Bishop says next four years no time to ‘coast’

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Bishop says next four years no time to ‘coast’

Oct. 23, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0929}

An e-Review Feature
By Tita Parham

LAKELAND — What will the next four years be like for the Florida Conference? That’s a question Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker sought to answer Oct. 14 at a specially called convocation for clergy serving churches in the Florida Conference.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker helps serve communion during the convocation. Photo by Sarah Alsgaard. Photo #08-1032. For longer description see photo gallery.

Whitaker was reassigned to the Florida Area for the next four years during the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference in July, after serving as the area’s bishop since 2001.
It’s not often bishops are assigned for a third term, Whitaker said, because “the risk is the bishop will just coast.”
Whitaker assured the 800-plus clergy and guests assembled at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland that he will not be coasting into retirement during his last four years of ministry. Instead, he shared his vision for the mission of the conference and outlined specific ways churches are being asked to measure their effectiveness in ministry.
Recommitting to the challenge

As Whitaker opened the convocation with worship that morning, he admitted he is looking forward to retirement — to spending time with his grandchildren; to permanently locating on the eastern shores of Virginia after itinerating for so many years; to reading, sketching and playing his trumpet in the little house behind his home in Virginia that he’s named “My Whimsy.”
“There won’t be any e-mails coming in telling me how I should think about controversial issues … (no) conferences to plan, speeches to prepare, tasks from the Council of Bishops,” he said. “But I’m not retired yet.”
As he enters his last four years as bishop, Whitaker said he again hears Jesus’ warning that “no one who puts his hand on the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
He said this quadrennium will be a new beginning, one he didn’t have when he was elected bishop and assigned to the Florida Conference. Because he began his ministry in Florida after the quadrennium had already begun, following the death of then Florida Conference Bishop Cornelius L. Henderson, Whitaker said he was “plopped down in the middle of things.” In 2004, the start of his second quadrennium, a major restructuring of the conference was taking place, and the conference was struggling to help people recover from major hurricanes.
The bishop said he’s prepared to go through “hurricanes, floods and fires” and all of Florida’s seasons, which he jokingly referred to as “bright green, green and drab green,” with the conference. 

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker shares with the 800-plus clergy and guests attending the convocation his vision for the mission of the conference: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Photo by Sarah Alsgaard. Photo #08-1033. For longer description see photo gallery.
Whitaker said the conference’s churches will be focusing on one mission during those seasons: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. 

That mission was developed by the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church and is being embraced by all conferences in the denomination. Within that visioning process, the council also established seven vision pathways, the first of which is teaching the Wesleyan model of making disciples. That model is The Methodist Way and its five practices.
Whitaker believes Florida’s churches are doing well in making disciples, but many “need to go a long way” in developing an intentional, ongoing process of discipleship that “invites, initiates, nurtures and sends disciples back into the world to serve Jesus Christ.”

One reason the conference is emphasizing The Methodist Way, he said, is because the practices provide the framework for developing that process.
In the next four years, Whitaker said conference churches will also be focusing on four themes that give disciples an opportunity to accomplish the second part of the mission, transforming the world: cherishing creation, eradicating extreme poverty, making peace and uniting the body of Christ.
Doing so, Whitaker said, helps people become the kind of disciple they want to be — one that transforms the world. He shared the story of a woman who attended a gathering this year that focused, in part, on the issue of security and the Christian response. She expressed her appreciation for the opportunity because she said she wants “to be a part of a church that cares about things that really matter.”
Whitaker said pastors can help make those kinds of disciples and when they do, “what a difference you make.”
Whitaker challenged the clergy to embrace “the great adventure of leading people to develop a means of making disciples” so they can transform the world.
“We have to be strong; we can’t be weary; we have to rejoice always,” he said.
That’s possible, Whitaker said, “when we remember the one who invites us into this adventure, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Bearing fruit as disciples

An ongoing, holistic process of making disciples involves inviting, initiation and intentional discipling, Whitaker said during the afternoon portion of the convocation, where specifics about the goals for the next four years were unveiled.
Initiation is where “we have a whole lot of work to do,” he added.

In the ancient church, the bishop said, new Christians went through a long process that was both instructional and relational. Today, that process would ideally involve Bible study, membership orientation, introduction to the church body, commitment to the church and small group participation, all as a way to be “detoxified of the poisons of the culture,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker reiterated that The Methodist Way provides the structure for that ongoing process, the “linchpin” of which, he said, is the Wesleyan class meeting, the “foundation of the whole Methodist movement.”
Small groups, the bishop said, are very much like the early class meetings, which helped people mature together in their Christian faith and “be engaged in ministries to the world.”
And like the early class meetings, small groups also help people feel connected, thus connecting the whole church. That connection, John Wesley said, helps the church become the “true church.”

