|Incoming Conference lay leader Russ Graves.|
A lifelong Christian and active United Methodist for 25 years, newly elected Florida Conference lay leader Russ Graves brings experience, passion for Jesus, and clear vision to a role he considers an important opportunity for himself and The United Methodist Church.
“I want to remind us who God is calling us to be, and then help make that happen,” Graves said, just before his election as lay leader at Annual Conference.
Graves takes the top spot after four years as associate lay leader, a position that gave outgoing lay leader Sharon Luther plenty of opportunity to watch him in action.
“Russ has many unique gifts and graces,” Luther said. “He has special talents, ideas and thoughts he can bring to the conference laity.”
During his time as associate, Graves focused on encouraging United Methodists to follow Jesus out of the pews and into the world.
“That was his path, and it will work out beautifully for him to do that as leader,” said Luther, who completed four years as lay leader and plans to spend some quality time with her home congregation of Cyprus Lake UMC in Fort Myers.
Graves became a Methodist in 1987, after retiring as a colonel from a 26-year Air Force career. He served as an operational test engineer, pilot, and eventually wing commander. He helped develop the B-1 and the B-2 bombers.
“I learned about Christ at the feet of my grandmother,” Graves said. “I grew up Catholic, became a Baptist, and married a Disciple of Christ. When we moved to Melbourne, we felt led to First UMC. God moved in our lives and I’ve been blessed in many ways.”
Ready for a change, Graves became a professor at the Florida Institute of Technology, teaching airport design and aviation planning and development. He retired in 2003 but continued part time at the school’s Panama Canal Zone extension.
The United Methodist Church introduced Graves to renewed spiritual growth, including a Walk to Emmaus event that changed his life.
“I’d been a teacher in many venues, and a church leader of sorts,” he said. “But I truly felt that I was born again at 49 years old.”
He said Emmaus developed him as a leader and challenged him to grow.
“I became the Aldersgate Emmaus Community lay leader and helped grow it here in Florida.”
He served as lay leader in the Melbourne church and enjoyed six years as the Atlantic Central District lay leader. Recently he helped lead a three-year re-evaluation of First UMC’s mission and ministry. Currently, Graves chairs the church council.
He shares his enthusiasm for ministry with his wife of 52 years, Dottie, who is stepping down as Atlantic Central District lay leader after eight years. The couple has two children, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Graves said his experiences have helped him understand the need for more deliberate discipleship in the Methodist Church.
“We’ve been good at programs and classes,” he said, “But following through in a personal investment in the lives of others is almost a lost art.
“We need to be focused on being intentional about developing disciples. But I sense a new hunger – a fresh wind blowing among all of us.”
Graves listed three primary goals under his leadership:
• “We need a culture change within the Board of Lay Ministry. It’s my intention to bring us back to Wesleyan small groups, to be held accountable, to live into who God is calling us to be with the encouragement and support of others, [and to] a place where we reconnect with personal commitment and a willingness to invest our lives in others.
• “Reaching the next generation is a high priority. I’m in conversation with young adults to find ways to get them involved without boxing them in. I don’t want to make them look like us, act like us, and do the things we do. Let’s get them involved in ways that make sense to them. On July 7 young adults are coming from all over Florida to meet.
• “We talk about developing leadership in laity, but we’re not doing a good job. It’s my intention to develop spiritual leaders instead of simply administrators. It’s about laity partnering with clergy. Some pastors will welcome it; some will be concerned. To date, our track record has been more about power than spiritual leadership. But that’s part of what culture change is all about.”
If Graves sounds like a leader with clear focus and well-articulated vision, that comes as no surprise to his predecessor.
“That’s why God has called him and it’s going to be just wonderful,” Luther said. “Russ is very strong spiritually. Spiritual strength is what you have to have, and he will do (the job) beautifully.”