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How can districts be more effective?

District Study Task Force turns focus to strategy, not numbers

By Jessica Connor

The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. So how can the S.C. Conference s 12 districts be most effective in helping congregations do that?

That is the latest focus of the District Study Task Force, a conference-mandated group of clergy and laity across the state. Originally formed in 2011 to explore whether the current number of districts (12) is too many, too few or just right, the task force s work was expanded in 2012 to study the organization of the entire Annual Conference.

While the group does need to look at things like district lines and numbers, Spartanburg District Superintendent Dr. Paul Harmon, who chairs the task force, said the group has realized the church is better served if the conference pulls back and looks at the big picture, which will help the rest fall into place.

Harmon said that with more churches in South Carolina declining than growing, the task force is concluding the conference needs to focus districts time and talents on strategies that will help turn around that trend; simply exploring numbers and lines won t accomplish that.

A lot of the work the district office deals with is the tyranny of the urgent, rather than the mission of the church,  Harmon said. We need to focus on creating ways to stay ahead of the curve and be proactive in stemming that decline. 

Harmon said the group is homing in on two particular focus areas: the need to identify congregations where radical revitalization will have the greatest impact, and the need to identify and take action in those places where new congregations should be planted.

It s strategy; it s asking, ˜How can districts be more effective in helping congregations perform the mission of the church?  Harmon said.

Since Annual Conference, task force members have been brainstorming with each other and S.C. Bishop Jonathan Holston on district effectiveness and researching what other conferences are doing.

Now, they are perfecting the report they will present at Annual Conference in June, spelling out what they believe the conference should do, through its districts, to make disciples for Christ.

Earline Ulmer, a member of the task force, said the streamlined focus on disciple-making will crystallize the role of the UMC and its districts in this conference “ and help clergy and laity be more effective.

I think there s a problem of accountability for lay and clergy to begin to focus on the main purpose of our existence of being disciples of Christ and modeling that in our communities,  Ulmer said.

She said districts need to help clergy and laity refocus on our church mission and make sure we understand just what it is we re all about. 

I hope it will revitalize our entire conference so we can become the kind of church that is doing a lot of things, letting the community know our presence and that we care about people,  Ulmer added.

Task force member Freda Brock said she is really excited about focusing on the true mission of the church rather than simply redistricting.

We have our bishop on board with us, and he has a good pulse for where the church needs to be and the direction we need to take,  Brock said. We can t do things the way we used to do them. 

Task force member the Rev. Sara White, director of congregational development for the conference, said the group is looking at everything from district resourcing of local churches to personnel who can do the resourcing best, using data gathered from year-end reports and census reports. White said the group noted the largest representation of churches within the data was churches in areas of population growth whose worship attendance was stagnant or declining.

To assist churches in the move outward to the growing communities, rather than an expectation of people coming into the churches, will require conversation, trust building, accountability models and conference support,  White said. Superintendents can be the first line in the help, with additional help coming from district boards of congregational development and connectional ministries and congregational specialists. It is faith and labor-intensive work. 

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