In a few days we will gather for the meeting of the Florida United Methodist Annual Conference in Lakeland. This is for many a homecoming, a reunion and a time for inspiration and fellowship. Laity and clergy leaders will travel from long distances to be present, and I am grateful for your sacrifice of time, energy and financial resources.
This will also be my first Annual Conference with you, and my first in the role of bishop. And so I imagine that I will make a few interesting and even excellent mistakes! Please be patient with me as I learn, yet again, a bit more about this fascinating, diverse and amazing collection of people that is the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church!
I have been in prayer and reflection about our time together, and I offer, here, a few thoughts.
1. Our theme, “Becoming Disciples of Jesus Christ”, is a return to the basics. We will immerse ourselves in inspirational music, small group study, testimonies, the renewal of our baptisms, the celebration of Holy Communion, an intentional act of service (packaging Stop Hunger Now meals), the licensing, commissioning and ordination of men and women, acts of gratitude for clergy who are retiring and who have died this year, and a rededication, as we conclude, to the mission fields of our state. In preparation, I encourage you to read two passages of scripture: John 6 (the feeding of the five thousand) and John 21 (Jesus’ command to feed his sheep).
2. We will receive an offering in support of three significant ministries---replacement of the Florida State University Wesley Foundation facilities, leadership development for younger clergy of color, and Stop Hunger Now. If possible, I encourage clergy and laity to receive an offering on Sunday, June 9 in your local churches---in either a small group, a women’s circle or the worship service---and bring this gift with you to Annual Conference.
3. We will make important administrative decisions together that will help to shape our conference for our primary mission. These decisions will build upon actions in prior years that have helped us to move in the direction of sustainability. These decisions have been communicated via the Florida Conference website, discussed in pre-conference briefings, and are the work of the people (lay and clergy leaders) as we gather in a few days. A sign of our health is that all questions are honored, no speech is suppressed, and that the relevant and authorized teams have done their best work during this year. Now we offer it to you.
4. As I reflect on my own role as presiding bishop of the annual conference, I am reminded that this really is the work of the people. Annual Conference, by design, is a democracy, with clergy and laity struggling together toward the discernment of God’s will. I will seek to be fair, patient and encouraging as the work moves along. At the same time, I am conscious that our time together, with a very complex agenda, is only slightly more than forty-eight hours.
My further hope is that we will have fun together and that God’s gift of the Holy Spirit will be with us, taking us to places that are beyond our present imagining.
5. Some of you, like me, will be attending the Florida Conference for the first time. Others have made this pilgrimage across many years. In either case, I have a concluding appeal:
· that you pray for the work of the conference on June 9, in your local church, lifting up by name those from your community who will be in Lakeland;
· that you see in your brother or sister another follower of Jesus, like all of us in the process of becoming---to express this in a different way, Annual Conference is not a political convention;
· that you consider a generous and sacrificial gift, and encourage your church to do so as well, toward our conference offering;
· that you make the decision, now, to invest yourself fully in the work of the conference;
· and that you pray that God will use this meeting, in some miraculous way, to give all of us a new beginning---as disciples of Jesus Christ, as members together of the Florida Conference, as agents of transformation for justice and compassion in God’s world.
I am reminded, in these days, of the wisdom of the apostle Paul in Philippians 1. 6: “The God who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it.”
See you in Lakeland!