“We have to be strong; we can’t be weary; we have to rejoice always.(That’s possible) when we remember the one who invites us into this adventure, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

— Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker

Another element of the Wesleyan model is accountability. Whitaker said there is an emerging culture of accountability in the conference in which pastors and congregations will support each other and measure “how fruitful we are as churches.” The outcomes churches see from implementing the five practices will be the measure of that fruitfulness.
The Rev. Debbie McLeod, superintendent of the conference’s South East District, told the group the Florida Conference Cabinet, which includes the conference’s district superintendents and key conference staff, struggled with how to measure outcomes and fruitfulness. She said they and the conference’s churches have always known the mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, but what does fulfilling that mission look like? The answer, she said, is living the five practices of The Methodist Way.
A third question, McLeod said, is how churches can measure their “missional fruitfulness,” based on the five practices. The Rev. Dr. Wayne Wiatt, superintendent of the East Central District, provided the explanation and shared details about what churches are being asked to consider during the next four years.
The first practice of The Methodist Way is passionate worship. Wiatt said churches will measure their effectiveness regarding that practice by taking their average weekly worship attendance and comparing it to the previous year’s figures to see how attendance has changed. For the second practice, radical hospitality, churches will measure their professions or reaffirmations of faith compared to the church’s number of worshippers. Intentional discipling, the third practice, will focus on the percentage of worshippers involved in weekly face-to-face discipleship or small groups. The measure for salty service, the fourth practice, will be the percentage of worshippers who say they have been involved in ministries of mercy, justice and earth care outside the church. And the final practice, extravagant generosity, will be measured by looking at the average amount given per worshipper on a weekly basis.
Missional vital signs: ‘It’s not about numbers’

Calling those measures missional vital signs, the Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins, director of the conference’s Office of Congregational Transformation, assured clergy they are already providing information on all of the practices except salty service through a variety of conference reports. 

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins tells clergy and guests gathered at a convocation that measuring the fruitfulness of churches is “not about numbers. It’s about discipling people.” Photo by Sarah Alsgaard. Photo #08-1034. For longer description see photo gallery.

Stiggins said salty service has never been measured, and he likened it to a doctor skipping blood pressure tests for his patients. Those patients with blood pressure issues would go unnoticed or untreated, Stiggins said, and a similar thing is happening across the conference related to churches’ salty service. Salty service, he said, facilitates spiritual growth, and not doing it impedes that growth.
He said declining congregations are increasingly preoccupied with themselves, instead of engaging in salty service that makes a difference in the world, and that’s why it is now being measured.
Stiggins walked the clergy through a new Web site churches will use on a monthly basis to measure how well they’re doing in living out the five practices. Churches can begin using the site Jan. 1, but all churches will be expected to use it by July 1. The site will be accessible through a button called “Missional Vital Signs” on the Congregational Transformation section of the Florida Conference Web site,, and on the home page of the conference site.
Stiggins assured clergy it will not be their responsibility to complete the reports, a statement that was greeted with applause. Clergy are being asked to assign that task to someone else. He also assured them the outcomes they report are not a measure of their personal effectiveness. Instead, he said, it’s about the missional effectiveness of their congregations.
Measuring effectiveness is important, Stiggins said, because “Jesus cared about fruitfulness.” He said it also helps the conference and churches focus on what’s important. “We want to get what we’re going to measure,” he said.
Stiggins said the reports will help local churches and their leadership get a sense of “are we moving forward in ways that make a difference.”
“It’s not about numbers,” he said. “It’s about discipling people.”
Considering other factors

During a time of questions and answers, some clergy expressed concern that the new reporting process might not provide an accurate picture of a congregation’s situation.
One clergyperson pointed out that if a church is “gathering the dispossessed,” the church’s extravagant generosity measures might suffer, and making disciples of some people might turn others away.
Another clergyperson said the measures are “not a metric to suit each situation” and suggested adding a question to the Web site reports that takes into account other factors that might affect a church’s missional effectiveness. 
Whitaker assured the clergy the cabinet will continue to consider those other factors, such as the community in which a church is located, as well as information provided through the community and church profiles churches submit and individual consultations with clergy and church leaders.
“We are looking at the conference as a whole … struggling to find practical ways to measure fruitfulness,” Whitaker said. “We will live in this together.”
Another clergyperson said he found the information related to The Methodist Way very useful, but was concerned it would not be understandable or accessible for people of other cultures and who speak other languages.
Stiggins said materials will be translated into Spanish and Creole.
Whitaker acknowledged “the limits of the instruments,” but said he hopes they will “serve to be useful.”
Annual conference event offers new focus

Whitaker turned his attention to the future by sharing the themes for each of the next four annual conference events, themes designed to provide a forum “to engage in God’s work of transforming the world.” 

The Revs. Beth Fogle-Miller, director of the Florida Conference Connectional Ministries office, and Armando Rodriquez, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church, Lakeland, end worship at the convocation with prayer. Photo by Sarah Alsgaard. Photo #08-1035. For longer description see photo gallery.

The themes will include the phrase “Transforming the world by …,” with a different action added each year. In 2009, the theme is “Transforming the world by cherishing the creation.” In 2010 the action is “by eradicating extreme poverty.” 2011’s theme calls for transformation “by living as peacemakers,” and 2012 focuses on transforming the world “by being united in Christ,” which will celebrate The United Methodist Church’s relationship with other Christian communities and consider how, at the local church level, members can work with other faith communities to be stronger in transforming the world.
Whitaker said the theme will relate to an actual practice of ministry local churches can undertake, enabling them “to live with the theme” throughout the year, not just at annual conference. And although there are ideological points of view related to the themes, the bishop said the conferences will focus on the theological questions they raise.
Finally, Whitaker said, there will be a greater emphasis on conferencing and less on reporting, which was received with applause from the assembled group.
By focusing on the themes, Whitaker said, annual conference will be a time to focus on the bigger picture, “to give us a larger vision about what God is calling us to do.”

Reflections on the convocation from Whitaker, Stiggins and other clergy can be found on two blog sites: the bishop’s new blog at and the Office of Congregational Transformation’s blog under the “Nervous Laughter” entry at


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.

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