By Jessica Connor
Delegates to Annual Conference 2011 have another structural decision to make this year: whether to reduce the number of districts in the state.
The Rev. John Culp submitted a resolution in mid-February, calling on clergy and laity to cut the number of districts from 12 to 10. Culp’s resolution said several other conferences in this jurisdiction have reduced their districts, and South Carolina’s district model is outdated. It was developed in 1972, he said, when the number of churches in the Annual Conference was greater, and communication and transportation were not so immediate.
Culp said that, with six congregational specialists who are already helping local churches, perhaps South Carolina does not need as many districts. Also, given the economic crisis, he thinks reducing the number of districts will save the conference money that can be better spent elsewhere.
“I’m always conscious of what the total church is doing, and when I saw so many conferences doing this, I thought, ‘Why aren’t we being a little bit more creative?’” Culp said. “I think charges and small churches need to think out of the box a little bit… I wanted to force the churches to think and do dialogue.”
Culp said he thinks cutting the districts will improve connectionalism.
“We are not dealing with the structure enough,” said Culp, calling himself a “catalyst who likes to stir things up.” “We have six congregational specialists who are supposed to be helping the churches on programming. That’s fine, but why do we need all this, too? It’s adding to the layer and layer and layer.”
But the Rev. Willie Teague, director of Connectional Ministries for the conference, thinks the resolution is “getting the cart before the horse.” At a time when the conference needs more effective connectionalism, this could impede the very opportunity to do so, he said.
“People are always complaining they don’t see their district superintendents enough, so we’ll add more work so they see them less?” Teague said. “What we need to look at is what is an equitable workload for pastors; what is the adequate size of a charge? Once that is determined, then we can look at the number of districts needed.”
Rather than pick a number from the air, which will have deep implications for the whole conference, Teague thinks the Annual Conference should consider a study to more carefully assess what the conference needs.
After all, just because other Annual Conferences have done it is not necessarily a good reason – and it’s not been met with universal approval in those conferences, either, Teague said.
“It might not work in South Carolina,” he said.
The Rev. Ron Pettit, who retired as Orangeburg District Superintendent last summer, said he will not vote for the resolution because he thinks it erodes connectionalism.
“Having been a district superintendent in one of the districts that has the most territory, to further make it even more territory would just make it hard to be in contact with the churches and pastors,” Pettit said.
Pettit said district superintendents have a heavy workload already, and he thinks the addition of congregational specialists have augmented – not reduced – the amount of work because they are introducing vital new ministries.
“I remember one Sunday morning during charge conference, I left the parsonage at 7:30 and came in about 10 that evening,” Pettit said. “And Jennifer, my wife, said, ‘What are you laughing at?’ I said, ‘God must have a sense of humor, because I’ve said so many times, I wonder what a district superintendent has to do with his or her time, and now I’ve found out the hard way.’ It’s a busy job, and I don’t see adding more to that (by reducing the number of districts).”
The Rev. Bob Stillwell, retired Anderson district superintendent, is also opposed to the resolution. While other conferences have reduced their number of districts, he said we haven’t yet carefully studied how it has impacted them.
“Are they glad or sorry or what?” Stillwell asked. “Has it worked? And what has it done to strengthen our connectionalism?”
Stillwell thinks the increased workload would have a negative impact on districts. While much can be accomplished by email, the district superintendent needs to be in churches on a regular basis so the connection is not broken.
“How can you be there if, instead of having 55 charge conferences, you now have 70? You can do it, but what is the quality of what you do in terms of the time spent with people?” Stillwell said. “When you expand your turf to include, instead of four counties, six counties, I don’t think it’s doable.”
Stillwell would like to see a study done to careful assess if the structure needs changing and how best to do that, rather than a hasty resolution that can potentially do more harm than good.
Culp said he is not “after” any district superintendents with the resolution.
“I’m just trying to get a healthier structure,” he said. “South Carolina is not that big of a state. We can just say, ‘OK, let’s keep it like it is and go on another 10 years.’ I’m just raising the question.”
The full text of the resolution will be available in early March in the Annual Conference 2011 area of the conference website, http://www.umcsc.org, also with other resolutions – including another submitted by Culp on Annual Conference support of “20/20: Visioning An AIDS-Free World.”