Topic of clusters resonates throughout bishop’s opening address

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Topic of clusters resonates throughout bishop’s opening address

June 3, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando  {0306}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND — Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker addresses clergy and laity June 2 during the opening session of the "One Body One Spirit" 2005 Florida Annual Conference Event. Photo by Geoff Anderson, Photo #05-0173.

LAKELAND — More than 2,000 Florida United Methodists once again gathered at the Lakeland Center June 2 for the annual session of the Florida Conference.

They met under the theme “One Body One Spirit,” and in his opening address Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker focused on what that has meant and will continue to mean for the ministry of the Florida Conference.
“There is one church, just as there is one God and father of all,” Whitaker said. “Yet, this one church exists as a communion of many local churches. Each local church is called to be one body in one spirit, yet the many local churches participate in the communion of the one church.”

Whitaker said this understanding of the church is the basis about which the United Methodist Church is organized, as well as the motivation for its ecumenical endeavors. “In the United Methodist Church we call this communion of many local churches as one church connectionalism.”

Whitaker said he conducted a listening tour of the conference several years ago, and the dominant theme he heard from people was their hope of truly experiencing connectionalism as an important way of interacting, not solely as an institutional structure. He said that hope was realized at the 2004 Florida Annual Conference Event when delegates approved the Connecting for Transformation proposal.

The Florida Conference Cabinet originally presented the restructuring proposal during a Conference Table meeting Jan. 30. It called for the number of districts to be reduced from 14 to nine and encouraged churches to be part of a cluster led by a team of clergy and laity. It also redefined the responsibilities of district superintendents.

“At the heart of this proposal is a plan to enable congregations and clergy to experience the connection as a vital web interacting,” Whitaker said. “We shall build a horizontal connection among congregations, ministry and clergy by placing them into clusters.”

Each congregation will be clustered with other congregations and ministries, yet maintain its own identity, according to Whitaker. He said the primary expectation of the clusters is that they become a means through which the Holy Spirit works and provide congregations and ministries with a regular, ongoing means of mutual support and accountability. The goal is to help churches fulfill their mission to make disciples for Jesus Christ and create avenues for congregations to work together.

LAKELAND — At the opening ceremony of the 2005 Florida Annual Conference Event, 14 pitchers of water were poured into a fountain, symbolizing the ministry of the 14 districts under the old structure. The districts are being reduced to nine, and they will officially begin to function July 1. Photo by Geoff Anderson, Photo #05-0174.

“Through clusters different interest groups and age groups can bond together,” he said. “There are older adult ministries, children and youth ministries, single groups, drug recovery programs and divorce recovery groups that would be possible by churches working together.”

Whitaker went on to say that musicians, financial officers and ministers skilled in particular areas, such as evangelism or teaching, could help other churches become better equipped. Training in Vacation Bible School, worship or small group ministries is also possible in clusters. Sharing such tangible resources as audio equipment or even fellowship halls to celebrate special events, working together on special mission projects, such as food programs or Habitat for Humanity projects — they are all possible through clusters, Whitaker said.

“Through clusters, our eyes will be more open to the community around us,” he said. “If clusters are made primarily upon geographical proximity, there is more likely to be a greater awareness to the human need and social problems and spiritual hunger of the people outside the walls of all the churches.”

He said the practical possibilities are “virtually endless,” but added that being comes before doing. “The most important thing about clusters is that they provide us with a real opportunity to experience a new way of being the church together as one body in one spirit,” he said.

Naming the plan to create clusters “Connecting for Transformation” was intentional, according to Whitaker. He said it emphasizes moving congregations from a state of merely maintaining membership to making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Making disciples was on Whitaker’s mind as he shared a discouraging membership trend that began to emerge in 1995. Total membership in Florida Conference churches that year was 338,623. On Jan. 1 of this year membership totaled 325,609, a decline of 13,014 members in one of the fastest growing states in the country.

“As we look forward to the future, we have to have an urgent concern about the growth of our whole church,” he said. “This fall I shall be visiting each one of the nine districts to begin a conversation about how we can better fulfill our potential to grow as the church here in Florida.”

Whitaker ended his address by saying he was hopeful clergy and laity would continue to work well together. “My hope is that all of us who are clergy and laity would cherish one another and give thanks to God for the privilege of working together as one body in one spirit.”


This article relates to 2005 Florida Annual Conference Event.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer with e-Review Florida united Methodist News Service.

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