Conference Table puts ‘clergy excellence’ under microscope

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference Table puts ‘clergy excellence’ under microscope

By Erik J. Alsgaard | Sept. 30, 2009 {1082}

DAVENPORT, Fla. — Many people know when they have an excellent pastor. She preaches great sermons, he administers the office without flaw; he is full of humor and passionate about people; she is intelligent and runs a finance campaign that brings in major dollars.

Florida Conference Bishop Tim Whitaker (right) and the Rev. David Dodge compare notes on the day’s activities. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #09-1303.

All that is part of clergy excellence, but deciding exactly what constitutes clergy excellence is harder to pin down.

That was the topic at the most recent Florida Conference Table. About 80 clergy and 20 laity gathered at Community of Faith United Methodist Church in Davenport Sept. 3 to begin the task of defining excellence in clergy.

Florida Conference Bishop Tim Whitaker set the stage for the discussion by sharing a vision of the conference as a place of excellence.

“My vision is that, beginning with our conversation today, the Florida Conference will distinguish itself as a body which is intentionally and actively striving toward excellence in the life and ministry of every clergyperson,” he said. “It will be a conference which many will want to join because they believe it has the culture which will challenge, direct and resource them to become all that God wants them to be.

“It will be a conference where every clergyperson has the best opportunity to fulfill his or her call from God and to make the most faithful and fruitful contribution he or she is capable of making to the cause of Christ and to the church.”

Fulfilling that vision, the bishop said, will require a long journey, “but the journey begins today.”

The practical and institutional involvement of such a vision would reside in the Center for Clergy Excellence, Whitaker said. The center would be “the steward of a common consensus about clergy excellence, and it would promote the cause of clergy excellence in various ways,” he added.

The Rev. David Dodge said a highlight of the day’s gathering for him was the fact it wasn’t just a committee of six or eight people saying what they think clergy excellence means. Dodge is executive director of the Center for Clergy Excellence.

“This was a broad swath of clergy and laity coming together to share their wisdom, ideas and passions,” he said. “The resources are already within us; we just needed the setting in which the resources are available.”

Facilitators Chuck Mallue and Alice Williams organize note cards used to coordinate the day’s group discussions. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard.  Photo #09-1304.

To get those ideas and information into the open, Conference Table facilitators utilized “open space technology,” a format for meetings that adheres to four principles: 1). Whoever comes are the right people, 2). Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened, 3). Whenever it starts is the right time, and 4). When it’s over, it’s over.

The format also stressed two other rules. If participants found themselves in a situation in which they were neither “learning nor contributing” at any point during their time together, they could move to another group. They were also told they could “flit” from group to group.

Chuck Mallue and Alice Williams, both members of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando and human resource professionals, facilitated the daylong event. Mallue invited participants to list on a note card one topic they would be willing to lead during group discussions.

Six topics quickly emerged: self-care, the appointment/selection process, competency and development, accountability, spirituality, and connectedness.

Participants were then invited to join one of the six areas for small-group dialogue. Each group met for about 90 minutes, with a member of the group serving as a facilitator. At the end of each group session, a “reporter” shared with the larger group some of the topics that surfaced.

The Rev. Joseph Kim participates in a discussion on information technology. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #09-1305.

Insights emerge

Members considering “connectedness” discussed how the conference did — or did not — provide opportunities for clergy to come together and just “be clergy.” Noting that the traditional School of Ministry and the Institute of Preaching, both seen as gathering places for clergy, have been absent for several years, members said clergy need time to be together, either formally, such as in covenant groups, or informally.

Another group held “accountability” to the microscope. The main questions here, the group said, were “For what are we (as clergy) accountable?” and “To whom are we accountable?”

Noting that relationships need to be fostered before accountability can be expected, group members said both personal and corporate accountability are needed. The conference, they said, could help clergy be excellent by offering coaching, resources and more opportunities for clergy to connect with one another.

The “training and development” group discussed what seminaries currently offer their students and the needs of clergy after they graduate from seminary. Members also expressed a desire for mentors to help clergy continue striving for excellence.

“What competencies do we need to provide training for?” asked the Rev. Debbie Cassanzio, a staff member in the South Central District office, who reported for the group. “We think the answer to this might have changed in the last 10 years.”

The Rev. Harold Lewis, director of Florida Conference Black Congregational Transformation, reported on the “spirituality” discussion.

“Excellence is a journey,” he said to the larger group. “We talked about religious excellence versus spiritual excellence; there is a difference. We talked about personal and pastoral excellence and how spirituality is related to both.”

The Rev. Harold Lewis facilitates small group discussion on spirituality. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #09-1306.

The “self-care” group also examined issues of spirituality, as well as taking care of themselves every day by practicing healthy habits, being in covenant with other clergy, time management and prioritizing one’s life.

Open space technology meetings usually require two or three days, Dodge said, so the next step is to pull together teams of people to address each of the areas that surfaced.

“We’ll be inviting people who were at the Conference Table to be a part of a team to focus on each issue, develop some strategies for addressing those issues and implementing some action steps,” Dodge said. “There were some folk who were not able to be here who wanted to be here, and we’ll find ways to broaden our circles.”

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

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.

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