For most part clergy, laity say conference clusters off to good start

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

For most part clergy, laity say conference clusters off to good start

Aug. 23, 2006  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0534}

NOTE: A headshot of Stiggins is available at

An e-Review Feature
By John M. De Marco**

Now well into its first year of functionality, the clustering of United Methodist congregations and ministries across the Florida Conference is generally characterized in a positive light — with a few growing pains tossed into the mix.

A cluster is officially a group of four to seven churches (or ministries) within a district that has come together for the purposes of deepening relationships, out of which hopefully flows deeper fruitfulness of ministry. Cluster teams are composed of clergy and lay representatives from each church, with a clergyperson serving as the team leader. 

Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins

“Most clusters have been meeting every other month since January, which means most have met three or four times. Some have met monthly; some have not met at all,” noted the Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins, the conference’s new director of Congregational Transformation and a former district superintendent who played a key role in the cluster formation process. “This is a new way and rhythm of being together in our connection that will, of course, take some time for us to live into. Like any spiritual discipline, the majority of positive results become evident over a period of years, rather than months.”

Stiggins asserts the long-term, bottom-line purpose of cluster teams is to improve the fruitfulness of local church ministries by first re-establishing a horizontal connection between pastors and lay leaders, then focusing upon the disciple-making mission to which Christ calls every congregation, and, finally, by listening to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in being more effective.

“Some cluster teams have started strongly, and participants already feel that their time together is well-spent. Others have not connected as well, resented being asked to meet and have not felt the time well-spent,” Stiggins said. “Pastors generally seem more skeptical than lay persons, who seem more positive and open about the possibilities of clustering. I suspect that this is to be expected when everyone is asked to try a new way of relating in our connection.”

Stiggins says cluster teams have been encouraged not to rush into doing things — generating a new ministry together, for example — “but to focus during much of this first year on being together and listening to the Spirit’s direction. This goes against the grain of a good many of us who only feel our time well-spent when we have accomplished some task.”

“It is probably time now for clusters to begin to pray and wonder about how they might assist one another in ministry,” Stiggins adds. “How is the Spirit leading them to be in ministry together? Some cluster teams have already begun to do this.”

Stiggins said various clusters have taken a mission trip together, done vacation Bible school with another church, sponsored a Healthy Church Academy course, formed “Disciple Bible Study” groups, combined youth ministries and helped other congregations launch contemporary worship services.

In the North East District, the Rev. Rick Neal said 15 clusters are currently in place, including one composed entirely of extension ministries.

“Most are doing well, and most want to continue,” said Neal, who is superintendent of the district. “We have here and there some clusters that have hit some ‘speed bumps.’ Up here, the approach was to say, ‘This is a grassroots project.’ The people had a large voice in forming the clusters and selecting leadership. I basically said my job is to see that the clusters don’t get too big.”

Neal said he keeps hearing churches note how they were “literally down the road,” but had never gotten to know each other and now have a sense of connection. “We said we were doing this to strengthen the connection, and I think this has done exactly that. I like the interaction of clergy and laity.”

Specifying one of the aforementioned “speed bumps,” Neal said some clergy have expressed concern that the cluster does not function like a covenant group. “I was quick to say, ‘No, this is not a covenant group. If you want a clergy-only association, you have time and energy to do exactly that.’ This needs to be the kind of sharing that is appropriate among Christian brothers and sisters, some of whom are laity and some of whom are clergy.”

Looking ahead Neal said he sees the first year of clusters as foundational for members getting to know each another. The next step could be to find deeper ways to do ministry together, even while “resisting the Methodist temptation to say we must get together to do something, to have a project.”

In the South East District, District Superintendent Debbie McLeod asked clergy to take the initiative in forming the clusters. “I told them to talk to their fellow clergypersons and tell me when they got it all worked out, who would be in the cluster. I really felt the relationship between clergy was going to be key. It might not be geographical. There might be some other component.”

During the worship that was part of the training session for cluster leaders held last November at the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park, the Rev. Catherine Fluck Price asked cluster leaders to "let go of the clutter" and view clusters not as one more thing that adds to that clutter, but "the thing that can allow us to focus on what God really wants us to be doing — loving God and one another." Photo by Tita Parham, Photo #06-423.

McLeod serves a multicultural district, with four different languages represented. About 40 percent of churches are predominantly white and English speaking, but more than 60 percent are Hispanic, Haitian, West Indies, African-American, Korean and others.

