Shannon Christman is a freelance writer and copy editor. Her church, Community EFC in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, recently moved into a building purchased for $1.00.
Someone once asked EFCA President Bill Hamel: “If you were to start over with a new structure for the EFCA, would you do away with the districts?” The organization’s 17 districts, after all, were never planned or mapped out. Rather, they sprang up one by one—some even predating the official 1950 formation of the Evangelical Free Church of America.
Bill replied that he would keep the districts. “We would always need some regional entity that is there to serve the churches and pastors,” he explains, “because you can’t do that directly out of Minneapolis.”
The district structure “formed for a missional reason, and that is to start churches,” Bill adds. As more churches began, districts put together boards to offer valuable resources and oversight for both church planting and congregational care.
Today, these two purposes—church planting and congregational care—remain at the core of the district structure. Additionally, districts offer pastoral care, leadership training, credentialing and placement assistance; serve as the entry point for congregations to join the EFCA; facilitate networking and communication among EFCA pastors; and assist local churches through transitions in leadership.
A typical district has its own board of directors and district superintendent, who are recognized by the national EFCA office but operate autonomously. Jack Wilson, senior pastor of Waterdam Church (EFCA) in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, serves as board chair of the Allegheny District.1 He values the connection with a broader ministry team that this affords his church. “We are stronger together than we are functioning by ourselves,” he explains.
“I also want to help my district superintendent [Jeff Powell], since he has been so helpful to me as a leader in an EFCA church. I am there to help Jeff get ministry done the most effective way possible.”
For example, as board chair, Jack helps invest in training and equipping through more than 25 annual workshops and events for local pastors, pastoral couples and lay leaders.
Neal Brower serves as superintendent of the Western District.2 In addition to facilitating training and conferences, Neal loves meeting pastors face-to-face and encouraging them to help each other.
“Life-on-life connection has taken on an ‘old-school’ mystique in our day,” he says, “because pastors are expected to be self-sufficient, unbroken, super-capacity and high-achieving in relative isolation. This heart-to-heart element might be one unique thing we have to offer as a denomination.”
Neal encourages leaders in his district to pull together “for each other’s hearts” and to gather their resources in order to multiply disciplemakers and churches “in a spirit of cooperation and partnership.”
Each district does things a little bit differently, but in every case, the focus is on helping local pastors and churches serve their communities as effectively as possible. Steve Highfill, superintendent of the EFCA West District,3 describes the biggest difference among districts as “an economy-of-scale dynamic.”
“On one end of the spectrum,” he explains, “are smaller districts where the district superintendent is bivocational, serving as both local church pastor and part-time superintendent. Ours is on the other end of the spectrum, with a multiple-staff team hired to areas of need and gifting. And there is every combination in between.”
Although the district superintendents are “a pretty self-sufficient group of guys” (according to Neal Brower), Bill Hamel encourages them to work together and with the national office. And even in a movement known as an association of autonomous churches, that networking seems to be working. “I love the brotherhood,” Neal says simply.
Cooperation among the districts leads to missional benefits as well. After all, the goal to multiply transformational churches among all people needs all churches and all districts on board.
“We want to become a movement that multiplies rather than a movement that just adds,” Bill says. “Together we can do that, and I believe we are well-positioned right now to see a breakout of multiplication of churches across the country.”
It may have been built without a blueprint, but the district structure serves the EFCA well when it supports autonomous congregations while fostering synergy toward reaching our common goals.