By Lindsay Peyton

Districts in the Texas Annual Conference are in the midst of transformation. Territories are merging, office locations are changing, and paperwork is being finalized for new names. “This is all to be in place by Dec. 31, so that when we begin the year, we’ll be ready to move forward,” Bishop Cynthia Harvey said in an Aug. 20 webinar.

Five reimagined districts will embark on the new year:

  • The “Northeast District,” comprising the East and North Districts, with 76 churches and 89 appointed pastors under District Superintendent Rev. Steve Woody.
  • The “Northwest District,” a merger of the West and Northwest Districts, under District Superintendent Rev. Kip Gilts, with 65 churches with 76 appointed pastors.
  • The “Southeast District,” composed of the former South and Southeast Districts, led by District Superintendent Rev. Dr. Vincent Harris, with 55 churches and 78 pastors under appointment.
  • The “Southwest District,” which includes the Central North and Southwest Districts, with 46 churches and 77 pastors under District Superintendent Rev. Elizabeth Duffin.
  • The “Metro District,” which is the new name for the Central South District. This is the only territory that did not merge. Rev. Dr. Elijah Stansell serves as District Superintendent for its 47 churches and 89 pastors under appointment.

A proposal to reduce the number of districts from nine to five – in an effort to maintain strong fiscal stewardship – passed during the Annual Conference in May.

Bishop Harvey explained that the move was made in response to the substantial number of churches and clergy lost through disaffiliation. Some districts dropped in size to as few as 17 churches.

“It became apparent that we would need to rethink and reimagine how to be an Annual Conference,” she said. “It was pretty obvious pretty quickly that it would not be good stewardship to continue to deploy District Superintendents as we had in the past.”

Initially, Bishop Harvey brought the idea of reducing the number of district superintendents from nine to five to the Conference Leadership Team (CLT), who then recommended reducing the number of districts to match.

“This was pretty bold, especially considering the timeline in front of us,” Harvey said. “We did not have a lot of runway. The CLT mobilized in heroic ways. They had to work swiftly. They did an incredible job preparing us.”

Once the vote was approved, the Bishop and cabinet were charged with drawing the boundaries and naming the districts.

Additional business included attending to legal procedures with the State of Texas and filing with the IRS, Bishop Harvey explained. “Nine to five sounds pretty simple, but we all know it’s not as easy as it sounds,” she said.

New offices, leadership teams and housing

In August and September, each district had a conference via Zoom. Clergy and district delegates voted on plans for reorganization, bylaws and resolutions.

Rev. Romonica Malone-Wardley, Assistant to Bishop, explained that in each merger, one district was identified as a “legacy district” and the other as the “receiving district.” The legacy districts transferred their assets and liabilities to the receiving districts.

It was also decided that the finances of each of the five districts would now go through to the Conference office in order to streamline the process and make it more efficient.

Malone-Wardley explained that the consolidation would reduce accounting overhead and eliminate the need for districts to employ their own personnel for the job.

She said the mergers also affected the location and personnel in each district office. There are ongoing conversations between the District Superintendents and District Leadership Teams about where to place district offices and how to staff them.

Redistricting has also changed the need for District Superintendent parsonages. The Conference has decided to sell the parsonages and instead offer housing allowances.

Malone-Wardley said that four houses have already sold. Except for one, all of the rest are currently on the market. The last house will be listed early next year.

Proceeds from the sale of the parsonages will be invested – and growth in the fund will support housing allowances going forward.

Redistricting will also affect the make-up of the Conference Leadership Team (CLT), Malone-Wardley said.

Formerly, the CLT was composed of all nine District Superintendents and the District Leadership Team chairs, as well as four at-large members, the Bishop, Assistant to the Bishop, and center directors.

“As our numbers are reduced, we will continue to strive to look for inclusivity in representation across the districts as we look at forming the next iteration of the CLT,” Malone-Wardley said.

If changes are recommended, she said the proposal will be presented at the Annual Conference.

In the meantime, some of the newly merged districts are already forming new District Leadership Teams, after taking votes during their called conferences. The goal is to have all the teams in place by the beginning of the year.

“We’re in a difficult but hopeful place of evaluating where we are, where we’re going, and what adjustments or changes are necessary to strengthen our ministries and our witness for the future,” Malone-Wardley said. She explained that, with the change in size of the Texas Annual Conference, came an opportunity to reevaluate strategy and realign resources.

“It’s an incredible time for us to lean into who we are as United Methodists, as we continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world through the work we’re doing in our communities.”

District Superintendents taking one faithful step after another

Bishop Harvey expressed deep gratitude for the excellent work the District Superintendents have already achieved, as they continue to learn new configurations, handle new business items and meet pastors and congregation members.

“Our District Superintendents have been taking one faithful step after another,” Harvey said. “We are all in new roles. With that comes a steep learning curve, which they have navigated with great brilliance.”

For DS Rev. Gilts in the new Northwest District, the past six months have involved merging accounts, moving offices and listing two parsonages.

“We knew it would take time,” he said. “But it’s all been running smoothly.”

Gilts explained that two offices will remain in the territory but at new locations – one at Pollard UMC and the other at A&M UMC. There will be only one administrative assistant.

In the past, Gilts served as District Superintendent in both the South and Central North Districts. He has always subdivided his area into “hubs” – a strategy which continues to serve him well.

“I refer to the hubs by days of the week,” he said. “Those are the days I lift those pastors and congregations up in prayer.”

Gilts holds hub charge conferences, where congregations can gather at a geographical midpoint. He also has set up hub sites for assessments, meeting with pastors individually at host churches.

In the new year, Gilts plans to host a series of Zoom webinars with pastors, exploring mission and vision for the local church. “For the past three years, churches have been in a necessary reaction mode,” he said. “Now it’s time for pastors to cast visions.”

He also wants to host Zoom meetings for the smaller membership churches in the District. He is planning get-togethers with pastors in various locations but also still drives to meet with congregations and said that nothing compares to face-to-face.

DS Rev. Duffin in the new Southwest District agreed and has been meeting each church individually for charge conferences. “It’s been a lot of miles, but I’ve enjoyed it,” she said.

During charge conferences, Duffin asked each church to identify what they want to celebrate from 2023. “That has been powerful,” she said. “To learn about some of the ministries they undertook, because they saw a need in the community, it’s just remarkable.” For the end of year assessments, Duffin has asked pastors to sign up at set locations based on what is most convenient. Last week, she spent a day in Katy and another in Spring.

This is her first time serving as a District Superintendent – and the experience has been invigorating, as she meets with each church. “There’s joy,” she said. “People are hopeful for the future. They want to talk about what’s next. People are eager to serve.”

Gilts has also noticed a new spirit in his District. “There’s a lot of community forming,” he said. “And I’m seeing a lot of signs of growth.” Gilts was reminded of a sermon concerning a tree that loses limbs and within a year sprouts new growth. “It’s not the same limb; it’s not the same branch,” he said. “But it’s the tree’s determination to live and grow. You see that with churches too. There’s a lot of sprigs of growth.”