|Florida Methodists gather for opening worship at Annual Conference 2013 in Lakeland. Photo by Dave Walter.|
LAKELAND -- By the time Annual Conference officially opened Thursday afternoon, hundreds of United Methodists had already sampled some of its innovation.
That’s largely because of the “A Million Reasons” food-packaging campaign for Stop Hunger Now, where about 1,500 people of all ages lined up and willingly waited to don hairnets and scoop foodstuffs into bags to feed others in need. In the assembly area, clergy and executive directors in suits rubbed shoulders with volunteers in T-shirts and shorts.
But preconference workshops also drew crowds, and people sank happily into comfortable sofas and chairs to chat and look over ministry literature in The Gathering Area, a new concept at Ministry Expo.
When Bishop Ken Carter officially opened the 171st Florida Annual Conference, his first as Florida’s resident bishop, he preached a message of unity.
“I have attended many annual conferences in my life,” he said, noting that typically sessions and activities are organized around a division of clergy and laity members.
|Bishop Ken Carter helps energize the crowd streaming into The Lakeland Center arena during the musical "call to worship" before the opening session of Annual Conference 2013. Photo by Dave Walter.|
“I wanted our annual conference to begin in a way that reminds us that before we were clergy, before we were laity, before we were district superintendents or bishops… before all of that, we were disciples.
“And before we were disciples, we shared one experience in common, and that one experience is baptism in the name of Jesus Christ.”
During the rousing musical opening that called Methodists to their seats for the beginning of Annual Conference worship and business sessions, Carter stood at one end of the stage clapping and leading worship while keynote speaker Jim Harnish kept time for the crowd at the other end.
After Harnish’s address, conference members tried out another new idea, at least for Annual Conference: the Wesleyan Discipleship Experience. Clergy and laity broke into groups of 10 and left the arena at The Lakeland Center to spend 45 minutes discussing what it means to be one of Christ’s disciples and how to continue on a discipleship path.
Eldora Mayes of the North Central District found herself sitting at a table with four pastors and five other lay members.
“It’s different to be able to hear different opinions of what discipleship is and how we make sure of our connection to Jesus before we can go out and be disciples and make disciples,” Mayes said.
Also debuting at this year’s conference meeting were the first of a series of personal discipleship stories told live on stage and by video on the big screens for the full audience.
|Above, a group from several churches in Gainesville, Mount Dora and Eustis of the North Central District talk about discipleship as part of the Annual Conference Wesleyan Experience. Below is a group from the Atlantic Central District. Photos by FLUMC staff.|
The personal testimonies of walking in faith will be interspersed throughout the sessions of Annual Conference, ending Saturday morning. Lifelong Methodists took turns with people who found Christ later in life, telling stories of hardships overcome or eye-opening experiences that strengthened their faith in God's strength and love.
Garnering a standing ovation Friday morning was Jensen Bennett from Wesley Memorial UMC, Tampa, a high school senior whose parents separated when she was 7, sending her on a spiraling downward course of drug abuse, shoplifting and cutting herself to express her anger.
"I cut myself every day to get out the hurt that was stuck inside my heart and all the anger that was stuck there," Bennett told listeners from the arena stage. Even her parents' later reconciliation did not end the sting of those difficult years. She began attending church with a classmate in sixth grade but it was not until she went to a youth retreat as a high school freshman that she really felt God's love.
Invited to dedicate her life to Christ, she stepped to the front of the room with other young people, she recalled.
"I fell to my knees because all the anger and pain I had inside of me came out," Bennett said. "As soon as my arms opened, I felt His empowering hug and He filled my life with grace."
She followed the testimony Thursday of Nelida Morales, president of United Methodist Women in Florida. She told a story of how a little girl brought up in the Methodist faith in Cuba made her way to the U.S. and eventually overcame language barriers so that she could take an active role in many facets of The United Methodist Church in America and across the world.
Although there were times she may have been invited to leadership roles in pursuit of diversity, Morales said being a Hispanic representative on boards and delegations was not a motivating factor for her.
“It’s not because I was Hispanic that I wanted to serve,” she said. “I wanted to have been elected because I wanted to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.”
After Thursday’s stories were told, Carter talked to the audience about the “Telling Our Stories” concept.
“The rationale is that we as a Christian movement … find ourselves at a point in history when we are rediscovering the core calling of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That is why The United Methodist Church exists.”
|High school student Jensen Bennett draws a standing ovation for telling her story of finding God in front of hundreds gathered for Annual Conference. Photo by Dave Walter.|
If Florida’s United Methodist Church and the global denomination do not recruit new disciples, particularly younger disciples, and reach out to diverse segments of the population, Carter said, “we will not have the capacity to do the many good things we are doing in the world … to do the things God wants us to do.”
He encouraged all members to listen and learn from one another.
“If you’re thinking, ‘Where is this going?’ … I invite you all to pray about that.”
Although this year's Annual Conference offers some new ideas, Carter gave credit and thanks several times during worship and business sessions for the leadership of former Bishop Timothy Whitaker, who retired last summer, and others who have led past conference assemblies.
"The journey we are on we've been on for some time," he said.
-- Susan Green is the editor of the Florida Conference Connection.