new economic geography and reduction in umc bishop areas

I’m thinking, in particular, about my area of the UMC, the South Central Jurisdiction. Last Wednesday, Bishop Mike Lowry of the Central Texas Conference led a room full of us from the Texas Conference in processing the “Episcopal Area Reduction” report. The General Conference (for non-United Methodists, the every-4-years meeting of clergy and lay persons that sets church law, among other things) voted to reduce the number of bishops in the US, thereby freeing up funds for other matters. We elect and appoint bishops regionally in jurisdictions, so each jurisdiction that is affected (most) must decide how to decrease the number of “episcopal areas,” or areas served by a single bishop.

So, we’re deliberating about how best to do this. I appreciated Bishop Lowry’s presentation of the data and the way that he framed it by exposing us to the idea that every conference may see changes to its boundaries as a result of decreasing the number of episcopal areas by one. It’s helpful to get people used to the idea early whether they like it or not, whether it affects them significantly or minorly. Surprises aren’t welcome, so good to put that potentiality on the table. He invited feedback as well (as did our bishop–Bishop Huie, who had facilitated the presentation and conversation in Bishop Lowry’s conference, Central Texas, not long ago).

One of the connections I made mentally was with the lead essay in the March 2009 Atlantic that I’ve blogged here earlier in the spring (yes, I know I still owe one or two posts to wrap it up, this should spur that on), “How the Crash Will Reshape America,” by Richard Florida.

Here are some of my thoughts, trying to bring Dr Florida’s essay into conversation with our process in the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ). For reference, check out this pdf of the SCJ report, especially page 15, which has a color-coded projection for population trends in the next two decades.

Dr Florida’s essay is the first I’ve seen of analysis based on the potential impact of the recession and the collapses of the big companies back in the fall. Here’s the quick-and-dirty summary (online pages referenced):

  1. the rise of “mega-regions” in population, commerce, and innovation (pages 1-2)
  2. more demographic homogenization, in particular, educationally (beginning on page 2)
  3. the decline of the rust-belt and older Midwestern cities (page 3)
  4. the rise, generally, of the sun belt, except the housing-bubble areas in the southwest–Arizona and Nevada (page 4-5)
  5. examination of housing and transportation dynamics (page 5)
  6. critique of home-ownership and other suggestions for ways forward (page 6)

The way this seems possible to impact our context in the South Central Jurisdiction relates to the projected population shifts by county slide in the Episcopal Area Reduction presentation. A quick look at that slide’s assessment of rate-of-growth seems to support some of Dr Florida’s projections. The mega-region trend and the shift from rust belt to sun belt were already known, but he relates those already existing trends to the relative ability to bounce back from the current crisis. The crisis, then, is interpreted as accelerating and entrenching those trends, as I read the essay.

The population shift slide generally shows population decline in the most rural areas and the most rapid increase in the already largest metro-centers. But the “mega-region” (named in the Atlantic essay) of Houston-San Antonio-Dallas/Metroplex (with Austin located within the triangle as a creative center), shows much stronger growth because each of those anchor cities show multiple adjacent counties with the highest growth projection, contra places like St. Louis, Kansas City, Fayetteville, El Paso, and Albuquerque. Only the Texas-Mexico border and some areas near New Orleans press against that observation, but those only moderately so. The other thing I notice is that the counties surrounding the Mississippi River are almost exclusively in decline or in the lowest growth-rate projection. This might suggest that areas of higher growth along the river (a plus in the older economy), like St. Louis and New Orleans may be looking at increased population but also at a challenging economic reality.

I’m not completely sure what I think of this idea, but it occurs to me that with contexts becoming increasingly different from one another demographically (socio-culturally, further emphasized by education-level homogenization—see this post’s quote from an April 2008 David Brooks column touching on population shifts according to education-level) and economically (urban growth in population and economy vs. rural stagnation and decline, mega-region increases in population and economic power vs. old-economy urban stagnation and challenges), some specialization in missional focus might be helpful. Would it make sense to create metro-center conferences and non-metro-area conferences? This would allow for bishops and cabinets (and clergy, of course) to concentrate the energy spent on the learning curves represented by myriad mission fields in their conferences toward a smaller number of contexts for ministry. Perhaps that would help the church better respond to the realities in each of those contexts. As for clergy development and deployment, perhaps the work of Marcus Buckingham, Gallup/Tom Rath, and others can help us best “fit” clergy, ministry role, and mission field context.

I would press back on this line of thought with the objection that it helps to have multiple types of contexts in order to help find the best “fit” for clergy’s gifts and passions, to help clergy discern their best context/s for service, and that clergy (or for that matter, bishops and cabinets) may appreciate serving different sorts of appointments over their career. These are important I think, but I wonder if there are other ways to address this than in the manner in which we’ve addressed them in our past and current model for drawing Annual Conference boundaries?

In some ways I like this way of thinking, in other ways I’m not yet convinced; either way, it seems to me that now is the time for ideas and divergent thinking. I trust the process will weed out the bad ideas and keep the best ones.