Survey says: Holy Spirit filled Annual Conference

LAKELAND – More than 500 people who attended this year's Annual Conference at The Lakeland Center shared their insights in an online survey, and most gave high marks to the event overall, as well as to new opportunities designed to involve attendees in discipleship and mission.

More than 45 of the 322 respondents who took time to write comments described the event as the best annual conference they had ever attended, with some survey participants mentioning that they have been attending for decades. 

Spirited crowd at Annual Conference 2013 communion
A spirit-filled crowd enjoys worship at the Service of Word and Table during Annual Conference 2013. Photo by Armando Rodriguez Jr.

"The Spirit was present in a way I have not experienced in the 15 years I have been attending," wrote one respondent.

"The focus on disciple-making, the testimonies and the sharing around tables was a significant move in the right direction."

Said another: "When I left this year, I felt as if my soul had been touched due to the spiritual atmosphere. …I am looking forward to being at conference next year. If the church doesn't send me as a delegate, I'll go as a guest!"

The survey ended Monday morning. Conference staff will review the results with an eye toward improving the next Annual Conference, slated for June 11-14, 2014, at The Lakeland Center.

Generally, this year's new experiences, including food-packaging for a global hunger relief organization, personal testimonies of discipleship delivered live or by video and breakout sessions where clergy and laity members formed small groups to discuss their discipleship journey, received high ratings and positive comments as part of Annual Conference 2013.

However, not everyone was pleased with a conference format that placed less emphasis on department reports.

"We're supposed to be doing the business of the conference, not watching videos and listening to people bragging about what they have done," said one survey respondent.

Valuable discipleship experience

Out of about 460 respondents who rated the conference on a scale of 1 to 5, more than 85 percent said the event had value for their church, as well as their personal journey as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Robert McMichael leads communion crowd in musical worship
Robert McMichael leads a communion crowd in worship music. Respondents in an online survey cited music as one of the most enjoyable elements of Annual Conference 2013. Photo by Armando Rodriguez Jr.

The overwhelming majority of respondents, 96 percent, were voting members, and about 60 percent were laity.

Faring less well in both numerical scoring and the comment section of the survey was The Gathering Area, a part of Ministry Expo intended to promote more personal and welcoming ways of communicating information about various ministries in the Florida Conference. The area featured a change from stationary booths to volunteers who were supposed to greet attendees and provide information.

Many who commented on the experience said it was a good idea but needed more signage so that visitors could easily locate information from specific ministries.

Next year's Annual Conference will return to Lakeland and be extended by one day. Bishop Ken Carter said delegates need four days instead of three to enjoy fellowship and worship opportunities as well as tend to church business.

Florida UMC leaders reach out to young adults

For many, the signature event of Annual Conference 2012 occurred when Rev. Dr. Bob Bushong responded to a question from the floor about where young people were in the Florida UMC's leadership ranks. Bushong invited them all to join him on stage.

It was a dramatic moment, as conference business came to a halt, the crowd applauded, and people in their 20s and 30s streamed from the stands to take their places at the head of their church.

Bishop Carter addresses young adults
Bishop Ken Carter meets with young adults for coffee, dessert and discussion of their role in Florida's UMC. Photo by Derrick Scott III.

This year, attempts to embrace that age group were more subtle but pervasive.

Russ Graves, lay leader of the Florida Conference, announced two new associate lay leader positions occupied by young adults Rachael Sumner and Derrick Scott III. A praise band made up of young adults Jeremy Hearn, Michelle Weger and Drew Eales led worship for the laity session, and later Bishop Ken Carter announced the young people would be leading musical worship for Annual Conference 2014.

Carter also said he hopes future annual conferences will include some kind of video link to the Florida UMC summer camp program where many young Methodists are worshiping at the same time as their elders.

In addition, the lay leadership joined with Carter and his wife, Pam, in hosting a late-night coffee and dessert chat for young adults after this year's ordination service. About 30 people, including clergy, clergy candidates and college students, accepted the invitation.

Bishop Carter told the group that the Florida Conference is working on several initiatives aimed at young adults. Among them is a plan to join with the Florida United Methodist Foundation and the United Methodist Connectional Federal Credit Union to develop ways to reduce the indebtedness of young Methodists pursuing a college education.

The bishop said conference leaders also are working with foundation officials and representatives of Emory University and the Western North Carolina conference to help fund mission opportunities for young adult Methodists.

Other ideas include sponsoring songwriting workshops for young people.

Patrick Gardner, 22, was among several college students visiting the Annual Conference from the Wesley Foundation of the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He said he has an internship lined up at St. John UMC, Sebring, and he wanted to see what Annual Conference is all about.

"This is my first year, and I really like it a lot," Gardner said. "I've met so many people."

He said his goal is to be a youth pastor in a camp setting.

"I like the fact that Christ can be taken outside the church walls," he said. "I feel that the fact that you can see him in nature is a beautiful thing."

Conference members voted Saturday to hold the 2015 Annual Conference at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. That decision also drew a half-dozen concerns in the comment section of the survey, generally suggesting that the facilities would not accommodate aging and disabled members well.

Other insights from Annual Conference 2013 included comments collected on a board titled "What's your reason?" in the room where volunteers packaged more than 101,000 meals to be distributed by Stop Hunger Now to people in need, especially children. 

Janet Kelley, who organized the activity with Rev. Pam Carter, said participants were invited to say what attracted them to the mission opportunity. Below are some of the comments:

• "I would like to end hunger because if I was hungry, I would like someone to help me."

• "I know what it's like not knowing when your next meal is, but God has granted me with food, so it is my job to help others not go through the same."

• "The fact that I get to change someone's life is just incredible. It's amazing that I get to make a difference; it's like witnessing a miracle."

• "I believe in the incredible potential God has placed inside of each boy and girl. The food is a step closer to realizing that God-given potential. Lives will be changed! 1 Samuel 14:17."

• "Food = opportunity. Feeding is a simple way to give back!"

Offering tops $100,000

Florida United Methodists gave more than their time, donating almost $102,000 toward this year's Bishop's Offering.

The offering is to be divided equally among three causes: Stop Hunger Now, a new facility for Florida State University's Wesley Foundation and a development program for young clergy of color.

The Florida United Methodist Foundation has pledged to match up to $40,000 in donations for the new clergy development program.
Based on donations so far, that translates into a foundation contribution of nearly $34,000 in addition to the $102,000 collected since Annual Conference, according to the conference Financial Services office.


-- Susan Green is the editor of Florida Conference Connection.

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