Conference focuses on environment, worldwide church at annual event

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference focuses on environment, worldwide church at annual event

By Jenna De Marco | May 8, 2009 {1015}

NOTE: Headshots of Dr. Laurel Kearns and the Revs. Dr. Denise Honeycutt and Pat Watkins are available at

In the past decade climate change has surfaced as one of the fastest-growing social and political concerns across the globe. That and other environmental issues will be a major focus of more than 2,000 laity and clergy attending this year’s Florida Annual Conference Event.

“I think most people are aware that the human race has some urgent and important work to do to better take care of their natural world,” Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker said. “We seem to be experiencing climate change, which has gotten people’s attention that we are not doing a very good job of taking care of the world.”

Whitaker believes the time is right for a change from destroying natural resources to examining the biblical significance of attending to the environment.

“I think, ultimately, it’s a spiritual problem, and in order to understand our problem, we as Christians need to understand … what is the place of human beings in the whole of God’s creation and what are our responsibilities?”

The session’s theme is “Transforming the World by Cherishing the Creation.” It’s the first of four themes set out by Whitaker for the next four years. Each begins with “Transforming the world by … ” and concludes with a different action.

“My intention during this quadrennium is to lift up the church mission of making disciples … for the transformation of the world,” Whitaker said.

Ecological theologians join slate of speakers

Dr. Laurel Kearns, associate professor of Sociology of Religion and Environmental Studies at Drew University in Madison, N.J., will give the keynote address June 11 during the first of several plenary sessions throughout the event.

Dr. Laurel Kearns

Kearns’ passion for the role of religion in the care of the environment spans more than 20 years of studying, teaching and researching.

“The message will be that creation care is central to our Christian faith, not something that is added on from outside,” Kearns said. “I will convey this both through sharing some of my own journey, which started and was formed by being born and raised in Florida, but also by grounding that claim in the scriptures, theological tradition and the broad spectrum of Christian responses.”

“There are so many reasons that cherishing the creation is important,” Kearns added. “First, we are commanded to do so before even the Ten Commandments. The scriptures tell us throughout how God cherishes all of creation and that we are a part of it — a part, as Psalm 108 tells us — of all the creation praising God.”

Caring for the planet is also a justice issue, Kearns said, because environmental problems have the potential to place an undue burden on the most impoverished people.

“For me, caring for the creation brings together all aspects of my faith,” she said. “And ecological concerns are at the forefront of the interfaith movement. It has brought many religions, and within those religions, many diverse traditions, together because we understand that we have only one planet; that we are all in this together (and) that pollution doesn’t respect national boundaries or divisions by faith. It is about all of our futures.”

Rev. Dr. Denise Honeycutt

The Revs. Dr. Denise Honeycutt and Pat Watkins, a clergy couple from the Virginia Annual Conference, will expand on the theme. Honeycutt, who serves as director of global mission and outreach for the Virginia Conference, will deliver the sermon June 11 during the evening worship service. Watkins will lead a morning Bible study June 12 and 13.

Watkins is a church and community worker with the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church. He is assigned to the Caretakers of God’s Creation ministry in the Virginia Conference. In that role he raises awareness about the connection between faith and creation care and helps churches find resources to live out that understanding. The Bible study sessions will cover some of the topics he shares with churches in his conference.

Watkins said he will focus specifically on chapters two and three in Genesis, as well as several other scriptural references.

“(The Genesis reference) is the Garden of Eden story, and I will focus on relationships with God, each other and with God’s creation. Those relationships are easily understood in that story,” he said. “Then I will suggest that just as a relationship with God compels us to be in relationship with each other … so too a relationship with God compels us to be in relationship with God’s creation.”

Watkins will build on that theme by highlighting how it is found elsewhere in Scripture.

Rev. Pat Watkins

“My intent is not to do a real academic, in-depth study of any one text, but simply to introduce the conference to the idea that there are about a gazillion texts in Scripture that suggest a relationship between humanity and creation,” Watkins said. “For me, it’s not so much a responsibility thing as a relationship thing because the responsibility emerges out of the relationship, but can’t really be imposed on people; they have to take it up for themselves based on their faith.”

Watkins said he hopes he can raise people’s “awareness to the notion that there is a connection between Christian faith and caring for the planet” and that transforming the world will not happen unless Christians cherish creation.

“And even if we simply continue to focus on people in terms of the transformation of the world, we are discovering we have to focus on the planet because issues that affect the earth are beginning to affect people, especially the poor of developing nations,” Watkins said. “In a worst-case scenario, if we don’t cherish creation, there may not be much of a world left to transform.”

Green film festival explores issues

Organizers hope a “green” film festival in the afternoon and evening June 10, a day before the official start of the conference event, will help raise that awareness Watkins is talking about.

Photo by Petr Kratochvil. Source:

Titles include “Going Green,” “Kilowatt Ours,” “The True Cost of Food,” “Eco-Justice” and others.

