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This is the first article in a series about the exciting collaboration taking place in the 16 districts

By: The Rev. Denise Bates, Dean of the Cabinet and District Superintendent for Danville and Lynchburg Districts

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the old skins would burst from the pressure, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine is stored in new wineskins so that both are preserved.”
—–Matthew 9:17 (New Living Translation)

               Though he stated a practical fact about wine and wineskins, Jesus was using this image as a metaphor for the development and growth that his ministry was heralding to all of Creation.  When we study the Scriptures, we find that God is always about innovation, and is never shy about the need for new “wineskins.”

Whether it is an old man from Ur, a younger son who stole a blessing, a shepherd boy who would be king, or a carpenter from Nazareth, God seems to always be doing something new, often in unexpected ways.  In the words of the Prophets, Mary’s Magnificat, and all throughout Jesus’ teachings, “the way we have always done it,” is re-purposed, re-defined, and sometimes just plain turned on its head.  Jesus said, more than once, “you have heard it said…but I say to you…” to announce a clarification or new definition for life and relationship. 

               For the last decade, if not longer, we have experienced turbulent change in the world, in our communities, and churches.  Advances in technology have changed how we connect and relate.  Societal attitudes toward organized religion, belonging and believing, challenges our local churches.  Shifts in the economic base of communities, and the resulting movement of population, has brought decline in some areas and prosperity to others and strains on social supports in both cases.  If we are honest, “the way we’ve always done it,” while a treasured part of who we are and how we grew, ceased to be deeply fruitful long before COVID arrived.

We have an opportunity, as Jesus’ faithful followers in the Virginia Annual Conference, to partner with God in the creation of “new wineskins,” for the beautiful “fruit of the vine” that God is calling us to now, in our local communities and contexts.

               In the Fall of 2021, Bishop Lewis offered the eight District Superintendents of the 16 districts an opportunity to discern and design a new contextually focused landscape for our Conference.  Each District Superintendent was asked to collaborate with the district leadership of their 2 districts to create a new district.  The results of this work are innovative and support the purpose of the District Initiative: To create a framework for the new district(s) that would best support and resource our churches and communities to share the love of Christ in real, tangible and transformative ways.   

               Rather than a single framework from the conference, each of the bi-districts are creating the framework that makes sense for their new proposed district and works for their context. The District Initiative teams in each of the bi-districts created a high-level plan, including a new name, and presented it to the entire Cabinet in December 2021. Each district has the agency to structure their staff and other resources to support the contextual purpose to which they are called. The work of the eight District Initiative teams continues as they discuss, discern, and design their new “wineskin,” to resource the laity, clergy, and local churches and reach the communities they serve. 

               Each bi-district team will share more detailed information and solicit collaboration in their own districts, along with conference-wide information in preparation for Annual Conference in June 2022. 

At Annual Conference, the Cabinet and district Lay Leaders will share their excitement and commitment to their proposed new district and all the possibilities of what the Spirit will do through our shared contextual collaboration.

In keeping with the Annual Conference’s authority to set the number of districts, the Cabinet will recommend to the Annual Conference a movement to 8 new districts effective July 1, 2022.  With the approval of the Annual Conference, each of the 16 districts will move forward to implement the changes needed to become eight new districts during the latter half of 2022. 

               This new “wineskin” we call the District Initiative is really 8 new “wineskins” that are connected as followers of Jesus and in furtherance of His Kingdom.  Each new district will be responsive to needs of their communities, their geography and their disciples, as we join together to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The new districts will be nimble and able to adapt to whatever lies ahead.  As the people called United Methodists, we have always known the power of connection. As people who follow Jesus, we have always known that we are called to connect with God’s children, offering the love of Christ in real, life-saving, transformative ways. Once again, as throughout Scripture, God’s people are prayerfully journeying forward together on new roads, sharing the Good News of God’s love.

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