ALCOA, Tenn. (Jan. 17, 2018) -- On January 1, all 162,000 members of the Holston Conference got a new name.
Former members of the Cleveland District, for example, are now members of the Hiwassee or Scenic South Districts. Former members of the Tazewell District will now answer to the name of New River or Clinch Mountain.
By the way, there’s another huge shift underway for the 874 United Methodist congregations of Holston Conference. Instead of being grouped into 12, churches and pastors are now assimilating into nine districts.
The changes are all part of a Strategic Plan labored on by a team chosen by Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor in 2015 and finally approved by the Annual Conference in June 2017. The plan is documented on the Strategy Team’s web page.
The selection and voting process for choosing the new district names began in October. On Dec. 14, the Strategy Team announced the winning titles, effective on the first day of 2018.
How did we go from Knoxville to Smoky Mountain/ Tennessee Valley … or from Morristown/ Kingsport to Mountain View? The Call reached out to church members through social media and email for insight into how and why certain names were chosen.
ABOUT THE VOTING …
Newly formed districts were instructed to form a committee to choose three names for voting within the district. Voters (any church member) submitted their choices by email, phone calls, in person, and in some districts, online.
The Rev. Jeff Wright said 75 names were originally suggested by church members for the district now known as Appalachian. The committee chose three names to vote on: Appalachian, Mountain Empire, and Wilderness Trail.
The Appalachian District comprises 58 churches from the former Big Stone Gap District and 42 from Kingsport District. Wright, former superintendent in Big Stone Gap, is now Appalachian’s superintendent.
“What I am most proud of in the process is both the congeniality of that meeting and the response of the people,” said Wright. “District 3 had a total of 1,076 votes cast with 588 of those from the Big Stone Gap side and 488 from the Kingsport side. While Wilderness Trail received the most votes on the Big Stone Gap side, the overall winner and name of the new district turned out to be Appalachian.”
In the newly named Tennessee Valley District, two administrative assistants are working together from offices formerly serving the Knoxville and Oak Ridge Districts. Tennessee Valley now includes 54 Oak Ridge and 32 Knoxville churches.
“Our name choices were Tennessee Valley, Heartland and Bull Run,” said Mary Hawkins, former Knoxville assistant. “It was a pretty tight race between Tennessee Valley and Heartland." Some voters were concerned that “Heartland” would be confused with a WBIR TV show with the same name, she said.
Bull Run only received 30 votes, compared to almost 300 votes combined for Tennessee Valley and Heartland, said Lori Hopper, former Oak Ridge assistant.
“Interestingly, ‘Heartland’ actually edged out ‘Tennessee Valley’ in votes from members of former Oak Ridge District churches,” Hopper said. “From conversations I heard, some of the support of ‘Heartland’ came from churches that are actually located in the more mountainous areas of the district and not in the valley at all. Others in favor of ‘Tennessee Valley’ did not think we were geographically located in the ‘heartland’ of Holston or many thought the name sounded too generic.”
Votes from former Knoxville District churches were 2/3 in favor of Tennessee Valley, 1/3 for Heartland, Hopper said. “So Tennessee Valley became the victor as the new name for District 6."
CLAIMING THE FAVORITES …
In all but two of the nine districts, voters chose the top name on the ballots. Superintendent Kim Goddard said she believes “New River” was the favorite for her district all along: “More people suggested it as an option when we were getting ready to choose what the three options would be.”
“New River” won by 100 votes in the district that now includes 52 churches from the former Tazewell District, 114 from Wytheville, Goddard said.
The Rev. Jason Gattis said he felt connected to the name ultimately chosen for his district, even before he knew he would be appointed to lead it. “I’ll have to admit that when I first heard we would be working to redistrict Holston and that it would include new district names, Smoky Mountain immediately came to mind -- which happened to be when I was serving in Seymour.”
Smoky Mountain District currently includes 52 former Maryville District churches, 18 Knoxville, and 2 Oak Ridge churches, of which Gattis now oversees.
“We had three great names to choose from [Smoky Mountain, Foothills, Little River], and it took a lot for me to hold back on what I desired,” Gattis said. At the beginning of the voting process, two of the three names stayed “pretty close … It wasn’t until the final week that Smoky Mountain began to leave the other two behind.”
