Bishop links discipleship to service at annual session

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Bishop links discipleship to service at annual session

By Derek Maul | April 7, 2010 {1161}

It’s been a year and a half since Florida Conference Bishop Timothy Whitaker laid out a vision for the last four years of his tenure as bishop after being reassigned to the Florida Episcopal Area in July 2008.

In his office at the episcopal building in Lakeland, Florida Conference Bishop Timothy Whitaker says he is hopeful this year’s theme will encourage churches to look intentionally at how their ministries are alleviating or eliminating poverty and embrace that “as part of Christ’s call to the church and to the world.” Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #10-1424. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

The overarching mission of The United Methodist Church, according to the Council of Bishops, is “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Whitaker’s emphasis is the second part of that imperative — transforming the world — and the theme he has chosen for each annual conference session of the quadrennium suggests how churches can make that transformation possible.

This year’s session June 10-12 at the Lakeland Center will focus on “Transforming the World by Eradicating Extreme Poverty.” In 2009 it was “Transforming the World by Cherishing Creation.” In  2011 it is “by Making Peace” and in 2012 “by Uniting the Body of Christ.”

Larger vision

The goal, Whitaker says, is to encourage every congregation to have a “holistic, intentional system for making disciples.”

“I’m using the conference (session) to remind us (of) that, while we go about this task,” he said. “We live as disciples who participate in the transformation of the world. So it’s consciousness raising, but also giving resources and direction to local churches.”

Whitaker said any focus on eradicating poverty makes strides toward improving global health, both of which relate to two of the four areas of focus of the denomination approved by the 2008 General Conference — fighting diseases of poverty, such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, and engaging in ministry with the poor. The two other focus areas are developing principled Christian leaders for the church and world and starting new congregations and revitalizing existing ones.

“We need to set the example of larger awareness at the conference level,” he said. “This kind of focus brings a bigger vision to the conference than mundane business, and that’s healthy for the church. … We have the tendency to talk about discipleship and limit our understanding to the confines of institutional church. We forget that the church is the community called to be in service to the world.”

Dr. Laurel Kearns says the world is not like a globe, with countries defined by lines and colors. As a result, any harm done environmentally in one area affects the areas around it and well beyond. Kearns is associate professor of Sociology of Religion and Environmental Studies at Drew Theological School in Madison, N.J. The Florida native was the keynote speaker during the opening session of the 2009 Florida Annual Conference Event at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. File photo by Greg Moore. Photo #09-1207. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #1033, 06/13/09. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery.

At year one into the quadrennium, Whitaker said he was pleased with the sense of momentum he had observed, with churches throughout Florida beginning to embrace the idea of “cherishing creation.”

“I was pleased with the reception of the theme last year,” he said. “I’ve discovered that churches are attempting to be green, and I’m seeing more and more of that.”

He said he is hopeful churches will view this year’s theme in the same way — looking intentionally at how their ministries are alleviating or eliminating poverty and embrace that “as part of Christ’s call to the church and to the world.”

“They’ll (churches) be more effective in making disciples if they find an intentional way to participate in Christ’s ministry, serving the poor,” he said.

Connecting members to vision

The Rev. Beth Fogle-Miller serves is director of Florida Conference Connectional Ministries. It’s a job that includes “stewardship of the vision” for the conference.

“It has to do with making sure we’re clear about what’s important,” she said, “and aligning our resources so we can do that.”

She says this year’s conference guest speakers reinforce that goal. Presenters include David Beckmann, who has been president of Bread for the World for 15 years. Beckman holds degrees from Yale, Christ Seminary and the London School of Economics and is president of Bread for the World Institute and the Alliance to End Hunger.

Rev. Beth Fogle-Miller. Photo by Derek Maul. View larger photo in photo gallery.

Representatives from ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization), a nonprofit based in North Ft. Myers, will also attend the conference session to talk with members about their work. ECHO’s vision is “to bring glory to God and a blessing to mankind by using science and technology to help the poor,” according to its Web site.

“Their training includes arranging livestock to harvest manure for methane; sustainability and urban gardening so you can grow your own food in the city,” Fogle-Miller said. “Fascinating things; it’s going to be very interesting.”

Whitaker speaks highly of ECHO’s ministry. “It’s one of the most fantastic ecumenical ministries I know,” he said. “It’s a great place, developed by a deeply dedicated Presbyterian layman. People come form all over the world to learn about growing to sustain life, health and agriculture.”

“There will be also an emphasis on ending childhood poverty and coalitions of nonprofits,” Fogle-Miller added. “We’ll be presenting practical action steps churches can do, simple things we can do to connect.”

Conference staff will be working to connect people more globally, as well, specifically in Haiti and Angola.

“We have global health initiatives — malaria, HIV and women’s health,” Fogle-Miller said. “If you improve women’s health you reduce poverty.”

“We’re providing resources,” Whitaker said, “but Methodists have to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, or it will just be a flash in the pan.”

World leadership

When a 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed much of southern Haiti Jan. 12, Whitaker already had plans to emphasize the impoverished nation at the 2010 conference session.

Eighty percent of this year’s mission offering will go to The Methodist Church in Haiti to help the country recover from the earthquake, as well as the effects of multiple tropical systems during the past several years. The remaining 20 percent will go toward Florida Impact for the Partnership to End Childhood Hunger, a multi-year, strategic 10-point plan to end childhood hunger in Florida.

