches that have an average worship attendance of 125 or more. Elders serving congregations are assigned, without compensation, as circuit elders to handle groups of smaller churches.

The Rev. Willie Teague, conference director of Connectional Ministries, said the Western North Carolina Conference cut districts radically and now assigns two elders in each district to do charge conferences “ rather than the district superintendent.

But that s not legal (per the Book of Discipline), Teague said.

The task force also discussed the tremendous amount of work district offices and district superintendents do to maintain a connectional S.C. Conference.

Harmon said a district superintendent being physically in each church is critical to that connectionalism. From personal experience, he said, I don t know what we d do if we didn t have that.

The task force is spending their holidays doing research homework. They will gather again in January to explore results and take their evaluation to the next level.

Watch the Advocate for future updates.

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