Saturday, June 13, 2009

This Week in Texas Methodist History June 14

Episcopal Area Reduction Meetings Stimulate Interest in History
A mandate to reduce the number of episcopal areas in 2012 has spurred an interest in Methodist history in the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. Methodists are re-examining historic patterns of episcopal leadership, changes in annual conference boundary lines, and the historical demography of the eight states that make up the South Central Jurisdiction.

A little background—The basic organizational unit of the United Methodist Church is the Annual Conference. The term can be a little confusing to outsiders since Methodists use the term to mean different things. It may mean a geographic area, the churches within that geographic area, the clergy who belong to that conference, and a yearly meeting of the clergy and lay delegates elected by the local churches and the districts.

An annual conference is presided over by a bishop whose authority is general rather than specific to that conference. The general authority of the bishop means that a bishop is not limited to presiding over a single conference. She or he may preside over multiple conferences.

As a matter of fact, that was the historic pattern. Bishops of both the MEC and MECS met and formulated visitation plans. The number of annual conferences over which the bishop presided varied according to the number of bishops and number of conferences, and the bishops rotated the conferences among themselves. Considerations for travel difficulty and age and infirmity were taken into account. A newly-elected young bishop could expect to be assigned to one of the more distant episcopal circuits that required more rigorous travel.
There was no expectation that the bishop live in any particular conference. In the 19th century the majority of the MECS membership, schools, and publishing efforts were east of the Mississippi River so most of the bishops were elected from conferences in the southeastern United States. After their election most of them continued to reside in that region.

In 1886 Bishop Joseph Key moved to Waco and became the first MECS bishop to become a Texas resident. After his marriage to Lucy Kidd, he moved to Sherman. (see post for June 1, 2009)

The tradition of bishops choosing their residence continued into the 20th century. A. Frank Smith was elected bishop in 1930 while serving at First Methodist Houston. His first assignment was five conferences, Missouri, Southwest Missouri, St. Louis, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma Indian Mission. Although Smith gave serious consideration to relocation to Oklahoma City or Missouri, he stayed in Houston. He presided over those conferences for a quadrennium while living in Houston. In 1934 he was assigned to the Texas, North Texas, Oklahoma, and OIM and moved into an episcopal residence in Houston provided by the Texas Conference.

There was a movement in the middle years of the 20th century of conferences wanting their own resident bishop. They offered inducements such as episcopal residences, and the church responded by increasing the number of bishops so that more conferences could have a resident bishop.

A series of consolidations (East and West Oklahoma, North and South Arkansas, East and West Missouri) further increased the number of conferences which did not have to share a bishop. As of 2009 there are four episcopal areas which contain more than one conference (North West Texas/New Mexico, South West Texas/Rio Grande, Kansas East/Kansas West, and Oklahoma/OIM).

The situation in 2009 also finds gross disparities between the conferences in terms of population, church membership, financial resources, and land area. Those disparities should surprise no one since, in the case of Texas, the conference boundaries were drawn in 1910 to reflect demographic realities of that day.
The historical demography of the states of the South Central Jurisdiction since 1910 has been shaped by several macro trends. Some trends have produced exponential population increases. Among those are the industrialization of the coastal plains, the near universality of air conditioning, immigration from Mexico and Central America, and the development of north central Texas as a national and international transportation and manufacturing hub.

While the growth factors are dramatic and obvious, they do not tell the whole story. Disparities are also enhanced by population decline. The demographic loss that most effects the South Central Jurisdiction is the out migration from the agricultural lands above the Ogallala Aquifer. That aquifer underlies portions of five of the eight states that make up the SCJ. In 1910, when the Texas conference boundaries were put into their present form, the railroad companies that had received land in exchange for laying track were subdividing those lands into small farms and encouraging settlement. With the invention of a submersible pump able to extract aquifer water for irrigation, the population boomed again.

The Methodist appointment system worked well in such situations. Pastors could be appointed at annual conference to go immediately to new settlements and organize churches. By contrast other denominations such as Baptists might have to wait until the new settlers organized themselves into a church and called a pastor.

Increasing mechanization of agriculture and consolidation of small tracts resulted in a decrease in demand for agricultural labor and therefore decline of population. Many small towns withered and took their churches with them. The Methodist system that was so well suited for organizing churches in times of rapid population growth experienced stresses in times of population decline.

One result of these historic demographic trends is that the SCJ contains conferences that are among the fastest growing in the United States and some in population decline.

The bishops of the SCJ have been tasked with presenting a plan to the 2012 Jurisdictional Conference to reduce the number of episcopal areas. They have conducted a series of listening sessions to gather ideas from throughout the conferences. This writer attended the one in the Texas Conference and has access to the notes from two others.

The ideas generated by those listening sessions are literally “all over the map.” The following categories of ideas have been generated in order of amount of disruption entailed:
1. Put two conferences that currently have a resident bishop into a single episcopal area.
2. Merge two conferences that currently have a resident bishop.
#1 and #2 would involve only two conferences.
3. Redraw all the conference lines throughout the jurisdiction according to one of the criteria suggested at the listening session (transportation, media, economic interest, heritage, etc) and eliminate one conference in the redrawing.
#3 would potentially involve all the conferences
4. Just as conference boundaries no longer represent demographic realities, neither do the jurisdictional boundaries. The SCJ should lead a movement to redraw or abolish jurisdictional lines.
#4 would involve the whole denomination


Blogger Richard H said...

Thanks for the analysis. I'd planned on attending the meeting at Conference, but had to leave early for a funeral.

9:10 AM  

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