A Letter to an Incoming D.S.–Part 1

Last week one of my friends from seminary shared that he was about to be appointed as the United Methodist District Superintendent of a large city. As I usually do, I shared both congratulations and condolences. As we’ve chatted back and forth via Facebook, I got the idea of sending him a letter outlining some of my thoughts about his new role from my perspective as a pastor, and based on serving under the leadership of several D.S.’s, both good and bad, along the way. With his permission I am sharing this here.

Dear _________,

I celebrate with joy your Bishop’s discernment that you have the gifts to take on the role of supervision for churches and pastors in your area. At the same time, I also offer my condolences for the job you are about to take on seems to be draining, difficult, and filled with the frustration that comes from standing in the middle between the institution of our denomination (expressed in the Bishop) and local congregations and pastors on the front lines of ministry. During my 25+ years of being in the United Methodist fold I have seen D.S’s who were unbelievably effective, and others that could barely function. Those who struggled were not bad people – in fact some of them had been effective pastor’s in local congregations. Where they struggled was in making the transition from one form of ministry to another that doesn’t often have much in the way of personal rewards, but is vitally important to the success of this connectional endeavor that you and I are a part of.

I have never served in the role that you are about to assume, and as such I know that I have an idealistic view of the superintendency that probably is far from reality. I’ve seen many gifted and prophetic pastors move into the role only to become some sort of different person – something I am sure happens because of the nature of the job. And yet, I have been blessed to serve under one or two persons who didn’t drink the Kool-Aid they give D.S.’s at Lake Junaluska and who walk the balance between being the institutional master on the one hand, and the coach and support for ministry in the local church on the other. These are folks who knew that they worked for the Bishop, but didn’t fear him when it came to standing up for their pastors and churches. They weren’t pushovers, in fact the expected a lot of those under their care, but because they took care seriously and worked hard to be ministry partners with those at the local level, they were loved and respected and folks worked harder to meet those expectations. I’ve never forgotten them, and I carry their leadership with me.

So here are a few random thoughts about the task before you, from a friend and a United Methodist pastor who respects what you are about to take on, and will be praying for you in the days ahead:

1) Authority comes through relationship, not title, office, or other credential.

There is D.S. I know serving in another conference who I deeply love and respect. However, in some conversations that we have about the future of the church he continues to assert that we live under an episcopal system and that pastors simply need to submit to those in authority above. I understand what he is saying, and in many senses he is right in reminding us that we pastors take vows of voluntary submission to the authority of the church, the Bishop, and his or her appointed minions. As I remind my congregation every year at consultation time, I serve at the pleasure of the Bishop, and while I may disagree with the Bishop and/or even the discernment of the General Conference, as long as I am a pastor in our system, I submit to their discernment.

However, what I think is missing is in his analysis is that authority (the ascribed belief in another as an effective leader) always comes through relationships, not simply because a title says that one is a leader. It requires the hard work of getting to know those who serve under your leadership, giving them your time and attention, so that a trust can be built that leads to great and mighty things. Authority through rank works at some levels in the military, but even in the military there is a difference between a line officer, and someone that the platoon is willing to follow to their deaths. Authority comes when those who serve under and with you recognize that you care for them, that you are looking out for them, that you are interested in what they are interested in, and most important, that you too are willing to sacrifice for their success.

Recently I was reading John Wigger’s very good biography on Francis Asbury, who in many ways could be considered as much of a father of our church as John Wesley. Asbury has often been known as an opinionated and autocratic leader. What Wigger reveals, however, is that in fact Asbury was always engaged in relation building, especially with those who disagreed with his opinions. Asbury was not an especially great preacher, but he was a bridge builder who would travel a hundred miles out of his way, even when he was at his physical limits, to meet with one of his pastors. He was known as a great conversationalist, someone who took interest in others, and as a result his pastors (even when they weren’t happy about it) would follow his lead because he had demonstrated in a tangible way his commitment to the ministry and his pastors. No one . . . NO ONE . . . could EVER question Asbury’s level of commitment, and that motivated others when they were on the edge of giving up.

Ultimately your reputation as a D.S. will be judged not on your efficiency in processing the paperwork (although the authorities above you may suggest that to be so). Your reputation will be built on how well you have related to the folks and churches under your care. No one will remember that you ran a Charge Conference meeting efficiently. They will remember that you cared enough to show up – something that is next to impossible at times when there are 80+ churches in your care – but something that has to happen to the best of your ability.

This focus on relationship leads right in to my next suggestion, which will come in my next post…

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