“I encourage every congregation to participate in the offering by receiving a church-wide special offering in the days leading up to the Florida Annual Conference Event,” Whitaker said in a letter to conference leaders. “The lay member or pastor of each congregation will then bring the offering with them to the 2010 Annual Conference Event.”

Despite the post-Christian nature of society, Whitaker said, the church still has the opportunity to lead.

“We’re living in secular society, but it’s been influenced by Christian faith,” he said. “It’s an awareness of our responsibility to our neighbor, and the world is embracing what the church has been saying and doing all along. We should celebrate that.”

One example is the ongoing initiative to end malaria. “The Methodist Church partnered with Sports Illustrated and the NBA. It was called ‘Nothing But Nets,’ ” Whitaker said. “I’m hoping we can emphasize it more at this conference.”

The next step in the church’s fight against malaria is the Imagine No Malaria initiative, which aims to eradicate the disease as a major source of death and suffering in Africa by 2015. The public launch of the campaign is World Malaria Day April 25.

The Rev. Audrey Warren, senior pastor at Branches United Methodist Church in Florida City, and the Rev. Dr. Riley Short, a retired Florida Conference pastor, will co-lead the Florida task force for Imagine No Malaria.

And then there is the conference’s emphasis to transform the lives of children in poverty — its social witness priority adopted in 2007. “We’re one of the few religious organizations participating in the ‘End Childhood Hunger’ campaign,” Whitaker said. “But I’m not sure that the message is getting through. I want to motivate and direct local churches to the need in their own community.”

Theological grounding

Whitaker says community is an inwardly focused construct rooted in social organization.

“The point is, any time you have strong community, it necessarily comes with a sense of boundaries,” Whitaker said. “The tendency is for a community to be focused on its own life, and strength in community is transformational. We’ve noticed congregations will be drawn closer and closer to one another, but they also need to become aware that Christ called the church to serve the world. We need an intentional effort in opening our eyes.

“There’s a dialectical process: going back and forth, looking for balance.”

It’s a sense of balance that takes inner strength and then looks outward; that’s the emphasis of “transforming the world by eradicating extreme poverty.”

“The church is a theological community.” Whitaker said. “The church is called to continue the ministry of Jesus. Jesus had a healing ministry and outreach to the poor and the outcast. Our calling to be church is a calling to live out a vocation in which we’re attempting to make manifest the ongoing ministry of Jesus.”

Whitaker notes there is one place in the life of the church where everyone is part of the community. “The center of the church’s life is really the Eucharist,” he said. “Everyone is equal around that table. A Catholic theologian I read said the problem the church is facing is not so much inter-communion as it is this challenge, ‘How can rich Christians sit at the same table as the poor Christians without being changed?’ ”

A woman picks up one of more than 200 pairs of shoes that were given to homeless individuals and families at Hope Central in Fort Lauderdale during a weekend event sponsored by Christ Church United Methodist. The church canceled its worship services so members could instead participate in salty service projects. The ministry and church work together to offer worship, food, a day care and other services for the area’s homeless population. File photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #09-1240. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #1042, 07/08/09. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery.

“We know we’re part of a global fellowship,” he added. “Are we mindful of our other brothers and sisters? Most live in extreme poverty. How can we participate in the Eucharist without being aware of our neighbor’s need?”

Salty service, raising awareness

One of the big emphases of the conference has been salty service, Fogle-Miller said. Salty service is one of the five practices of The Methodist Way, a disciple-making process all congregations within the denomination are being encouraged by the Council of Bishops to follow.

“Every church should be salt and light,” Fogle-Miller said. “We’re encouraging congregations to send folks out into their community and keep track. Does choir count? No. Boy Scouts? Maybe. Folding Sunday bulletins? No. Tutoring? Probably so. We’re working hard to help people understand (what salty service means).”

She said recent disaster recovery efforts have opened people’s eyes.

“What seems to help is when folk visit real places (through) mission trip, exchanges,” she said. “We’ve got partnerships in Cuba, Haiti and Angola; recovery efforts in Mississippi. Once you see, then you notice it in your own community. Then we become overwhelmed with our own casual abundance.”

The 2010 conference event is designed to raise that awareness among congregations and the resources already available to them.

“We have nine outreach ministries around the state where folks can partner,” Fogle-Miller said. “We’re working very much with the United Nations (related to malaria) to plan for the long term. Then there’s relief, recovery and rebuilding. We want to strengthen the Methodist church in Haiti — we want to channel our aid through local churches, as anchors for community, and we plan to work through medical partnerships via Grace Hospital and circuit clinics.”

“Transforming the World by Eradicating Extreme Poverty” is a need that resonates both in Florida and throughout the world. Whitaker and conference staff plan to both communicate the extent of that need at the upcoming conference session and help connect participants with the variety of practical applications available to congregations so they can be part of that transformation.

Although the conference session officially begins June 10, pre-conference classes will take place June 9. More information about the classes and the conference session is available on the Florida Conference Web site at

Individuals not able to attend the conference event may view business sessions and worship services via webcast through the conference Web site at beginning June 10.

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

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Maul is an author and freelance writer based in Valrico, Fla.

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