She’s been a face of The United Methodist Church in Cuba, Costa Rica and Kenya. Now Molly McEntire is headed to Portland, Oregon, where she will lead the Florida Conference delegation as members lend their voices to discussions that bear heavily on the future of the global church.
At age 27, she is the youngest delegation leader elected to represent the Florida Conference, at least in recent memory, longtime observers say. She will lead an 18-member group that is more diverse in age and ethnicity than in years past, but still weighted with individuals older than she.
That’s OK, she said in an interview between sessions of Annual Conference last week at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. A daughter of Rev. David McEntire, senior pastor of First UMC, Lakeland, she has had leadership roles on various United Methodist committees that she says have prepared her for the teamwork ahead.
And she’s used to blazing a trail – she was told at age 18 that she was the youngest missionary to Kenya authorized by United Methodist Volunteers in Mission – but she’s also willing to seek guidance from more experienced delegates.
“I am definitely ready to lead, but I also realize how big a General Conference this is for us,” Molly McEntire said. “This is about keeping the church united and coming together.”
Tradition calls for the first delegates elected from the ranks of clergy and laity to rotate delegation leadership duties from one General Conference to the next, and 2016 will be a laity year. But Molly McEntire and Rev. Sue Haupert-Johnson, superintendent of the North Central District and the first clergy member elected to the General Conference delegation, said they plan to share leadership duties. Longtime observers say 2016 may also be the first year the top spots of both lay and clergy delegations are occupied by women.
Haupert-Johnson, for her part, sees the diversity of the newly elected Florida Conference delegation as a start toward presenting a picture of unity in the
denomination. Six of those headed to General Conference are younger than 40, and there are three African-Americans and two Hispanics in the mix.
“It’s never been this way before,” said Haupert-Johnson, who was a General Conference delegate in 2008 and 2012, and a jurisdictional delegate before that. “It looks like Florida, and it looks like the kingdom of heaven.”
Like McEntire, her primary goal is to keep the word “united” as a valid description of the church.
“I hope we can maintain the unity that Jesus Christ spoke of and carry that as a model to General Conference,” she said, as she and McEntire prepared to convene the first of several meetings of the delegation to prepare for General Conference, scheduled for May 10-20 in Portland. The Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference will follow in July 2016, and Florida Conference members elected delegates of all ages and backgrounds for that jurisdictional task of electing bishops as well.
"The Florida Conference is blessed with extraordinary lay and clergy leaders,” said Florida Bishop Ken Carter. “Our delegations will have a strong impact on both the General and Jurisdictional Conferences in 2016. And Molly McEntire and Sue Haupert-Johnson will give wonderful guidance and direction in their roles as first elected laity and clergy. I am very hopeful about our delegation and the work they will do on behalf of the church."
Despite the difference in ages, both clergy and lay leaders share a long Methodist heritage. Haupert-Johnson, 53, is a former attorney who has served in pastoral roles in Florida United Methodist churches for almost 20 years. She has been a member or chairperson of several Florida Conference committees and a three-time delegate to jurisdictional conference. She also was chairperson of the Judicial Administration Legislative Committee at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa.
Molly McEntire grew up in the church, active in youth group, a veteran of Warren Willis Camp and later the Wesley Foundation at Florida State University, where she graduated in 2012 with a degree in sociology. She currently serves as associate director of children’s ministry at First UMC, Lakeland. She has a passion for mission work and all things people-related, she said, and she worries that the opportunities she had in the church will disappear for future youth if a theological rift occurs.
“The Florida Conference has backed me up,” she said. “The Florida Conference believes in young adults.”
Though she never had any doubts, she said the election of so many young delegates and encouragement of young leadership underscores the commitment of Florida United Methodists to the future generations.
"Now they believe in us more.”
The young delegate said she also plans to consult with her dad, a veteran of two General Conference events as well as a jurisdictional delegate. David McEntire also was among those elected to jurisdictional conference in 2016.
He’s someone I trust,” Molly McEntire said. “I know he has a lot of wisdom. We’ve been talking probably non-stop [since the election]. He’s really explained how much is, with this General Conference, at stake.’
She went on to talk about ministries like the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home, which sent its praise band to perform at Annual Conference, and global missions. A split in the church could spell disaster for those programs.
“If we lose certain members in certain churches, it might become do we pay to keep the lights on or pay to support ministries like the Children’s Home?” Molly McEntire said.
She said she doesn’t have all the answers to how to bridge the deep divides over human sexuality and clergy accountability issues.
“I think one thing that Jesus teaches people is to listen …honestly listen to each voice, not jumping into a decision right away, really praying about it. I want to just really listen and learn.”
The following persons were elected to serve on the Florida Conference delegation and are listed in the order of their election:
Elected to the General Conference 2016 delegation:
Lay delegates: Molly McEntire, Derrick Scott III, Alice Williams, Mickey Wilson, Russ Graves, Jeremy Hearn, Rachael Sumner, Carlene Fogle-Miller and Janet Earls.
Clergy delegates: Sue Haupert-Johnson, Alex Shanks, Rinaldo "Rini" Hernandez, Dionne Chandler Hammond, Harold Lewis Sr., David Dodge, Cynthia Weems, Jacqueline Leveron and Sharon Austin.
Lay delegates: Tiffania Icaza Willetts, Alexia Michelle Valle Velez, Martha Gay Duncan, Marie Anne Pierre-Louis, Paulette Monroe, Rod Groom, Joyce Waldon Bright, Rodney Akers and Benjamin Spangler.
Clergy delegates: Joanes Martin, Geraldine McClellan, David Allen, W. David McEntire, Audrey Warren, Jay Therrell, Bob Bushong, Armando Rodriguez Jr. and Kevin James.
Lay: Rushing Kimball, Kelly Minter, Walter Dry, Brittany Erin Cott, Frances Jennings, Michael Reed Coffey and Gary Sanders.
Clergy: Vicki Walker, Wayne Wiatt, Catherine Fluck Price, Melissa Cooper, Jamie Westlake, Annette Stiles Pendergrass and Joe MacLaren.
– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.