By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
Among the many duties of the office of the bishop is that of forming districts. Paragraph 416.4 of the 2012 Book of Discipline states that bishops are “to form the districts after consultation with the district superintendents and after the number of the same has been determined by vote of the annual conference.”
Three years ago we considered the possibility of decreasing our number of districts from six to four. At that time the rationale was to save up more money for the unfunded Pre-1982 clergy pension liability and to order our supervision in a different way. However, at our 2013 annual conference session we voted to maintain the six districts.
Recently the Rev. Gary Nicholson has asked to be reappointed as pastor of a local church. With the vacancy of the Northwest District Superintendent I wish to use this year to consider once again the possibility of decreasing the number of districts. To that end I have appointed an interim superintendent, the Rev. Joe Tyson, to serve the Northwest District during the 2016-2017 conference year (beginning in July). I extend my appreciation to Rev. Nicholson for his excellence in leadership and ministry as the Northwest DS for the past 5 years.
The rationale for downsizing the number of districts is financial. We continue to receive less money from our churches in Connectional Ministry Fund apportionment giving; and fewer churches are paying in full their billed funds for clergy pension and health benefits and for property and liability insurance. Conference Treasurer Jim Cruickshank is preparing a report that shows these shortcomings, which he will disseminate to the conference this week.
In addition, many churches have not fulfilled their pledges toward the capital campaign to fund Pre-1982 pensions, and the recent revision of the mortality tables, weak financial market conditions, and lower interest rate assumptions will increase our unfunded liability. Meanwhile, more churches have closed, more churches are going part-time, and less money is coming in each year. We simply have to consider ways to live within our means so that we are able to pay our bills, fulfill our obligations to our retirees and not continue to raise apportionments.
To have four districts means that superintending needs to be done in new ways. Each superintendent in this new configuration of four would have approximately 100 churches. This is more or less the average number of churches per superintendent in other conferences in the U.S.
With the development of our “Mission Connections,” many of our churches are now configured in clusters that can provide a source of local resourcing and handling charge conferences and other kinds of administration. We are also considering assisting each district with stipend funds to hire retirees to assist with various non-supervisory meetings. And we will consider expanding the role of the District Resource Assistants.
Video-conferencing and live-streaming technology will be explored in order to facilitate district meetings. These developments could save on driving times and expenses. The possibilities are endless.
The cabinet is currently working on a model for reconfiguring the conference into four districts. This will not be the same model as presented in 2013. Some of what we learned from the last plan to downsize is helping us to formulate a better plan this time.
The conference treasurer, the district superintendents and I will be visiting every district during the month of April to show the map of the proposed plan and to get suggestions and answer questions. We will also celebrate some of the good work that our apportionments and our districts are doing in the life of our conference and the denomination. The dates and district locations are as follows:
Lay and clergy are invited to these gatherings and anyone can attend the meeting which is most convenient.
Following these question and feedback sessions, we will consider the proposed configuration design further and make any necessary modifications. The final draft will be presented at our Annual Conference June 16-18, 2016, at the Lancaster Marriott in Penn Square. It will not be voted on until our Adjourned Session of Conference on Saturday, October 1, 2016, to be held again at Bethany UMC’s Macungie Campus. If we vote to decrease the number of districts, it will not go into effect until July 1, 2017.
It is important to take note that in July 2016 we may experience a reconfiguration of episcopal areas in our Northeastern Jurisdiction. The jurisdiction’s overall membership has dropped below the prescribed number needed to maintain nine episcopal areas.
An appeal to postpone this downsizing until 2020 is being made to the Interjurisdictional Episcopacy Committee, which will meet at General Conference May 15, 2016. If the appeal is not granted the Eastern PA and Peninsula Delaware conferences that make up the Philadelphia Episcopal Area will be split and each become part of two other episcopal areas with different partner conferences.
Nothing has been decided officially at this time because we are waiting for the appeal decision and also for a ruling from the Judicial Council as to who determines the configuration. The Book of Discipline is unclear and the Judicial Council will give us guidance during its regularly scheduled meeting in May.
That said, there may be another episcopal leader assigned to the Eastern PA Conference during the NEJ meeting in Lancaster (July 11-15, 2016). It is possible I may be assigned as bishop again to this area if we don’t downsize until 2020. However we simply have no way of knowing. We trust God for the leading of the Holy Spirit in all things. If there is a new bishop assigned to this conference in 2016, waiting to vote on the number and configuration of districts would give your new episcopal leader a chance to look over the plans that have been drawn up and give leadership.
An Adjourned Session in October also gives us a more timely picture of what our financial situation may be in 2017 and allows us to consider and vote on a more realistic 2017 budget on that day as well.
Please join me in ardent prayer for this time of discernment around the ordering of our conference life together for the future, a future that will be challenging but full of hope, I believe. May all that we decide advance the work of our continuing mission: Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.
Thank you for your faithfulness always.