Conference begins with focus on next generations, church health

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference begins with focus on next generations, church health

June 9, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0685}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz** and Tita Parham

LAKELAND — The 2007 Florida Annual Conference Event opened June 6 in Lakeland on a historic high note.

Members of a first-ever youth delegation vote for lay delegates who will represent the Florida Conference at the 2008 General Conference in Forth Worth, Texas. Photo by Greg Moore. Photo #07-0589.

More than 100 lay members ages 15 to 30 attended as part of a first-ever youth/young adult delegation. They represented each district of the conference, participating in all votes and actions considered at the business sessions.

Their presence was the result of a concerted effort by conference leaders to more actively involve younger members this year, a mandate given by members attending last year’s conference event.

Two full days into the session both younger and older members were making a concerted effort to welcome and get to know each other, taking the event’s theme, “From Generation to Generation,” to heart.

The more than 1,700 laity and clergy attending also made progress in tackling the business of the conference, including electing all but four of the 26 clergy and lay delegates who will represent the Florida Conference at the 2008 General Conference.

Celebrating all generations

Members of a regional African-American choir from three districts helped open the first session of the 2007 Florida Annual Conference event June 6. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #07-0590.

After the music and worship of a three-district liturgical dance team and choir, Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker opened the conference’s first session with prayer, followed by the traditional singing of “And Are We Yet Alive” by Charles Wesley, honoring past generations of Methodists. Early circuit riders faced dangerous and sometimes perilous conditions in their ministry and often had no way of knowing when colleagues had died. They sang the song when they gathered each year for their annual conference to celebrate being alive and seeing each other again.

Whitaker then reiterated the emphasis this year on having more youth and young adults attending and participating in the conference event. Lynette Fields, executive director of Servant Ministry at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, helped coordinate the group’s participation and said she would like to see the number of younger members doubled at next year’s annual conference event.

This year’s theme focused on younger members, but it was also intended to reinforce the need for local churches to be in ministry to all generations. The Beyond 50 Ministries presentation June 7 bore that out.

Beyond 50 Ministries is a task team of the conference’s Leadership Connection that works to develop and strengthen older adult ministries in local churches. It creates awareness of the issues older adults face and strives to equip churches to develop ministries by, with and for older adults.

Youth member Mason Roberts-Huntley and 80-something-young lay member Sara Kelley performed a skit in which each offered their individual explanations on the generation gap, with Kelly playing a true “CL” or church lady, a take-off on the Church Lady character featured on “Saturday Night Live.” Team members representing each generation also recited poems they had written highlighting the need and desire for each generation to be involved in the church.

During the Beyond 50 Ministries presentation June 7, members from each generation light-heartedly shared the unique characteristics of their generation in an effort to create greater awareness and insight into those differences and the value of each generation. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #07-0591.

With an aging population, that need is growing. The group reported that by 2010 older adults will outnumber children and youth and one in five people will be 65 years or older. Between 2010 and 2030 the older adult population will grow 40 percent to 70 million.

Considering the health of the conference

A significant portion of the agenda focused on the health of the conference and ways churches have been successful in reaching people of all generations.

During the opening session June 6, the Revs. Drs. Jeff Stiggins, executive director of the Office of Congregational Transformation (OCT), and Anne Burkholder, director of Connectional Ministries, shared the stories of specific churches that have made strides in achieving the Bishop’s Fundamentals, goals Whitaker asked each church to meet in 2006 to increase professions of faith, worship attendance and community outreach.

During the past five years worship attendance at conference churches has dropped by more than 15,000 people, or 9.3 percent, according to Stiggins. He said that number equals closing 12 of the largest conference churches in a state that has seen an increase in population of more than 5 million people since 1990. Stiggins said the number of professions of faith, which he calls the measure of “handing down the faith from generation to generation,” increased to a peak in 1997 at a little more than 10,000. Since then the number has dropped 27 percent.

Overall membership in the Florida Conference in 2006 was 317,716, a decline of 4,133 or 1 percent, according to the conference statistician’s report in the workbook supplement. Average weekly worship attendance was 155,181, a decline of 1,622 or 1 percent, and professions of faith totaled 7,693, a decline of 58 or 1 percent.

Despite those figures and somewhat gloomy outlook, Stiggins reported 48 percent of churches had increased their worship attendance last year; 340 churches had at least one profession of faith, with more than 200 churches having one every month.

“In hearing these (church) presentations I have felt the movement and presence of the Holy Spirit,” Whitaker said. “I can’t imagine why all of our churches don’t want to be part of that.”

On a mission at home and abroad

The morning session June 7 began on a comical note with the Connectional Ministries office once again adopting a “Today Show” format to deliver its report. A mock Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera interviewed conference leaders about progress made by conference ministries during the past year. It also featured a weather report by “Al Stoker,” a Calvanist, who joked that he was destined to be at the event sharing the forecast for conference ministries.

During the Connectional Ministries report June 7, retired Bishop Armando Rodriguez (left) and Al Taylor, chair of the Cuba-Florida Covenant task team, share highlights of the covenant in the 10 years since it was signed. Rodriguez was the first bishop elected after the Cuba Methodist Church became autonomous. Photo by Greg Moore. Photo #07-0592.

During the report members celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Cuba-Florida Covenant, signed in June 1997 at the annual conferences of both the Florida Conference and Cuba Methodist Church. The covenant made official a relationship that had actually begun more than a century before. In 1873 the Florida Conference sent a missionary to Key West to start a ministry among Cuban refugees living there. From 1883 to 1968 one bishop served both conferences.

Through the covenant the two conferences pledged to work together to strengthen the church in both countries. Nearly 140 Florida Conference churches have since participated in the covenant, connecting with about two-thirds of the approximately 230 Methodist churches in Cuba. Hundreds of laypeople and clergy have made caravans to Cuba to serve and worship there. They’ve given Cuban Methodists resources to rebuild sanctuaries, musical instruments, Sunday school materials and clothes.