“I didn’t want all the Spanish-language churches to cluster with each other. I wanted people to cross some of those ethnic and cultural boundaries,” McLeod said. “Our clusters look really great in terms of people learning from each other.”

McLeod says she hopes churches will begin to look at “their parishes together” and ask questions about how they can reach out to people “in the larger parish — the world.” “I hope they can have some fruitful conversations about what it means to be in ministry to the larger parish,” she said. “I also hope that clergy who have been isolated will find friendship and collegiality with other clergy and laity.”

Looking at the big picture, McLeod said the clustering process could greatly strengthen the relationships among churches, depending on how well it works. “And clergy and laity will think more of The United Methodist church as ‘us’ and not The United Methodist Church as ‘the one location where I worship on Sunday,’ ” she added.

Cluster leaders report positive results

The Rev. Cliff Patrick is a cluster leader in the North Central District, where his cluster adopted the name “Family of Christ” for unity and identification purposes. Composed mainly of small membership churches, the cluster has found numerous opportunities to be in ministry together.

“In October 2005 we signed a ‘church partnering contract’ with the Louisiana Annual Conference to assist with storm recovery (after Hurricane Katrina),” Patrick said. “We were assigned the Centenary/Fisher Charge in Franklinton, La.”

Patrick said the cluster sent a small work team to the church for a three-day visit and to help with an outreach ministry called “Empty Stocking” that assists people at Christmas. “Due to the storm there was much concern that this ministry would not be available for the community. The work team carried an offering of $800, plus several Wal-Mart gift cards, from the cluster and the North Central District office for this ministry,” Patrick said. “The Rev. Lyndle Bullard (the Louisiana church’s senior pastor) informed us that with our help and the help of others, ‘Empty Stocking’ was able to fulfill all of the approved requests it received.”

The cluster also provided Bullard with a three-day rest retreat in Gainesville last April, covering hotel and food expenses for him and his family. Members have also supported the Florida Conference Storm Recovery Center by providing 200 health kits, food and water.

“This is a great effort for these small-membership churches that are trying to truly be the ‘Family of Christ,’ ” Patrick said.

In the North East District, the Rev. Pam Hall, an ordained deacon, leads the conference’s only extension ministries cluster as director of the Jacksonville area’s Community Outreach Agency.

“It kind of felt weird that we had United Methodist ministries wholly owned by our district or conference and nobody knew anything about them,” Hall said. “I began pulling people together for casual lunches and meetings. Rick Neal suggested that perhaps the district could form an extension cluster, and the group of about half lay and half clergy continued to meet.”

Hall admitted she observed some early resistance to the idea from some in the conference who felt a cluster should be church-grounded. Neal noted that extension ministries needed the same spiritual support as churches and didn’t mesh fully by simply “being attached to a congregational cluster.”

Cluster leaders pair off to talk about their role during the training session for cluster leaders held last November at the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park. Photo by Tita Parham, Photo #06-424.

In addition to Hall’s ministry, cluster participants include a day-care center for handicapped children, a homeless feeding ministry, a homeless ministry for intact families that enables children and parents to lodge together, and a home lender assistance ministry, among others. As a district superintendent Neal is an official extension minister and participates, as well.

“From my perspective, it has been wonderful to come together, just for spiritual purposes, not just to find ways to collaborate on our ministries,” Hall said. “I have found it extremely uplifting to be able to pray for one another, to reflect on the scripture studies that the conference has developed and provided during the cluster leader training. We’ve loved getting together. We use prayer triggers — whether picking up your keys, turning the water on — that remind us to pray for each other every day.”

Hall said she feels churches don’t always recognize the labor intensity of extension ministries. “We’re less visible in what we do to serve the world in the name of Christ. This gives them the spiritual stamina to stay the course.”

Recalling the first evening her cluster met, Hall said the members circled around, laid hands upon each other and prayed. “We have been moved, called, led to get together already. I don’t know where it will take us. If it’s never anything more than praying together, that’s OK. We’re not here to ‘do’; we’re here to ‘be’. That has been freeing. We don’t have to produce things.”

