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Restructuring study on horizon?

District Study Task force recommends one-year extension to analyze full structure of SCUMC

By Jessica Connor

Forget just redistricting — it’s time to look at the full structure of the S.C. Conference.

So says a conference-mandated group tasked to analyze the number of districts in the state. The District Study Task Force, a 16-member group of clergy and laity across the state, has been working since the fall to determine whether the current number of districts (12) is too many, too few or just right.

The task force is supposed to make a recommendation to Annual Conference in June after careful analysis, research and dialogue.

But not only does the group feel it does not yet have enough information to make the best recommendation, it also feels the information they have uncovered might lead to the restructuring of the full Annual Conference, not just the districts.

The bottom line is we are asking the conference to let us continue another year,  said Spartanburg District Superintendent Dr. Paul Harmon, who chairs the group. We just need more time to look at not just the district arrangement but the whole conference staffing and determine what could be done to have fewer districts without losing some effectiveness. We haven t decided anything yet, but it does appear that some kind of structural rearrangement is going to be necessary, and soon. 

Harmon said the group has been gathering a lot of information both from South Carolina and other conferences across the jurisdiction and nation: anecdotal data, such as personal stories about how redistricting has impacted them positively or negatively, and hard data, such as vital statistics on worship attendance, professions of faith, apportionment support, etc.

Some people think reducing districts is the best thing they ve ever done, but others think it s really messed things up,  Harmon said.

He noted that initial research has not shown any consistent long-term improvements in vital statistics for conferences that have undergone district reductions. While initially budgets may have been reduced, after a couple of years they typically have returned to previous levels of support. So any redistricting in the S.C. Conference should be based less on financial considerations and more on its effectiveness in making disciples and revitalizing The United Methodists Church as a whole.

Increased workload a consideration

Harmon said that if this conference were to reduce districts from 12 to eight, then districts would go from averaging 85 churches per district to 125 churches per district.

As a district superintendent himself, Harmon said, There is no way I could handle a 33 percent increase in workload, nor could my administrative assistant. 

He said the conference would need to make adjustments such as increasing district administrative assistants from part-time to full-time positions, which would include benefits, which would in turn offset a significant part of the projected budget reductions. Or, he suggested, some of the superintendents responsibilities could perhaps be re-allocated elsewhere.

Dr. Charles Johnson, who retires as Greenville District superintendent this year, said he thinks analyzing the full structure of the conference is an excellent idea no matter whether one supports redistricting or not.

Johnson thinks reducing the number of districts would be a mistake.

I feel the districts represent a connectional link between the Annual Conference and local churches, and if we reduce the number of districts, it will reduce the amount of time the district superintendents will be available to various local churches,  Johnson said.

Johnson thinks the conference should focus on creating more connectional links rather than put even more distance between it and local churches. But regardless, looking at the conference structure in full, rather than piecemeal, will be good for the denomination s health overall, he said.

Florence District Superintendent the Rev. James Friday thinks the conference should consider a redrawing of district lines, not necessarily a reduction. He also supports analyzing the full structure to determine how to best accomplish this.

We definitely need to study the entire conference,  Friday said.

Conservative for the sake of connectionalism

Harmon said that when it comes to redistricting, other annual conferences seem to have done one of two things: Either they settle into a cautious watch and wait    conservatism, where they examine the impact of redistricting in other conferences and keep looking at alternatives until they find one that seems to be the right fit, or they just drastically cut the districts and then figure out what needs to be done to make it work.

There are all kinds of experiments taking place; no uniformity. Everybody is doing something different,  Harmon said. Our committee came down in the first category “ we feel it would be helpful to take another year to watch what s going on in other conferences, study how our district offices fit into the whole conference structure, and hopefully avoid unnecessary confusion and stress while enabling congregations to become more effective in our mission. 

With the membership decline the UMC is experiencing across the U.S., he feels a poorly designed move could deal a lethal blow to the denomination s vitality in this state.

The Rev. John Culp, who authored last year s resolution to establish a task force on redistricting, said he is pleased with the conscientious work  of the committee.

They ve got to make some controversial decisions about what is best for the people and not the institution; decisions have to be made that help the l
ocal church and not protect the status quo,  Culp said, noting that accountability and efficiency are critical components to an effective UMC.

Culp said the conference had not explored the number of districts since 1972, and a lot has changed in 40 years. He is in favor of another year s study so that the ultimate plan will be realistic and authentic.

I don t want a plan that isn t efficient,  he said.

The task force will address redistricting and a full-conference restructuring study at Annual Conference, set for June 10-13 at the Florence Civic Center. Check the July Advocate for in-depth coverage of this issue and others on the legislative lineup.

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