The day after I was elected to the office of district superintendent (DS), the primary question in my heart was, “Lord, what have you done to me?” Gratefully, that question quickly gave way to a more useful question, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” It’s not as if I had no idea at all.
For 14 years, I had the privilege of serving under the leadership of Keith Wright, and I learned much from his good modeling of what a superintendent should be and do. I also knew that I would have to find my own way.
One of my first assignments helped me: I was faced with the daunting prospect of trying to help one of the largest congregations in our denomination select a new pastor. Here I was, a rookie DS, facing a church board of 25 capable, passionate, and opinionated leaders. What was my job there? To exercise command and control? Even a rookie could see the end game of that approach. Or was my primary role in that situation (and every subsequent situation) to cast a biblical and theological framework for what that church board was trying to do?
Naturally, they had a tendency to default to their workday orientation and approach the search as a business transaction. They did not need me to help them conduct surveys, build profiles, research candidates, and conduct interviews. They did need me, however, to call them to a thoroughly biblical ecclesiology that would help them to ask the right questions and to ask them in the right way. Through a long process that was fraught with peril, from innocent miscommunication to carnal lobbying, someone needed to take a leadership role to locate and name God’s presence in the process.
That experience, and many others far less noticed by the larger church, shaped my thinking about the work of superintendence. More deeply, a commitment to a Wesleyan theological foundation shapes the work of ministry in particular ways. Russell Richey, Professor of Church History at Candler School of Theology, has done significant work in this area, encouraging a Methodist “reconsideration” of the superintendency.1 Richey works with the notion of episkopos, defining the office as serving “to express and promote the visible unity of the body.” That sounds like something to which I can give my life. I am unwilling to give my life to this work if it is only about managing conflict and gathering statistics. I am willing to give my life to this work if it is about prophetically calling a people to live together in ways that promote the “unity of the Sprit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). I would also submit that this is a way of superintending that congregations hope for even when they would be unable to name it.
We need superintendents to be less like managers and more like teachers.
I have sensed my share of resistance to “the district” (which I eventually figured out meant me) when the role of DS was obviously being understood as one who comes to put the squeeze on a church to grow more, pay more, or shut it down. I have also witnessed a melting of suspicion and a warming of esteem when the role of DS is perceived as one who comes alongside to help restore a sense of hopeful imagination by rearticulating the rich biblical vision of participation in God’s mission in the world. It’s this broader vision, this truly missional perspective that enables one who could be viewed as nothing more than “middle management” to be one who pastorally calls the church to live into and out of the vitality of the in-breaking kingdom of God.
Practically, then, the superintendent can see every interaction with pastors and laity as an opportunity to shape this kind of Kingdom vision. We need superintendents to be less like managers and more like teachers. Whether it is a church/ pastor review, meeting with boards in pastoral transition, preaching to a congregation, or seeking to guide church leaders through a time of conflict, the role of district superintendent is to call out a community that orders its life around the values and priorities, not of this world, but of the kingdom of God as expressed when God’s people live together in a covenant of selfsacrificing love. Even while doing practical and perhaps mundane work, it is possible for the episkopos to shape a culture of biblically grounded theological reflection; whereby, pastors and lay leaders begin to move from pragmatism (what will get up a good crowd this week?) to incarnational gospel (what would it mean to serve our neighbors as Jesus would serve them?).
This is the sense in which I want to be the district pastor. This is language that some are using today, but I would suggest that we use it precisely. It certainly is not about being the district buddy or the district grandfather. It is about fulfilling the pastoral roles that are classically defined as the offices of Christ, namely: prophet, priest, and king.
Prophet speaks to the role of truth telling in the midst of a people. Superintendency provides profound opportunity for this kind of work, particularly when dealing with congregations that have become embroiled in conflict. A culture steeped in consumerism and self-sovereignty has recast pastors as targets of customer dissatisfaction rather than priests, prophets, and shepherds over God’s people. In the face of unrealistically high expectations and consumer-driven demands, pastors grow weary, lose sight of their mission, and finally give up. Nazarenes need to be called away from this idolatry and into a renewal of covenant with the people of God. District superintendents can have a strong, prophetic voice in this.