Laity share mixed views

So how do laity feel about the clustering process to date? e-Review asked readers to comment on their experiences. Here are some responses:

Eldora L. Mayes, a member of Bartley Temple United Methodist Church, which is included in the cluster Patrick leads, says: “I must admit that I was hesitant when we began to talk about ‘clustering.’ I thank God for giving the vision and for allowing us to be a part of this great movement of God … I know that God is doing a mighty work right here in the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Hang on to your seats, stand firm and continue to move forward in Christ."
“As far as I can tell the cluster process is non-existent in Ocala. If something is happening, we are not aware of it at Ocala West,” noted a layperson from Ocala West United Methodist Church who asked not to be identified. A member of Killearn United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, who also asked not to be identified, said: “I know about this initiative from another pastor in our district, but I have never heard it mentioned around our church. When I asked about it I was not able to learn anything.” A layperson from another congregation adds, “We have no interaction at the laity level that I know of,” while another asserts: “To date it has been frustratingly pointless. Why do we have a cluster? What is our goal? What are the expected outcomes from the meetings or the group as a whole? These questions have not been answered in our meetings.” 

Joel Fears of the East Central District observes: “The cluster meetings seemed to have required a period of adjustment. The discussions are now more relaxed and open. We are more at ease in discussing personal spirituality and individual church concerns and visions. I am hopeful that much will be accomplished through our shared vision.”
A member First United Methodist Church of Hudson notes: “I don’t sense a real goal for the group. The discussions are pleasant and we pray for each other, but that’s it. There is no tangible result to point to. The pastors are so independent, and we are all competing for the same audience. I guess I don’t see how this is really helping bring people to Christ.”

Janet Kelley (left), laity and a member of the Florida Conference staff, and the Rev. Lisa Degrenia discuss the purpose of clusters and how they might function at a Conference Table held at University Carillon United Methodist Church in Oviedo in February 2005. The session was held to gain feedback from clergy and laity before clusters began meeting. Photo by Tita Parham, Photo #06-425.
“My cluster team is off to a great start,” says Wayne McClintic of United Methodist Temple in Lakeland. “The concept of ‘being and becoming’ rather than ‘doing’ is working well. The ‘Fire in Coventry’ study (utilized by cluster groups) and discussion was good. Communion time is special … concerns going forward are continuity of clergy and loss of focus. Initiatives come easy, but sustaining the effort is not so easy.”
Maria Sandbak of Grace United Methodist Church in Lawtey comments: “Our pastor, my husband and another lady from our church have met and fasted weekly for the past five to six weeks. We have seen awesome results in our church. A prayer path and skateboard park have been started. Both young and old meet on Sundays at 5 p.m. to walk the perimeter of the church property as we pray. Historically we had some discord among certain members of our church, but God brings all together in this visionary project.”

“I see no benefit from the clusters at this time,” says a member of First United Methodist Church of Okeechobee. “Distance/travel time makes interaction difficult.” A member of Grace United Methodist Church in Orlando adds: “We have had several meetings and have not done anything of value. Just another meeting. I feel we are spending too much time doing nothing.” 

“When I first heard about clusters, I thought they were a wonderful idea,” reflects a member of Palm Coast United Methodist Church. “But they will only be helpful if all churches participate. At a meeting held at our own church recently, two of the churches sent no representative at all. The message they did send by their absence is clear: they don't value their fellow Christians.”

“The cluster consisting of Oceanview United Methodist Church, Jupiter United Methodist Church, Hobe Sound United Methodist Church, Stuart United Methodist Church and Simpson Memorial United Methodist Church is very rewarding,” says Frankie Sprague of Oceanview United Methodist Church. “We quickly became a close-knit group discussing subjects related to hurricane preparedness and the mission in Indiantown and how we can support their needs … I believe these small groups broaden our spiritual lives, friendships and opportunities to assist churches who have a unique or special need.”
What’s next for clusters

The leaders of the cluster teams have agreed to serve for one year. District leadership councils will be reviewing the make-up of clusters in the months ahead and may choose to make some changes in the constellation of congregations that form a cluster, according to Stiggins. One change being considered is allowing those congregations participating in a two-year ReFocus group — a precursor to the Natural Church Development congregational transformation process — to become a cluster.

Recently, the Florida Conference Cabinet agreed each district will select two or three people to be cluster leader coaches for their districts rather than conducting conference-wide training for cluster leaders. These coaches from across the conference will meet together, talk about how clustering is doing in their districts and meet with cluster leaders for discussion and training.
The cabinet also suggested that several recommendations could be made regarding what cluster team meetings should be like rather than printing a cluster leader guide for all clusters to follow. Teams can either follow one of the suggested formats or choose their own way, depending upon the needs and hopes of cluster team participants.

“While recognizing that not everyone is affirmative of the new cluster strategy. The cabinet, including (Florida Conference) Bishop Whitaker, are pleased by the many positive results they are hearing and are optimistic about future outcomes,” Stiggins said.


This article relates to Connectionalism.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.

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