Florida Conference to freshen up for 2015

LAKELAND – Plans are underway for the Florida Conference to work with Virginia-based Fresh Expressions US and North Carolina’s Duke Divinity School to develop training programs aimed at helping clergy and laity pursue new ways of making disciples.

Audrey Warren headshot
It’s really kind of getting us outside doors and finding ways to connect with people.”
 -- Audrey Warren on Fresh Expressions

The decision to tap expertise from those two programs followed a “Pioneer Vision Day” last month at the Life Enrichment Center near Leesburg. About 60 people from across the conference, mostly invited by the conference Fresh Expressions design team, turned out for the meeting.

Some attendees simply heard about the effort and decided to come learn more, said Rev. Audrey Warren, pastor of Branches UMC, Florida City, and co-leader of the design team with Rev. Vance Rains, pastor of Ortega UMC, Jacksonville.

“We were happy for more,” Warren said, estimating that about 80 percent of the turnout was 35 or younger. “It was a very young crowd.”

Warren said she and others leading the local Fresh Expressions effort plan to meet this month with Florida Bishop Ken Carter to talk about contracting with teams from both Duke and Fresh Expressions US for training programs next year. Carter formed a working group earlier this year charged with developing a Florida Conference strategy similar to the Fresh Expressions movement begun by Protestant churches in Great Britain.

The Florida Conference New Church Development office also is expected to be involved, Warren said.

Among goals will be recruiting more laity, seen as a key component in the effort. Warren estimated about 20 percent of the Pioneer Vision Day attendees were lay members of the church.

“It’s in some ways an extension of the work of the church in reaching new people,” she said. “It’s really kind of getting us outside doors and finding ways to connect with people.”

The Fresh Expressions movement is ecumenical and has included some other United Methodist conferences, such as Ohio and Peninsula-Delaware, Warren said. 

Vance Rains headshot

“I think this is what most of us feel called to when we’re called to ministry.”
-- Vance Rains on Fresh Expressions

She and Rains said the Florida Conference already has sprouted some examples of Fresh Expressions worshiping communities, often formed around outdoor activities and social gatherings away from church buildings.

“A lot of folks in my church are involved in a fitness group,” Rains said, adding that participants meet regularly in a park, and he has offered devotions. Though many are drawn to the experience because of the spiritual component, some simply want exercise and fellowship.

“It’s faith-based but not faith-required,” he explained. “Fresh Expressions is a very fluid idea – how do we gather people around a commonality and an affinity for the gospel? … How do we form a community that is church but doesn’t look like church?”

A formal training program could jumpstart the effort, Rains said.

“Training is a big part of it,” he said. “We’re kind of learning as we go. They (Fresh Expressions and Duke) have the expertise.”

At last month’s meeting, the conference Fresh Expressions group heard from representatives of Duke Divinity School’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, as well as representatives of Fresh Expressions US.

The Florida Conference could benefit from coaching from both programs, Warren said.

Building and maintaining momentum will be a crucial part of the conference strategy, Rains said. Experiments that fail as well as succeed are expected, and all will be valued as learning experiences.

“The ultimate goal is that this becomes the culture of the conference, that this becomes one of the normal things that we do,” Rains said. “There’s a lot of cynicism around ‘This is the latest thing the conference is doing.’ We’re really trying to keep this more loose and free and what the spirit moves, not a lot of reporting, not having the expectation of quantifiable results.

“I think this is what most of us feel called to when we’re called to ministry.”

-- Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection. 

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