Stay or Go? How District Superintendents Guide

May 13th, 2019

This is part 6 of a 6-part Stay or Go series focused on the future of The United Methodist Church. Download the entire series as a PDF booklet at the bottom of this article.

When a denomination fractures into two or more pieces, there is vigorous competition to sway churches or staff to stay or go over the next two years. Leaders from one “team” will actively try to recruit more “players” to their “side.” This places a District Superintendent in unfamiliar territory.

District Superintendents have traditionally been administrators, personnel managers, program advocates, and policy makers. In recent years, they have been asked to re-tool as Regional Strategic Planners. In fact they have become interventionists, conflict mediators, educators, and counselors who often struggle to find time for strategic thinking about the larger regional mission. They often feel torn between the needs of pastors, rapid changes in the mission field, and expectations to support denominational priorities. How they feel and address this stress depends on how God has “wired” them as spiritual leaders. (I identify eight distinct kinds of spiritual leadership identities in my book Spiritual Leadership.)

Many District Superintendents are “wired” to be enablers/facilitators (or as I call them, “Constant Caregivers and Visitors”) and they may feel the greatest stress in a denominational split. Their pastoral success has often been based on their personal attention to details and individuals, and the degree to which they are liked. Empathy is their strength, but this makes it all the harder to differentiate self from struggling congregations, angry church members, and upset clergy. The metaphor of “church family” is very strong for them spiritually and emotionally, and they can be overwhelmed by grief and paralyzed to give direction. The “way forward” in a denominational schism is not therapy.

Other District Superintendents are “wired” to be CEOs and Disciplers (or as I call them, “Constant Builders” and “Faith Tutors”). Their pastoral success has often been based on seeker sensitivity, membership growth, and volunteer empowerment. Effectiveness is their strength, and they are more likely to be upset by diminishing resources, destabilized programs, and theological or ideological fog. The metaphor of “God’s Kingdom” (or “Realm”) is very strong, and they lament the loss of social credibility, community impact, and spiritual maturity. The “way forward,” however, is not to bear down, demand more, add layers of accountability, or enforce zero tolerance policies; nor is it to preach better, teach more, or attend more meetings.

"Sideline Church" by Thomas Bandy. Order here:

There are other postmodern forms of spiritual leadership. Some District Superintendents are “wired” to be gurus, visionaries, mentors, and pilgrims (“Life Coaches,” “Relentless Futurists,” “Greek Interpreters,” or “Determined Travelers”). Their strength is their cross-cultural experience and lifestyle sensitivity, and they are more likely to question their role in the institution altogether. They have been uneasy with their job to begin with, and they sense that God is moving in an altogether new way that makes traditional church institutions increasingly obsolete. These corporate managers are apt to become future religious entrepreneurs. In a sense, for them there is no “way forward,” but only a “way sideways.”

The ways in which District Superintendents feel and address the stress of a schism are certainly parallel to that of clergy (see my previous article on How Clergy Decide). However, denominational loyalty is usually even stronger for them. This can make their burden of responsibility and vulnerability to burnout greater.

Regional Sales and Account Retention Manager

As the denomination fractures, District Superintendents of all kinds are being forced by personal inclinations, changing circumstances, and hierarchical necessity into a new and uncomfortable role. For some, the combination of unfamiliarity and burnout could add to the risk of resentment, anger (both repressed and expressed), and depression. On the other hand, for others the opportunity to focus mission and deepen unity could bring exhilaration and new optimism for renewal.

One side of this role is to become a “Regional Sales Manager” for the corporation since they oversee church plants, fresh expressions of outreach, and innovative forms of ministry. They have to retrain all the “sales representatives” to conform to corporate policy and still attract more customers. The other side of this role is to become “Account Retention Managers” since they oversee existing church franchises across their territory. They have to persuade the pastors and boards who feel the greatest ownership for the institution to stay with the company or join another. It is a corporate role that is very uncomfortable for spiritual leaders. However, if you don’t try to persuade churches to stay or go, other people will — so there really isn’t any choice. No one likes to apply business terminology to the church, but today there are limited resources to support a denomination. Volunteers and money are limited, and any organization that holds property, manages programs, and pays professionals must be aggressive to ensure economic security, leadership recruitment, and mission success.

Forgive me for using marketing language to describe the new role of a D.S. However, fractured denominations are like competing automobile dealerships. The owners are full of brotherly or sisterly love at the Rotary meeting but aggressively compete to sell their brands, and the Sales Representatives are prepared to explain to any would-be seeker the advantages of their vehicles over anybody else’s.

District Superintendents can learn some important lessons from retail corporations. This is what a good Regional Sales Manager or Account Retention Manager does.

Believe in your product

This can be tricky because Sales Representatives know the flaws of their vehicles (or denominations) very well. Unlike car dealers, however, District Superintendents like to be scrupulously honest and avoid any hint of hypocrisy.

The truth is that you should not believe in any denomination. You can readily admit there are many institutional flaws. You do believe that the Methodist tradition is a worthy and useful way for individuals and societies to be transformed by God to model and reflect the values and teachings of Christ. More than this, you believe that this tradition is most effective when unity of purpose is combined with adaptable practices that are culturally sensitive. This is the “method” in “Methodism.” This is what it means to have open hearts, open minds, and open doors.

It may be that other versions of Methodism can do the same thing, but in these days of ideological polarization that may be easier said than done. The current United Methodist version has always tried to walk a middle way, provide multiple options, and unite people around a larger vision of the Realm of God even if they disagree about how that Realm should look in our broken world. Separatists must earn that credibility. They have to convince others that exclusion is really inclusion, and that is not an easy task. “Publics” may be swayed by emotional appeals and big promises, but “persons” are more cautious and ask more questions.

