Superintendent (ecclesiastical)

Superintendent is the head of an administrative division of a Protestant church, largely historical but still in use in Germany. It replaced the title of bishop in Northern Germany and Scandinavia after the Protestant Reformation, since bishop was associated with Roman Catholicism. It was also used in the early days of the Church of Scotland. Later, the title was adopted to describe clerical positions in the hierarchy of Methodist churches.

Lutheran usageEdit


Superintendents were created in Sweden after the Protestant Reformation. The office was similar to that of bishop, but instead of being ordained by the archbishop, the superintendent was appointed by the Crown. This new model of ecclesiastical polity was partly political, as the Roman Catholic bishops before the Reformation held considerable political power and often used it against the king. Superintendents' loyalty was supposed to lie with the head of the new Church of Sweden, the monarch. Some Lutheran theologians also considered the term less Catholic and therefore preferable to 'bishop'.

In Sweden proper, the following dioceses have been governed by a superintendent:

The diocese of Lund was equally administered by superintendents from 1537 to 1637, but was at that time part of Denmark.


Superintendents in the diocese of Oslo
Superintendents in the diocese of Stavanger
Superintendents in the diocese of Bjørgvin
Superintendents in the diocese of Nidaros

Baltic statesEdit

The Church of Sweden's organisation in the Baltic provinces were created by similar provisions. Livonia came under a superintendent in 1622 and a superintendent-general from 1678. Superintendents were also appointed to Ingria in 1641 and to Saaremaa in 1650; a superintendent was also appointed to Estonia for a shorter period, probably 1622-1638, as well as to Riga and Reval.

German-speaking EuropeEdit

In 1652 the general government of Swedish Bremen-Verden introduced a Consistory, led by a General Superintendent, for this German territory of Imperial immediacy.

In 1535 the Estates of the Land of Hadeln introduced a consistory, led by a General Superintendent.

The Evangelical Lutheran State Church of Hanover used to maintain several consistories until 1922, each led by a General Superintendent.

In the Electorate of Brandenburg the title General Superintendent was used until 1632. In the years since 1817 during the constitutional reforms of the Evangelical Church in Prussia, including the then March of Brandenburg provincial subsection, the title General Superintendent was reintroduced in 1828, with each general superintendency (German: Generalsuperintendentur) supervising a number of deaneries. The title superintendent referred to the head of a deanery.

In the Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia, a successor church body of the former, the term Superintendent refers to the head of a deanery (German: Kirchenkreis). The term General Superintendent refers to the each head of one of the three regions (German: Sprengel), each comprising several deaneries.


From 1561 to 1564 Primož Trubar was superintendent of Slovenian Protestant church in Ljubljana (Laibach).

Methodist usageEdit

The term "Superintendent" is used for several varying positions in Methodism worldwide. In the American sense, specifically within the United Methodist Church, the title is used not to refer to a minister who is equivalent to a bishop but to the supervisor of a district, which is a regional subdivision below an episocopal area (equivalent to a diocese). According to the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church,

The offices of bishop and district superintendent exist in The United Methodist Church as particular ministries. Bishops are elected and district superintendents are appointed from the group of elders who are ordained to be ministers of Word, Sacrament, and Order and thereby participate in the ministry of Christ, in sharing a royal priesthood which has apostolic roots (I Peter 2:9; John 21:15-17; Acts 20:28; I Peter 5:2-3; I Timothy 3:1-7).[1]

In the British Methodist Church and its offshoots, a Superintendent is a minister who serves in a supervisory position over a Methodist Circuit (a small group of churches to which ministers are appointed).

The term Superintendent evolved in Britain before the death of Methodist founder John Wesley and was a description of the responsibilities of some of his Assistants (a role which later evolved into what is now known as ordained presbyteral ministry).[2]

Presbyterian usageEdit

The Hungarian Reformed Church has bishops which continue to this day unlike in Scotland where the positions were more like roles rather than offices of the church and were historically discontinued. The Church of Scotland's First Book of Discipline of 1560 provided for Scotland to be divided into ten dioceses with superintendents.[3] They were: -

  1. Orkney
  2. Ross
  3. Argyll
  4. Aberdeen
  5. Brechin
  6. St Andrews
  7. Edinburgh
  8. Jedburgh
  9. Glasgow
  10. Dumfries

However, only five superintendents were ever appointed.[4] They were: -

  1. Séon Carsuel - Argyll and the Isles
  2. John Erskine of Dun - Angus and Mearns - appointed while still a layman.
  3. John Spottiswood - Lothian - father of John Spottiswoode, Archbishop of St Andrews
  4. John Willock - the West
  5. John Winram - Fife and Strathearn

There were other roles not used by later Scottish Presbyterians. For example John Row was appointed Commissioner of Nithsdale and Galloway.


  1. ^ The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2008: Chapter Three. The Superintendency. Section II. Offices of Bishop and District Superintendent - ¶ 402. Special Ministry, Not Separate Order(retrieved 10 October 2014).
  2. ^ What is a Circuit Superintendent?. The Methodist Conference. 2005.
  3. ^ The First Book Of Discipline (1560) - The Fifth Head Concerning the Provisions for the Ministers, and for the Distribution of the Rents and Possessions Justly Pertaining to the Kirk - The Names of the Places of Residence, and Several Dioceses of the Superintendents
  4. ^ Kirk, James (1980). "The Polities of the Best Reformed Kirks': Scottish Achievements and English Aspirations in Church Government after the Reformation". The Scottish Historical Review. 59 (167 part 1): 30. JSTOR 25529356.