Henry Ford invented the assembly line. His efficiency experts determined that to produce the maximum number of quality cars, workers should be stationed along the line, each one performing a given task.
But what works well for putting together cars is a failure when it comes to people. Having attended many District Assemblies in both the United States and in Africa, I wonder:
Do we now have District Assembly Lines?
Assemblies have become efficient, but less-and-less relational. The focus is on getting the church’s business accomplished in just a few short hours – a morning or an afternoon – but in the efficiency, have we surrender relational effectiveness?
It wasn’t always this way. We used to have District Assembly, which really were District Conferences. When I was boy on the Upstate New York District, we used to have a full two days given to Assembly. Pastors reported at-length on both victories and struggles. We took time to pray for each other. Resolutions were made from the floor, and we took the time to listen to both sides before going forward together.
Part of the problem is a good problem. In my life-time, we have more than doubled in number, from under 1 million to 2.3 million. This means that General Superintendents now are jetting around the world to hold District Assemblies. Since they are the only ones authorized to ordain elders and deacons, necessarily their stays are shorter.
Yet our sense of connection as local Nazarene churches is weakening. To reverse this decline, it’s time for us to get creative at the district level, and maybe the regional conference can guide us.
We have just finished a 5 day regional conference in South Africa. The incredible joy that I’ve seen on the faces of our delegates from southern Africa and lusophone Africa has done my heart good. We had time for each other. Around the breakfast, lunch, and dinner tables, we laughed and cried, renewed friendships and made new ones. In extended sessions, we discussed challenges in the church and shared possible solutions. Because it was a longer period, we had time for three nights of holiness preaching. Helpful workshops were the order of the day. We finished the week united in our common mission and feeling connected.
Yet the regional conference is expensive. We come from long distances, and these are just representatives. Many more who would have profited from the relationship building could not attend, and even if they had been available, what venue is large enough? Further, the regional conference is only every four years, hardly frequent enough for most.
The question is:
How can the relational emphasis of the regional conference be brought to the district level on an every year basis?
1. Take time together, several days annually, to build connection. The word Conference has a rich heritage within Wesleyan-Holiness circles. It was John Wesley (1703-91) who convened in London the very first Methodist Conference in 1744. John Wesley reported regarding this Conference:
In June 1744, I desired my brother and a few other clergymen to meet me in London, to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those who heard us. After some time, I invited the lay preachers that were in the house to meet with us. We conferred together for several days and were much comforted and strengthened thereby.
Wesley noted that they were “comforted” and “strengthened.” It also did not happen in a half day of hurried business. Rather, they were together for “several days.” It takes time to bond and build a team. What was true in 18th century England is no less true for human beings today, no matter their cultural background. Have we forgotten this relational truth?
2. Change our language from “Assembly” to “Conference.” Words matter, and the term “Assembly” has come to be associated only with church business. Let’s get back to our Wesleyan roots and speak of Conference. If need be, we can carve out three hours from the Conference and call it “district church business session,” but let it not be the primary focus. Our main purpose should be connecting.
3. Remind the District Superintendent and his or her team that they have great freedom to organize this annual event and to use their creativity. District Conference could be the most anticipated event of the year. As it currently stands, districts seem to feel like they cannot do much without the presence of the outside church higher-up, whether that’s the General Superintendent or whoever may have been appointed to preside in his or her place. If the “district business meeting” and the ordination service are the only two events requiring the presence of the G.S., then there is great latitude to plan other events around those times, events more conducive to team-building and making connections between local churches on the district.
4. Don’t forget the children, teens and twenty-somethings. On the planning team, there should be representation from teens and those in their twenties. Inter-generational events should be the norm and space given to participation in both planning and on the platform by these three often forgotten age categories. Let us enfranchise all ages at the District Conference, including children. Only then can we reverse the lamentable trend where the average age at what we now call District Assembly is certainly above 50 and perhaps higher.
In the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” the character played by actor Tom Hanks comes in to the neighborhood and builds a “big box” location of his chain book store. When the home-grown bookshop owner complains, he remarks:
“It’s not personal, it’s business.”
And that’s the problem with our current District Assembly Lines. They’re not personal, they’re just business. Assembly lines in the auto industry make for high efficiency, but in the church they’re destructive. It’s time to disassemble our annual District Assembly Lines and move to an annual District Conference, fostering over several days greater levels of connection while still accomplishing the church business that we must.
UPDATE: Twenty-four hours after posting it, this article has been viewed almost 400 times, which is more than 4x my usual traffic. Thank you to Dr. Eugenio Duarte for his comments at Africa Regional Conference this week, about connection really being our fourth Nazarene Core Value, i.e. Christian, holiness, misssional, and connectional. My essay is nothing more than reflecting on what he said and attempting to apply that principle in a particular case. I’m late to the party, as conversation on FaceBook shows some districts have already been re-thinking District Assembly in creative ways to combine it with other events (NMI, NYI, camp meeting) to make it longer and more relational. May this trend take hold.
Image credit: F.R. Milovan Blog