“The purpose of the films is to educate folks about a whole range of issues involved in cherishing creation, its complexities and ways they can get active in being good stewards,” said the Rev. David Berkey, organizer of the festival and executive director of the conference camps and retreat ministries. “I am finding that people think they know what this issue is about, but there is so much to learn in terms of how much what (we) do is interrelated with the sustainability of the earth.”

Sessions offer different kind of conference

Aside from the theme, the structure of the individual sessions will be a departure from previous years’ events, according to the Rev. Charles Weaver, assistant to Whitaker.

Weaver said plenary sessions will no longer be organized by similarities and differences, but rather by the ways in which various ministries fulfill the theme of each session. The goal is more integrated reports and information.

“What we are doing this year is something that we’ve not really done before, and it’s really sort of experimental,” Weaver said.

Each of the event’s four plenary sessions — during the mornings and afternoons of the event — will focus on a different theme. They will also offer opportunities for discussion among attendees.

Weaver said the “Making Disciples” portion of the June 12 morning plenary session will provide information on congregational transformation, new church development, camp and retreat ministries, campus ministries and others. The information will be filtered, however, through the question of how each of the areas makes disciples. The Revs. Drs. Jeff Stiggins and Mont Duncan, executive directors of the Florida Conference offices of congregational transformation and new church development, respectively, will facilitate the session in collaboration with leaders of the other ministries.

The format will include live and videotaped testimonies from a diverse set of people who fulfill the description of disciple or who have grown in their communities of faith.

“It’s not going to be ‘talking head,’ ” Duncan said. “It’s going to be more dialogical and participatory in some fashion.”

Graphic treatment by Petr Kratochvil. Source:

Likewise, the “Celebrating a Worldwide Church” portion that morning will feature discussion about the Florida Conference’s partnership with the East Angola Conference, highlighting the Rev. Armando and Icel Rodriguez’s upcoming yearlong mission trip to East Angola.

The Revs. Dr. Larry Rankin and Beth Fogle-Miller, director of the conference missions and justice and Connectional Ministries offices, respectively, will lead the session, which will include a resolution from the Global Mission and Justice Ministries committee on “greening” the church.

“It provides congregations ways that they can start reducing their consumption and carbon footprint, as well as making some physical changes on the church property that lower power usage and fuel,” Rankin said.

A brochure with environmentally friendly suggestions and tips for local congregations will also be available, Berkey said. Some ideas include an energy and water use audit, accessing alternative energy, and recycling.

Constitutional amendments form key focus of business

“Another element of this (event) will be something that might seem unrelated to missions, (yet) is very much a part of the emphasis on the worldwide church — that is the constitutional amendments,” Weaver said.

Delegates consider legislation during the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. Conferences across the denomination will be voting on decisions made during the quadrennial gathering at this year’s annual sessions. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. File photo #09-1153. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #1005 | Aprill, 22 2009.

All annual conferences will vote on 32 amendments to the denomination’s constitution. If passed, 23 of the changes could lead to a new global structure for the church. The 62 U.S. annual conferences would belong to one or more “regional” conferences, with the country’s five jurisdictions remaining the same.

Other amendments deal with church membership, ethics and conflict of interest policies, transition periods for new conferences, and women’s rights.

The Florida Conference will be grouping the amendments into categories to facilitate understanding and voting, Fogle-Miller said, and a DVD summarizing the issues will be available on the conference Web site and at district orientations prior to annual conference.

Conference organizers “are counting on people doing their homework,” Fogle-Miller added.

Other themes considered

The plenary session after the lunch break June 12 will focus on the idea of administration as a ministry.

“It has to do with the administrative ministry of the conference, and a lot of what the annual conference does is resource or administrative ministry,” Weaver said.

The session will include discussion of the conference budget, pension and health benefits, ministry protection, and financial services. Mickey Wilson, conference treasurer, will lead it.

“What we’ve always called financial services has really become ‘financial service’ to the local churches on a number of levels, and I think Mickey Wilson has really brought that new definition to the office,” Weaver said.”

Members attending the 2008 Florida Annual Conference Event celebrate significant church anniversaries. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #09-1172.

The final plenary session, called “Leaving a Legacy,” will honor clergy who are retiring, celebrate church anniversaries and consider church discontinuations.

“When churches close their doors, we know that they leave a legacy in lives, in neighborhoods and in communities by their having been there,” Weaver said.

The session will also include sending forth leaders, setting appointments and hearing a report from the bishop’s capital campaign.

Although some of the sessions may include unlikely topics together, Weaver said the intent is to provide an integrated annual conference.

Fogle-Miller noted the importance of the annual event returning to Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, one of 11 historically black colleges affiliated with The United Methodist Church. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the functional merger between the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist churches, which was ratified in 1968.

“I think it’s significant that we’re able to gather there again,” Fogle-Miller said. “Biblically speaking, 40 (years) is always the length of a God chapter.”

Berkey said those interested in more information about what their churches can do to safeguard the environment should visit, which is sponsored by the National Council of Churches of Christ, and a newly established creation care site at Berkey also said anyone may join the conference’s new eco-justice task force by contacting him at

Information about the constitutional amendments being considered is available at

More information about the annual conference event is available at

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

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