Continuity and Change: Florida Conference approaches 2025The Bishop's Blog
"The most effective leadership anchors change in the values, competencies and strategic orientations that should endure in the organization."
Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Martin Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership
Without change, we are stuck in the status quo. Without continuity, we are disoriented, in chaos. Without change, we live in a stagnant pool of water. Without continuity, we are in permanent white water, without a paddle or a raft.
Not Either/Or, but Both/And
The need, clearly is for both continuity and change. In the gospels Jesus clearly values the tradition, but embodies innovation: "you have heard it said, but I say unto you." In 18th century England, John Wesley values the living tradition of Anglican theology and spiritual practice, while experimenting with a range of new missional initiatives, such as field preaching and class meetings. In the words of the missionary Vincent J. Donovan:
“Do not try to call them back to where they were, and do not try to call them to where you are, as beautiful as that place might seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before.”
I am reminded of Jim Collins’ distinction between the tyranny of the “or” and the genius of the “and.” We are about continuity and change.
- In your own life, how have you remained the same?
- And how have you changed?
- Can you describe changes that are challenging and constructive?
Grace and Holiness
In our own time there is a call for change, and the discernment is around the "values, competencies and strategic orientations that should endure.” What should continuity look like in our own changing United Methodist reality? I would begin with our theology of grace, which is deep, rich and lifelong. I would continue with the conviction that we are a holiness tradition, and one that embraces personal (inner) and social (relational) holiness. We value the local congregation and want to attend to its vitality, while also sensing that it is healthiest when we are also connectional. And we rejoice in a personal experience of the gospel that occurs in a two thousand year history of faith among the followers of Jesus.
- In your own spiritual life, how is God’s grace real?
- And how are you on the way to being more of the person that God wants you to be?
Field Preaching and Fresh Expressions
Continuity is rooted in our Wesleyan spiritual practices: searching the scriptures, generosity with the poor, constant communion, singing, testimony and small groups. These "ordinary channels" of grace (to use John Wesley's phrase) put us in places where we are more likely to receive the gift of God's saving presence. Over time, spiritual practices take institutional forms, and so we move from class meetings and field preaching to camp meetings and Sunday school classes, and then to seeker services and cell groups, and now to Fresh Expressions and missional communities. The institutional forms change, and, yes, the change occurs slowly, as we become invested in the institutions. But the institutions were created to support the practices!
- If your church could stop doing one thing, what would it be?
- And if you could then begin something new, what would that look like?
Human Needs and Institutional Purposes
Our calling in the present moment, it seems, is to discern the underlying practices embedded in the institutional forms. We want to communicate the gospel outside the walls of the church: This happens in social media, coffee shops and on athletic fields? We want to share our resources with those who seek access to the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, education. In a missional context we are flexible and nimble, aware that institutions built for these very purposes in prior generations may no longer serve these constituencies today. And there is a crucial conversation among our nation’s political leadership about the role of government in relation to basic human needs and rights, which are also contested.
- Who are the last, the least and the lost in your own community, neighborhood, network or family?
- How can disciples come alongside those who are marginalized and vulnerable?
The Florida Conference in 2025
If United Methodism is to flourish in North America, we will be less institutional and more missional in the near future. We will sell or repurpose many of our buildings, reset many of our financial baselines and restructure many of our institutions. This year we will be aligning our conference mission in eight districts, a reduction of one. This creative work has been occurring in the Florida Conference since the early 2000s. So where are we headed? In more than one setting I have imagined that the Florida Conference in 2025 might be composed of 500 local churches, that we would double our number of vital local churches, and that we would also have 500 Fresh Expressions of church.
- What would it take for your church to become more vital and alive?
- How is God calling you to become a leader in that transition?
Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (Book of Discipline, 121). Vital churches across Florida grasp the urgency of making disciples. And in a post-Christian culture, we need to become much more clear about what is involved in this task. We will help men and women
- to know how to get started in the Christian life
- to discover what conversion means
- to articulate why we need conversion,
- to know why we need Christ
- to also know why we need the church
- to sustain their conversions across a lifetime
- to understand and claim the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit.
We will seek justice as a biblical mandate. We will be honest about the obstacles to the Christian life and give encouragement in overcoming those obstacles. Lastly, we will teach the goal of the Christian life: sanctification, the great banquet, the peaceable kingdom, the new creation, the vision of God and perfect love that casts out fear.
- How did you become a follower of Jesus?
- What sustains you in your walk with God?
- Where are new persons discipled in your local church?
Beyond the Local Church
We will clearly identify many of the larger denominational initiatives that anchor us in passionate mission—I would include Africa University and Imagine No Malaria, United Methodist Committee on Relief and our Methodists United in Prayer (Cuba Partnership) among these, and you might add others. We might ask the Upper Room to teach spiritual practices to a new generation. We might make the resources of our theological schools available to the world free, through open source learning: M.I.T. has pioneered in this way. In our own annual conference the initiatives with young adults—our significant investment in campus ministries, camping ministries, the Young Adult Missional Movement and seminary debt relief are grounded in traditions that are important to us, and yet move us into a future that is unfolding.
- What connectional ministry, in the Florida Conference or in the larger United Methodist Church, is most significant to you?
Bridges that Connect Us
The image of bridges which framed our conversations last fall in the Town Hall Meetings were very much about continuity and change—how we begin where we are, how we assess our resources, convictions and callings, and how and why we cross over to the other side. This is most evident in three signature initiatives: the School/Church connection, the Nehemiah/Legacy work with local churches and Fresh Expressions. The School/Church connection introduces us to at-risk children in the schools nearest to our local churches; the Nehemiah/Legacy work helps us to come alongside local churches who have become disconnected from their neighborhoods and communities, and Fresh Expressions of church take place outside the walls of our church buildings. In each instance the initiative is a bridge toward new people, new places and a new future.
- Question: What is your favorite bridge in Florida, and why?
The Way Forward as Continuity and Change
The image of a bridge is also relevant to my work as one of the moderators of the Commission on a Way Forward, and the conversations across our conference around LGBTQ identity and unity. This is not about an issue or agenda; but, again, it is deeply rooted in who we are:
- each of us is created in God’s image,
- damaged by sin and evil,
- called to love and serve each other,
- saved by the unmerited gift of grace,
- and on a journey together toward holiness, which is the restoration of God’s image in us, with that image being love.
The Way Forward is change. But it should be change grounded in faithfulness, unity and fruitfulness. This is continuity.
- Where do friendships, conversations and deep sharing happen among persons in the LGBTQ community in your own church and community?
- If this is not happening, how could these conversations begin?
God is Faithful
We may look very different as a church in 2025, which is a short eight years from now—indeed most local congregations will. But if the change is grounded in the values that have anchored us, in the competencies that reside among our best leaders, and in the strategic orientations that flow from who we are—God’s people who think about, feel, live and share a gospel of grace—we will not only survive, we will flourish. God will be with us. And God is faithful.
- What will your own life look like eight years from now?
- What will be happening in your family? In your local church?
- What do you hope for among United Methodists in Florida in 2025?