Florida Conference on solid ground, treasurer reports
Election results as of June 11:
Florida Conference voting members from laity finished electing all nine delegates to General Conference 2016 on the 14th round of balloting Thursday.
Including those elected Wednesday, laity delegates are Molly McEntire, Derrick Scott III, Alice Williams, Mickey Wilson, Russ Graves, Jeremy Hearn, Rachael Sumner, Carlene Fogle-Miller and Janet Earls. In addition,Tiffania Icaza Willetts was the first lay delegate elected to represent the conference at the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference in 2016. Also elected were Alexia Michelle Valle Velez, Martha Gay Duncan and Marie Anne Pierre-Louis.
Clergy members were still trying to fill out the slate of General Conference delegates when voting concluded Thursday. Elected so far are Sue Haupert-Johnson, Alex Shanks, Rini Hernandez, Dionne Chandler Hammond, Harold Lewis Sr., David Dodge, Cynthia Weems and Jacqueline Leveron.
DAYTONA BEACH – The message has become a familiar refrain for Florida Annual Conference attendees:
“The condition of the Florida Annual Conference can only be described as solid.”
But the Thursday morning session at Bethune-Cookman University was the last time Mickey Wilson would deliver it in his official capacity as Florida Conference treasurer. He retires this month, putting the financial health of the conference in the hands of Tony Prestipino, who is expected to be affirmed by conference members Saturday as the new treasurer. Wilson said he will remain involved in the conference as a member of the investments committee, however. He also was among lay delegates to General Conference elected Thursday.
Bishop Ken Carter asked the crowd to reflect on “how much this person has meant to the life of the church.” The message many may have come to expect from the finance office since Wilson took the helm in 2006 could easily have gone a different way, he said.
During Wilson’s tenure, the conference has weathered the most severe national and state economic downturn in decades and a spate of hurricanes that damaged many of the churches in the Florida Conference.
“We could be the annual conference in our denomination that was the worst off financially and managerially … and in fact almost the opposite is true,” Carter said, adding that the Florida Conference is one of the soundest in the United Methodist connection.
Wilson also played a significant role in creating a new fund, “Passing the Torch,” that will provide grants to newly ordained clergy to help them pay down seminary debt. The conference Board of Pension and Health Benefits and the Florida United Methodist Foundation have partnered to provide funds and a financial education program to help clergy avoid heavy debt, and the first $5,000 grants were presented Thursday to 11 clergy who answered historic questions in anticipation of ordination Friday.
Conference voting members approved a $21.4 million overall budget for the coming year that includes almost $15 million for Florida Conference, districts and local church needs. Carter said disciple-making ministries in local churches will remain the top priority for allocating funds.
The budget reflects no significant increase in spending from this year and is $1 million less than the 2006 budget that preceded the economic downturn, Wilson said.
He also praised local churches for reaching a level of nearly 89 percent of apportionments paid. Clergy pensions are fully funded, he added, and efforts by the Florida Conference Ministry Protection staff have reduced annual liability insurance premiums paid by local churches by 40 percent, saving millions of dollars since 2006.
In other business:
-- Rev. Clare Watson Chance, chairperson of the Health Insurance Subcommitee, reviewed the group’s proposal for a “Freedom to Choose” initiative, which outlines a plan for easing clergy and conference employees onto the government-mandated health insurance exchange.
Changes will be needed to avoid the so-called “Cadillac tax” the conference would have to pay under the federal Affordable Care Act for providing its current coverage beginning in 2017, Chance said. Generally, the proposal would provide funds to clergy and employees that would allow them to purchase plans with similar benefits to those provided now for roughly the same cost.
Questioned by a conference member, Chance conceded that the compensation provided for health insurance would be subject to federal taxes. She said the committee expects to finalize the proposal and begin educating those affected by the changes in the spring of 2016, with plans to seek conference approval at next year’s annual meeting. She asked for prayers for the committee.
“It’s complicated, and we want to do the right thing.”
-- Rev. Mark Becker, president of the Florida United Methodist Foundation, outlined ways the foundation has committed to helping new clergy with crushing debt loads. In addition to partnering with the Florida Conference to provide grants to ordinands when they reach full connection status, as well as $200,000 a year for five years for clergy grants to help promote successful ministries, the foundation also will fund a $40,000 scholarship to a qualified person of color to offset the cost of seminary tuition.
Becker said the foundation also will provide an annual $60,000 grant to continue financial and stewardship courses available to all clergy, as well as help fund renewal leave for experienced clergy.
The foundation also provided a $25,000 matching grant to help Bethune-Cookman students serve and learn about communities abroad and a $100,000 matching grant to the Florida Conference Imagine No Malaria campaign.
As voting members of the foundation, the Florida Conference body also approved Rev. Harold Hendren, senior pastor of New Covenant UMC, The Villages, to join the foundation board.
-- Closed six churches and approved plans to sell the Union Street UMC campus in Dunedin, with proceeds designated to support the vacating worshipers in a new church home. The Union Street congregation, which includes the nation’s largest group of Micronesian Methodists, could not afford to maintain the property and will rent space from a nearby church, conference attendees were told.
Rev. Annette Stiles Pendergrass, dean of the conference cabinet, urged conference members to honor the legacy of churches that close while also recognizing opportunities for new ministries intended to meet current community needs. But a member questioned whether the conference is doing everything it can to keep churches open.
Carter asked all former members of churches that had closed to stand and be recognized. He then began to pray:
“Gracious God, we repent. We repent. … Where we have not made disciples, O Lord, we repent.
“In repentance, there is a grieving. We acknowledge the loss and the grief whenever a sanctuary is no longer used for worship.”
-- Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.