Sales Managers (or District Superintendents) may acknowledge the faults of their company (or denomination), but they are never embarrassed about their organization. They stress that their organization is always learning, evaluating and improving; and that they are always training, evaluating, and holding their leaders accountable to the highest standards of integrity and performance.

Empathize with your customer

When you visit a car dealership, you always see a Sales Manager standing in the window observing you. They are not idlers; they are noting every detail of your appearance and behavior. By the time you enter the building, they already know your lifestyle profile and can anticipate your questions and needs.

The same is true for the D.S.. You observe a mission field before you ever talk to a church. You compare proportionate lifestyle segment representation between memberships and communities (using MissionInsite). You learn their questions and needs. You understand their expectations of clergy leadership, hospitality and worship, small and large groups, Christian education, property and facility and symbols, and learning methodologies. You anticipate the cost of adaptive change and prepare to explain the mission rationale.

The purpose of a Charge Conference is changing. Think of what happens when the Sales Manager finally sits down with the customer. The conversation is based on what he or she has observed about the customer and discovered about contextual driving conditions, and not on what products the car company wants to “upsell” to consumers. And the goal is not to reach an agreement about ideal automobiles, the future of automobiles, or the philosophy of driving. The goal is to customize a car for local driving conditions.

The current trend, prompted by fewer districts with more churches, is to combine churches into a single Charge Conference. I think this is a mistake. Every church is unique, every community is different. We often confuse empathy with agreement. Empathy is a matter of the heart, not the head. Empathy means that you feel their pain and share their anxieties. You see and share the Holy Spirit moving in and among peculiar people, in particular contexts, in mysterious ways. Churches are more likely to stay or go with the denomination that treats them as uniquely valuable rather than generically the same.

Build a relationship

I bought a new used Jeep last April, and by the time I picked it up I had a new friend. And this was not a phony friend. It was a genuine friend. He was a young guy in jeans who admired my boots and was nervously expecting a new baby into the family. There was a fixed price on the jeep and he knew he would sell it tomorrow if I didn’t want it, so most of our time we talked about parenting, dual-career households, and hopes for the future.

In the same way, the D.S. needs to build a genuine friendship. They sincerely want to listen to the church’s story and are ready to risk sharing their own story. Mentoring relationships are replacing “pep talks” in the corporation, and they are replacing guest preaching in churches. District Superintendents should probably decline invitations to preach whenever possible and instead seek opportunities to talk informally with church leaders. Preaching may be valuable in many ways, but here it is a sidetrack. The D.S. should spend less time addressing a crowd and more time mentoring pastors and board members as individuals or as a small group. This is the best way to open their minds to new or different ideas.

Any successful retailer will tell you that making the sale is the easy part — retaining the account is that hard part. The goal of a Sales Manager is to establish a trust that not only sells a car, but motivates the buyer to return for servicing and come back for their next car. The successful dealer is not a company trying to be your friend, but a friend trying to become your company. I think the same attitude applies to the new role District Superintendent. It is less important to “sell” institutional policies and plans and more important to bless a pilgrim on whatever journey God has in store for them.

Stay positive

The temptation in any schism is to sell your product by denigrating the competition. Unfortunately, this strategy has been increasingly common since the 1980’s as the ecumenical movement lost momentum. Churches deflected attention from their own vague intentions by loudly proclaiming: We aren’t like them! Fifty years later, recruitment or “evangelism” has come to imply participation in hate rather than participation in peace. The ranks of the “Nones” are growing exponentially, and the top reason for not participating in — and/or dropping out from — the church is that churches are too judgmental. This accusation is consistently made toward both conservative AND liberal churches. Frankly, the public is fed up with self-righteous religious people ranting about the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the log in their own.

Learn from retail. Whether you are selling a product or retaining an account, concentrate on the value of what you have rather than flaws in your competitor’s product. Consumers may buy a car because it is currently the best of a bad bunch, but they only remain loyal to the brand if it is consistently the best every year. Seekers may join a denomination because of its sales pitch, but they will only stay with a denomination if it adds value to their lives. Loyalty is not earned through promises, but through deliverables.

When denominations split, both sides discover to their dismay that they continue to split again and again. Once a covenant is broken, it is easier to break the next one and the one after that. There is a reason that many researchers suggest there are as many as 33,000 Christian denominations in America alone. The definition of “church” and “denomination” may vary, but however one tallies the score, that’s a whole lot of disaffection.

So stay positive. Focus on the value you offer, rather than ridiculing the deficiencies of your competitors. Your membership may drop, but the members you have will be steadfastly loyal. Ironically, what is often true in the corporate world is always true in the Realm of God: Churches do not thrive when they participate in hate; churches thrive when they participate in peace.

Heart to Heart

Sometimes District Superintendents need to expand the vocabulary of churches. Specifically, it may help churches decide to stay or go if they understand the differences between “cults,” “sects,” and “churches.” A cult is a spiritual community that agrees with the leader about everything. A sect is a spiritual community that agrees with each other about everything. But a church is a spiritual community that tries to live like Christ in spite of everything.

The D.S. as Regional Sales Manager does not need to inspire churches with grandiose visions of saving the world or adding 1,000 new members every month. They just need to inspire the church to be more effective in their neighborhood and more creative in their congregation. When churches are deciding whether to stay or go, they are less likely to join the denomination that promises the moon or guarantees certainty. They want to be part of a denomination that helps them walk deeper and further with Christ day by day, neighbor with neighbor, in a complicated world.


Stay or Go?
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