ALONG THE PATH
By Robert M. Chapman, II
On Feb. 7, Bishop Sharma D. Lewis, our resident bishop of the Virginia Conference, announced a bold new initiative which will take effect Jul. 1. The initiative will follow our June annual conference session, which due to the pandemic will be held virtually once again this year. One of the major proposals will be the reduction of the bishop’s cabinet, currently comprised of 14 district superintendents, down to eight, with each of the eight district superintendents serving two districts. Projected appointments for July 2021-2022 will see our district superintendent, The Reverend Seonyoung Kim leaving our district to serve the combined area of the Elizabeth River and Eastern Shore Districts. Our York River district along with the Rappahannock District, will welcome The Reverend Charles F. Ledlum-Bates as our new district superintendent. Throughout the Conference, the implementation plan of sharing of two districts under the guidance of one district superintendent is as follows:
At this stage, it is important to note a technical distinction. The combination of two districts being served by one district superintendent is not an official merger of two districts into one, and therefore this proposal does not need to be approved by a Conference vote, thus allowing the current alignment to move forward in July. However, there is a strong possibility that the current 16 districts will be downsized into eight or fewer. This may be proposed and voted on at the June 2022 Annual Conference. In regards to this, the following question and answer is addressed in the letter from Bishop Lewis: “Does this mean we’re moving toward eight districts? Our implementation team is considering this and the implications. We expect there will be fewer districts, but the final recommended number has not been determined. We are prayerfully seeking wisdom for alignment and scalability. As mentioned above, any change in the number of districts would require an Annual Conference vote.”
According to the letter, current district offices and staff members will stay in place from July 2021-2022. However, this could possibly change in July 2022, particularly if the York River District and the Rappahannock River Districts were to officially merge into one district. If this occurs, local churches such as Chestnut would be served by one district superintendent serving more pastors in a supervisory capacity and an even larger number of churches covering a broader geographical landscape. Also noted in the statement released from the bishop’s office, Bishop Lewis formed a team known as the District Alignment Team (DAT) comprised of both clergy and laity in response to the question: “How can districts most effectively order themselves for the adaptive challenges of the 21st century?” Bishop Lewis notes this question “propels us to be innovative and collaborative, especially as we have not significantly changed our order for more than 40 years.” Following interviews, survey and data collected from other annual conferences, members of the DAT made the following recommendations:
Given the effect of the pandemic on local churches and the lingering uncertainty of the United Methodist Church, particularly with regard to issues facing delegates at the next General Conference, one may wonder the rationale for implementing this alignment. We have encountered so much change and uncertainty in the last year. Bishop Lewis explains: “As Virginia United Methodists, we have met this moment in our history with renewed vision, setting our eyes on the One who is unfailing. Our vision remains strong: ‘To be disciples of Jesus Christ who are lifelong learners who influence others to serve.’ We have begun to dream together of how we might bring this vision to life in our conference, in our churches, and in our communities.” She further states: “In the midst of a pandemic, with a renewed call to combat racism, and with General Conference delayed but looming ahead, it is more important than ever for the institutional structures of our church to be aligned WITH and work FOR the missional purpose of our church. We are called to lead, not wait. We must boldly move forward in a time when people need to hear the good news of Jesus more than ever. In that sense, now is the perfect time.”
Between April 2021 and February 2022, six virtual listening posts will be held throughout the Conference. Additionally, further information can be obtained, including a video from Bishop Lewis outlining the district alignment plan which can be accessed on the Virginia Conference web site at www.vaumc.org/dat. In the meantime, we offer thanksgiving to all of our district superintendents for the service they share with our churches throughout the Virginia Conference. No doubt, the implementation of this plan beginning in July will mark a significant change in relation to their ministries, which no doubt will have an effect on the missional, ministerial and administrative structures on each district and local church. Most likely, July 2022 will be a benchmark for the Virginia Conference, particularly with regard to the design of our districts and the geographical relationship of our churches to the local district office.