Florida Conference leaders say Florida United Methodists have been blessed by the vibrancy of worship and spiritual renewal they find in Cuban churches and the faithfulness the Cuban people express, despite the challenges of living in Cuba today.

Icel Rodriguez, assistant director of the conference’s Global Mission and Justice ministries, and her husband, the Rev. Armando Rodriguez Jr. were also commissioned during the report to serve in East Angola for a year beginning in 2008 as part of the East Angola-Florida Partnership. Armando will teach at the theological school at Quéssua, the spiritual center of the conference, and Icel will coordinate special projects.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy Whitaker (left) commissions Icel Rodriguez, assistant director of the conference’s Global Mission and Justice ministries, and her husband, the Rev. Armando Rodriguez Jr., pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Lakeland, as short-term missionaries. The two will work for a year in East Angola beginning in 2008 as part of the East Angola-Florida Partnership. Armando is the son of retired Bishop Armando Rodriguez, who served as bishop in Cuba after the Cuba Methodist Church became autonomous. Photo by Greg Moore. Photo #07-0593.

“They will be your ambassadors,” Whitaker said, adding, “And now for the commercial. It’s going to take money to send this couple. I want your money.”

A portion of an offering collected Friday night at the U2charist service and designated for the East Angola-Florida Partnership and the Children’s Harvest ministry will help offset the estimated $150,000 needed to send the Rodriguezes to Angola. Whitaker asked members to consider giving more to help cover the total cost.

Members also approved a proposal from the Conference Table on Social Witness task team calling all conference churches to work together in a common social witness to address the issues affecting children. Members agreed to meet the specific goal of ending hunger among Florida’s children. With every church working to address the issues it is hoped the conference as a whole can make a significant difference in the lives of children.

David Jans, a lay member from the HopeSpring Church, a new church start out of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, said the first day gave him a glimpse into what he called the inner-workings of The United Methodist Church.

“It has been very informative,” said the 24-year-old, attending conference for the first time. “It’s been a little dry, but I’ve been using the breaks to connect with older members of the church. I’ve found that they want my feedback and I need their encouragement to stay active.”

Nathan Beam, a first-time youth delegate from First United Methodist Church, Melbourne, and a member of the Board of Lay Ministry, said he felt “connected and welcomed.”

“We’re moving ahead from a dead church to a new and vibrant one,” he said. “It’s a good feeling to know the church realizes we young people are different people and they love us anyway. We feel like they are meeting us halfway.”

In other business:

By the end of the second day members attending the 2007 Florida Annual Conference Event had successfully made their way through nine ballots to elect delegates to the 2008 General Conference. Photo by Greg Moore. Photo #07-0594.

* The first ballot to elect delegates to General Conference was cast in the afternoon June 6 after a brief prayer by Lyn Powell, lay leader of the North Georgia Conference, who spoke to laity during their session earlier that morning. Powell is also the lay speaker for the 2008 General Conference. The Rev. Jorge Acevedo, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church of Cape Coral, was the only delegate elected. During voting June 7, clergy delegates elected included the Revs. Jim Harnish, Hyde Park United Methodist Church, Tampa; Sue Haupert-Johnson, First United Methodist Church, Cape Coral; David Dodge, director of the conference’s Center for Clergy Excellence; Debbie McLeod, superintendent of the South East District; Anne Burkholder, director of the conference’s Connectional Ministries office; David McEntire, United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches; Dan Johnson, Trinity United Methodist Church, Gainesville; Bob Bushong, First United Methodist Church, Winter Park; Geraldine McClellan, superintendent of the North Central District; and Candace Lewis, New Life Community United Methodist Church, Jacksonville. Lay delegates elected included William Walker III, conference lay leader, First United Methodist Church, Winter Park; Allison Mitchell, young adult member, First United Methodist Church, Cocoa Beach; John “Jad” Denmark, young adult member, Anona United Methodist Church, Largo; Mary Alice Massey, Southside United Methodist Church, Jacksonville; Rodney Akers, First United Methodist Church, Seffner; Jeannie Jacques, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, Lakeland; Joyce Waldon Bright, Ebenezer United Methodist Church, Orlando; Walter Dry, First United Methodist Church, Spring Hill; Teresita Matos, Christ Hispanic United Methodist Church, Orlando; Disney Weaver, First United Methodist Church, Haines City; and Judith Pierre-Okerson, Norland United Methodist Church, Miami.

* Members approved the African-American Comprehensive Plan June 6. It calls for making churches in urban areas more relevant, externally focused and a higher priority of the conference; making worship in African-American churches more relevant through technological advances and training; and the consideration of an African-American Church Redevelopment office.

During the evening worship service June 6 members celebrated the 25th and 50th anniversaries of 34 clergy and the retirement of 27 clergy. A total of 46 people were licensed, commissioned and ordained. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #07-0595.

* New Church Development reported 86 new churches have begun since 1995, 56 percent of which are racial, ethnic or language new starts. Nine new churches launched in 2006. The goal for June 2007 to June 2008 is 23 — 10 have launched so far this year.

* Whitaker asked all congregations to give to the Katrina Church Recovery Appeal to help rebuild churches and parsonages and provide funding for pastors’ salaries for United Methodist churches in the Gulf Coast region affected by Hurricane Katrina. Churches may send their gifts to the Florida Conference office made payable to Florida Conference Treasurer and designated Bishops’ Appeal, #818-001.

* The Rev. Ken Minton, conference secretary, reported 890 laity and 853 clergy had registered as of the morning session June 7.


This article relates to 2007 Florida Annual Conference Event.

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

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