Priest is the most loved form of our ministry, in that we are privileged to guide the people into the presence of God. We gather the people in the name of our risen Lord Jesus Christ. We proclaim the Word of the Lord and joyfully announce the Gospel. We help our people to use the divine grace through the gift of the sacraments, and we pronounce the blessing of God upon them in Jesus’ name. Can a district superintendent still fulfill this priestly calling? I believe we can as we re-imagine the role of superintendent from outside expert (business model) to spiritual overseer (ecclesial model), one who teaches, corrects, and loves.
Finally, the idea of shepherd-king speaks to the most common aspects of our work. We are comfortable with the shepherd metaphor, but the idea of king should not be lost. It is not, properly conceived, a “lording over” role. It is rather the role of loving administration; whereby, our leadership encourages structures of ministry that promote the common good. It is a means by which the people feel secure, cared for, and loved. As superintendents work at the myriad of administrative detail that does shape much of the role, it is possible to move from seeing it as choking "administrivia"2 to loving our people through the wise administration of discipline.
If we accept that these classical pastoral offices are also accurate descriptions of what the church had in mind when the idea of overseer was conceived, then the poignant question may be, “What does it take to do the work of superintendent from this kind of theological framework?” There are many ways to approach such a question, but two implications have sharpened in my mind during my tenure as superintendent. These two are presence and time.
By presence I mean to reflect on the sense of itinerancy that is essential to the work of superintendent. Simply put, superintendents have to get “out there” among the people. As Richey says, “it is an odometer thing.” It has been remarkable to realize just how much it matters when I show up in one of our churches. Certainly some are wholly unimpressed, but generally I have found a genuine We need superintendents to be less like managers and more like teachers. sense of appreciation that someone who represents the connectional nature of our church would show up and be willing to learn something about what is happening in that location. This seems true for pastors and laity alike. Further, the very Bible word ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) has in its essence the meaning of “going to see” or “keep an eye on.” Pastoral, incarnational presence has everything to do with working at this role with theological intention.
Time is also a critical factor. By this I mean something akin to what Eugene Peterson said to me when I had the privilege of sitting with him one day at his home to talk about pastoral life. He said, “I discovered that it took me a lot of time to be a pastor.” He was not speaking of appointments, meetings, and getting up sermons. He was talking about prayer, immersion in the Scriptures, and the grace-enabled ability “to be unhurried with another person.”3 After about one year as superintendent, I faced the unpleasant reality that I was neglecting my core work in favor of the busy work of “running a district” (an idea which makes me laugh now). Consequently, my soul was dry, and I could feel the withering of my capacity for imaginative and prophetic speech. I remembered what Dennis Kinlaw said when he realized that an administrative job was keeping him from nurturing his mind and heart in the deepest ways. He said one day it hit him, “If I do not read, I will die!” It comes down to discipline, no way around it. I have to get to my calendar before anybody else does and intentionally carve out times for solitude, reading, and reflection. I’m thinking about more than daily devotions, but about time to think, time to pray, time to immerse in the Scriptures, and to engage spiritual conversations with brothers and sisters who help me to go deeper in my journey.
These are some ways of episkopos, ways that help me in the role of district superintendent to find my true moorings in the offices of Christ rather than in the strategies of contemporary corporate models of leadership. I do want to fulfill the duties assigned to me by the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene. Even more, I want to be part of helping to create a culture in which pastors are spurred on to be biblically grounded, theologically reflective, and relationally rich in love. I want to help shape a district family of congregations that are seeking to function as an authentic expression of the kingdom of God in the world.
NOTE: Be sure to read the responses from other people below this article.
JEREN ROWELL serves as superintendent of the Kansas City District
1. Russell E. Richey Doctrine in Experience: A Methodist Theology of Church and Ministry (Kingswood Books, 2009). See also Richey’s book, with Thomas E. Frank, Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition: Perspectives and Proposals (Abingdon Press, 2004).
2. I get this term from Marva Dawn.
3. Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, (Eerdmans Publishing Company, May 1987), 4.
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