Church & Work UMC

What Would Happen If…Superintendents Stopped Managing?

I have been employed by a local church as a lay person or as a clergy person for thirty-one years. (I started at age 19.) Over those years I have served under the leadership of 9 district superintendents (Lloyd, Marilyn, Bob, Dave, Rich, Mark, Myron, Cedrick, and John). Each of them brought many gifts to their work. All of them different. All of them gifted. Here in my work in Cal-Nevada I work with five incredibly gifted superintendents. It is a joy to serve with all of them.

For those of you who are not familiar with the district superintendent (DS), each one serves for term no longer than 6 to 8 years. They oversee, as an extension of the episcopal office, the work of all the churches in their district. They are each responsible to supervise each clergy person. They meet annually with the committees in each church to ensure that their pastoral appointment is sound. They handle crises, scandals, misconduct, and various other tasks related to direct supervision including annual performance reviews. Finally, they are the “missional strategist” for their district with responsibility to align churches, both new and existing, to meet the needs of the people NOT YET in the churches of their district. I have yet to even mention cabinet meetings, conference meetings, district meetings, etc.

It is a daunting and unenviable task. Those who do it do so from a sense of calling. In my experience, every person who steps into this role does so with a sense of optimism for the church and its ministry. My experience also is that the aspirations of ministry and mission are swallowed up by the sheer magnitude of management. Management is defined by making a system more and more efficient. It is a task of what “is” and not as much what “could be.”

In all fairness, there is no knocking the superintendent. Each are tasked with a nearly impossible job. What secular workplace saddles anyone with 75 direct reports? (Yes, that is the average number of clergy that a DS must supervise.)

Is there a way for superintendents to focus their work on two things: 1) the development of transformational leaders and 2) strategic vision for their district?

In my last blog post, I described a model of appointing pastors (which the Bishop along with their DSs do together) to circuits and not individual local churches. In this new model, a team of pastors would be appointed to serve a circuit of churches. The pastoral skills in this team are complementary (nod to you Clark Griswald.)

What makes a circuit work is that each one has a leader. One circuit leader who reports directly to their superintendent. One circuit leader who supervises the ministry and the pastors of the circuit. Circuit leaders cultivate new leadership. DS cultivate circuit leaders to be DSs. Every year the circuit leader has a performance review with each member of their team. The members of the circuit evaluate their leader with the DS. (Like a 360 evaluation.) All of this is done to cultivate a deeper leadership bench and to change the very nature of the superintendency.

What happens when a DS stops managing 75 people and begins to only lead 12 circuit leaders? This opens the door for #1 to happen: developing transformational leaders. Will pastoral egos be bruised by being appointed as an associate pastor in a circuit after being a “senior” pastor? Well…I suppose if we were in a normal business it would. Yet, this is no business. As pastors, our lives must be yoked to Christ Jesus for the sake of the mission and ministry of the church. No egos here.

When a DS engages with a circuit, their conversations would not be about management. They would be focused on developing the circuit leader’s skills and capacities. They would focus on the mission of the circuit. Where are new congregations needed? What social enterprise needs to begin? What language must we begin speaking?

In this model, the DS has head and heart space to be creative. This addresses item #2 from above: strategic vision. No longer would a DS manage. They would develop, cultivate, and strategize as their primary tasks. Over these 31 years of serving with DSs, I believe this is the work they ACTUALLY want to do.

But, there is another wrinkle here. What happens if a superintendent also pastored a church? There are examples of DSs who do this very thing. In the Korean Methodist Church, ALL DSs serve a local church. Every circuit is different. Some may include 10, 15, or even 20 churches. In these larger circuits the DSs could be bi-vocational, serving as a circuit “leader” and a pastor as part of the circuit. In other places, the DS would have oversight of many circuit leaders.

A system such as this could become adaptable and nimble to the shifting needs of the places where we serve. The mission would govern how we develop our systems rather than institutional memory alone.

I am convinced that the only way out of decline as a church is to question every assumption. Experimentation on the edges will allow us to begin to change the very core of who we are. More decisions must be governed by the needs of the mission than institutional perpetuation. Jesus does not call us to manage. (You may remember that one of Jesus’ disciples had a peculiar gift for that.) Our superintendents are called to develop transformational leaders and carry the strategic vision for their districts. They are not managers. They are stewards. Knowing the difference means everything for our future as Christ’s church.

(Being a DS often becomes an overwhelming task, rightly so. Yet, being overwhelmed is a choice. Here’s my favorite blogger, Seth Godin, to explain.)

3 comments on “What Would Happen If…Superintendents Stopped Managing?

  1. Craig Dale

    Thanks Craig for your clear thoughts over the last three posts. I wonder what it would take to move us to this system. It would get us ojt of the “lone ranger” system we seem to be stuck in. Is there a way or a place to demonstration the benefits of this proposal?

  2. Paula Ferris

    I recall having just such a conversation with you some years ago. Good to see it percolate into this terrific idea. I’ve thought something along these lines would work well for some years now.

    • It is interesting to find that I am not at all alone in this line of thinking. Kay Kotan, who is a congregational developer, also said the very same thing this morning. Now…how do we find a place to try it out and learn from the success and failures? It is such a radical shift in the way we do our work, it needs some good testing and iteration. In other words, it won’t and shouldn’t happen overnight.

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