Three years ago we embarked on a journey to refocus the energy and the resources of the Western North Carolina Conference. After months of conversation, the Annual Conference voted to move to eight districts. A Transition Team then worked for a year to bring back recommendations which we have been implementing over the last three years.
Two factors guided and influenced this transition. One factor is the conviction that the mission and vision must drive the organization and structure. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of lives, communities, and the world. We believe that we will accomplish the mission only through vital, healthy, thriving local churches, and thus our vision is to increase the number of vital churches fully engaged in God’s mission in the world. Another factor was the need to reset the financial baseline of the conference by shifting our resources from propping up the bureaucracy to supporting ministry in local communities and around the globe. How are we doing?
Moving from fifteen districts to eight has been geographically, physically, and emotionally challenging. After decades of growing comfortable and accustomed to one way, we are charting and navigating new waters of mission and ministry. Both lay and clergy have exhibited great patience and a willingness to move into new relationships and patterns of travel in order to be about God’s mission.
The District Superintendents have been in the process of defining what the Book of Discipline names as the first role of the office: “the superintendent will be the chief missional strategist of the district” (Paragraph 419.1). We have been clarifying what that phrase means through doing, learning, and adapting. As is the case with any change, the process is slow and there is much to learn as the responsibilities and roles continue to shift. As part of our learning process, we have engaged with several coaches and consultants and have met several times with the Cabinet of the North Carolina Conference, which also reduced the number of their districts to eight.
A key strategy in our transition has been the establishment of our missional networks. These groups of churches in geographic regions of each district are intended to be grass roots movements of Methodists who work together around a common mission project, within a common mission field. The intent behind these networks was that they would be flexible, organic, and creative, and not another layer of structure, nor a ‘sub-district.’ There was never the expectation that the original alignment of the networks would remain fixed.
After three years, we can report that most (but not all) networks are functioning and, in many cases, accomplishing amazing things in schools, prisons, and neighborhoods. From the beginning, we have said that a vital church must get outside the walls of the church building, and the networks become a means of doing that. We continue to encourage churches and networks to respond to the leading of God into the mission field, and even to alter a network and to create new partnerships and relationships with other churches. The networks enable us to practice what Jesus commanded: “go!”
It has been a challenge to move from a structure where it seemed that the local church existed to support the conference structure, to a reality where the conference exists to resource, support, and encourage local churches in their mission and ministry. In these three years we have moved toward not only a different model of staff configuration but toward a more collaborative ministry between staff and superintendents as all of us are engaged in living out our vision
Through our work with organizational consultant Bud Wrenn, and on-going dialog, we have now created a Strategic Alignment Leadership Team (“SALT”) consisting of the conference ministry team Directors. SALT meets regularly as a team and with the rest of the conference staff to plan together how to support effectively and efficiently the mission and the goal of increasing the number of vital congregations. The Cabinet and SALT also meet together regularly for the same purpose.
There have been a number of changes in personnel and in responsibilities in the last year.
The role of the Assistant to the Bishop has been transformed into a role that in the business world would be named “Chief of Staff.” Sally Langford has led this transition well, and Amy Coles will build on it starting July 1.
Gary Shockley is giving leadership to our Church Vitality Team, which includes four “Church Vitality Strategists” who are deployed across the conference to meet with, coach, and encourage local churches.
The recent departures of Jennifer Davis and Jaylynn Byassee will mean further adaptation as we seek to be more responsive to our vision and the deployment of our staff. We are redefining and reshaping the Disciple Development Team, which will take place over the next six months.
The addition Kathy Odell as Director of Human Resources is helping us align all conference and district employees as well as comply with regulations assigned to employers and employees.
Several new support personnel have come on board to assist us in our move toward resourcing local churches.
We began our transition work with a plan to reset the financial baseline of the Conference. After an initial reduction in the conference budget in the first year of moving to eight districts, we have been able to essentially hold the budget level. In that process we have shifted funds away from administrative overhead in order to make available grants to churches and networks as they engage in mission locally. This has been an effort to turn the organization and structure upside down and to encourage and support ministry that bubbles up from local churches instead of ministry that is pushed down from the conference level. In resetting the financial baseline, we want to support and resource those efforts.
Over these three years we have seen regular reductions in the pension costs for clergy which are the result of wise and solid investments over the last twenty years. Our hope moving forward is to continue to hold the bottom line of the overall budget while at the same time supporting the mission of the church and providing appropriate compensation for superintendents and staff who are serving faithfully with larger responsibilities.
In the days leading up to Annual Conference, watch for additional papers and reflections on the transition, including what to expect in the coming year.