In District 2, the selection committee chose “Clinch Mountain” as an option because it’s visible from all points in the newly formed district, said the Rev. Brooke Atchley, director of the Elk Garden School Community Ministry. The other two choices were Highlands and Overmountain.
“The Clinch is the main mountain range that runs through both of the old districts,” Atchley said. “This is something that the people of District 2 can identify with and represents the beautiful area we live in.”
In the southernmost district formerly known as Chattanooga, the top choice was also first on the ballot. The Rev. Randy Martin said voting was close between Scenic South and Lookout. (Third choice was Chickamauga.)
“Scenic South was heavily favored by voters in Sequatchie Valley and North Georgia,” said Martin, Scenic South superintendent.
CAUSE FOR CONFUSION?
Even after the new names were announced as final, some church members questioned the changes.
“Tennessee Valley is so generic it could apply to five districts,” said the Rev. Billy Kurtz, pastor at Norris/Sinking Springs UMC. “When I hear Tennessee Valley, I think Chattanooga, because that is what their region is referred to by the local media.“
“This will only lead to mass confusion. Most of these names could apply to any of the districts,” said Chad Littleton, member at Harrison UMC, Scenic South District. “I think most people will still refer to the districts by whatever city the district office is in. This will be particularly confusing for new UMC members or transfers from other conferences.“
Leslie Bright said he had “mixed feelings” about the new names. Bright is a member at First Broad Street UMC in Appalachian District.
“While I personally don't mind the idea of geographically-oriented names, I foresee some issues,” Bright said. “For example, Hiwassee and New River districts are named after rivers close to them, but the whole of the Holston Conference is within the Appalachians, and thus the Appalachian District name could apply to any of the other districts, too. The same issue exists with Mountain View, Tennessee Valley, and Smoky Mountain Districts.”
Hopper and Hawkins, administrative assistants for the Tennessee Valley office, said that navigating confusion among the people they serve will be a big part of their jobs for a while.
“When I answer the phone, ‘Oak Ridge District office,’ some people have asked, “Aren’t we the Tennessee Valley District now?’” Hopper said. “When I answer, ‘Tennessee Valley District,’ I am greeted with silence and confused responses asking if they have called the right number.”
“It’s going to take a while to adjust,” Hawkins said. “Just like Knoxville Center (East Town Mall) or Physicians Regional Hospital (St. Mary's), many people will continue to call us Knoxville District and Oak Ridge District -- at least until we actually get our offices combined and the confusion of transitioning from 12 to nine districts is put to rest.”
LOVING IT …
Despite the challenges of redefining the Holston Conference map, several members said they believe the new titles are good choices.
Wesley Bradley, member at First United Methodist Church of Elizabethton, said he likes his district’s new name, Three Rivers, because it connects with his own experience as an avid whitewater kayaker, which he learned to do at Buffalo Mountain Camp.
“It really defines our area well geographically with our three main tributaries that cut river valleys through our area: Nolichucky River, Watauga River and South Fork Holston River,” Bradley said. “I have a deep connection with rivers in my personal and spiritual life, so the new district name resonates in my heart in many ways.”
Goddard said that New River is a great name for her district for several reasons:
“The New River is unique to this district. It doesn’t run through any of the others, and it runs through parts of both the former districts, Tazewell and Wytheville,” she said. Also: “This is the northernmost district and New River marks part of the northern boundary of the Annual Conference.
The “New River” name also reclaims a piece of history, Goddard said, because the early-1800s Methodists defined and labeled the area as “New River Circuit.” “Interestingly, if you draw it out on a map, it’s almost the same geography as our ‘new’ New River District.”
Gattis said he quickly realized why “Smoky Mountain” was the perfect name for the district he now travels.
“The constant shadow to my left or right, depending on the direction I am traveling, is the Smoky Mountains,” he said. “I see it being our backdrop and almost impossible not to see no matter where you are within the district. Not only that, but where ever I find myself across the denomination representing Holston, colleagues will know exactly where my home is when I introduce myself from the Smoky Mountain District. To me, that’s pretty exciting.”
Contact Annette Spence at email@example.com.
Strategy Team page
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.