Just over a year ago, and after much discussion and deliberation, the Methodist church in Sheffield amalgamated its then eight circuits into one 'mega-circuit' covering the whole of the city, as well as parts of north Derbyshire around Dronfield. For anyone unfamiliar with the ways of Methodism, a circuit is a geographical grouping of churches around a team of ministers for the purposes of mutual support, encouragement, mission and worship. The 'new' Sheffield Circuit (how long will we continue to call it 'new'?) brings together 64 congregations with an ordained staff team of around two dozen and other lay staff in pastoral, missional and administrative roles.
The principal reason stated for bringing this huge edifice about was to enhance and enable the mission of the church throughout the city. How has it gone so far? What does it look like from the perspective of one of those ordained ministers?
In terms of the ordinary, day-to-day life of the local congregations for which I have responsibility, very little seems to have changed. Life and ministry goes on pretty much as it did before. There have been some different faces leading worship on occasions, but otherwise very little else is different. From my own perspective, I have preached in a number of different churches, as far north as High Green and as far south as Coal Aston.
One of the priorities of the new circuit has been to conduct a full and comprehensive review of all of the worshipping communities within the circuit over the course of 3 years. The first phase of this is drawing to a close and we wait to see what proposals come from this. I hope that this does not simply degenerate into finding reasons to persuade chapels to close - to 'rationalise our resources' - but that it takes bold decisions to enable the life and mission of the church to flourish where it can within the city by ensuring that the necessary resources are provided where and when they are needed.
For those 'involved' in the life of the circuit, there have been some obvious changes. Meetings are bigger (and have been considerably longer at times, due to residual business from the previous circuits), which can at times stifle debate and discussion, but new ways of doing business are being explored which hopefully can address this. Communication - particularly making those who have previously been involved in the strategic planning in the circuit as members of the Leadership Team aware of what is being planned/ discussed/ thought about - has been patchy at best, and many of us have felt disconnected from the life of the circuit. This is being addressed, and we wait to see how effective it will prove in helping the whole circuit to feel that it is involved in the future direction of the circuit. Much business, it seems, is still being driven by the four Co-Superintendents, though this may simply be my perception.
My primary concern with this large circuit is that it may very well lead to local churches becoming more detached from one another, as the 'centre' becomes large, nebulous and distant: that we will lose our essential Methodist connectedness in all but name. 'Circuit identity' has always been an issue throughout my 25 years of ministry, and this can only be exacerbated in a larger grouping. Our corporate acts of worship, to wave farewell to, and to welcome, ministers have been inspiring times, but there is a need to ensure that behind that celebratory facade there is an underlying unity holding it all together.
We have come some way in the last 12 months to beginning to achieve this: let's pray that we continue, otherwise this will simply become another machine draining resources from local mission rather than investing those resources in the life of God's Kingdom.