View from the podium: an episcopal perspective on Annual Conference
For United Methodists, Annual Conference is that once-a-year gathering that mixes church business with worship, mission and fellowship. This year, that church business included election of 50 delegates, including alternates, from the ranks of clergy and laity to represent Florida’s United Methodists at General Conference and the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference in 2016.
Bishop Ken Carter, who grew up in Georgia, came to the Florida Conference in September 2012 from the Western North Carolina Conference, where he spent most of his ministry as a pastor and district superintendent. This year’s get-together of about 1,900 United Methodists at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach marked the third time he has presided over Florida’s Annual Conference, and the bishop took some time to reflect on his experience.
Q. What were your expectations for Annual Conference 2015, and how was this year’s meeting different from previous years?
I feel that I am coming to know the clergy and laity better, and this comes from preaching in the local churches and meeting with small groups throughout the year. So in a sense it is a reunion for me as well! I knew this conference would be different in that we would be electing delegates to the 2016 General and Jurisdictional Conferences, and we would also be responding to resolutions that would have a bearing on the General Conference. And so we streamlined the schedule, and here I am very grateful to David Dodge, who chaired the work on the agenda, in order to leave space for 30 ballots. I believe we took 29 of them!
At the same time, my goal is the same each year — that our laity and clergy will return home with the sense that they are closer to God, more aware of what it means to be a United Methodist and more connected to the ministries of the Florida Conference.
Q. What were the highlights and surprises you experienced at this year’s Annual Conference?
Certainly a highlight was the awesome privilege of licensing, commissioning and ordaining men and women for ministry, but also the music of Robert McMichael and Jarvis Wilson, and the Bethune-Cookman University Concert Chorale. The extraordinary investment in our clergy — a $2 million endowment for clergy debt [relief] and a $1 million grant from the Florida United Methodist Foundation for clergy debt and renewal — was unprecedented, and will be a game-changer going forward. Adam Hamilton leads the largest United Methodist congregation in the United States, and has been at the heart of conversations in our denomination around renewal of the tradition, placing our focus on the local church and reaching next generations. This certainly came through in his teaching.
The call to prayer for the closing of churches led me to articulate our need to repent —there are persons who would be blessed by a relationship with Christ and his body surrounding most of our local churches — alongside the reality of grief in the loss of any sacred space.
I was surprised that five of the nine lay delegates to the 2016 General Conference are young adults. They are amazing individuals, each with unique gifts and interests. At the same time, they will be complemented by laity and clergy who have previous experience as delegates. This is very exciting, and speaks to the generational shift that is happening in the church, and the emphasis on intergenerational ministry and mentoring in the Board of Lay Ministry and by our lay leader, Russ Graves.
Q. How do you think the General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference delegations came to reflect such diversity?
Ideally, the delegations reflect the strength, vitality and diversity of the annual conference: laity who are deeply involved in their local communities and congregations, clergy who are effective leaders at the local and annual conference level. Historically, the Florida Conference has been blessed with strong lay and clergy leaders who have influenced the direction of the Southeastern Jurisdiction and the larger denomination.
We are in the midst of a transition with the retirement of many of these clergy and lay leaders — some have also remained active and felt a sense of call to allow new persons to emerge — and this may have been reflected in the delegation.
I have always had the conviction that being called to serve as a delegate is an indication that one’s colleagues have a high level of trust and respect for you. These 50 persons (nine lay and clergy to General Conference, nine lay and clergy to Jurisdictional Conference and seven reserves each) have a wealth of experience and wisdom, and they will have an impact on the whole church. As we prayed for them, I drew from the wisdom of Mary McLeod Bethune in reminding them that “without faith, nothing is possible; but with faith, all things are possible.” I have faith in them, and I know they sense a call to this.
The leaders of the delegations, Molly McEntire [laity] and Sue Haupert-Johnson [clergy], will give superb direction and guidance. I do believe that the 2016 General Conference will be significant, and the election of five new bishops at the SEJ Conference will also shape the church in an important way.
Q. Regarding Florida Conference efforts to relieve clergy education debt: What are your hopes and dreams for the clergy of the future?
I am so grateful first to the areas that came together around this vision, especially Clergy Excellence, Pension and Health Benefits, a few of our leading pastors and our [Florida United Methodist] Foundation. In particular, Wayne Wiatt, Dan Johnson, Mark Becker and Mickey Wilson were instrumental in bringing this to fruition. The average seminarian graduates with $48,000 in educational debt. This creates stress and anxiety, prohibits effective leadership in the area of stewardship, and is an obstacle to a spiritual discipline of tithing. The gift of $5,000 to each ordinand was a tangible sharing in the lives of these clergy and will hopefully inspire leaders and congregations to engage in other ways to come alongside these younger clergy.
My friend Greg Jones, former dean of Duke Divinity School, speaks of “over-investing in the young.” We are blessed by strong connectional ministries in the annual conference — youth ministries, the camps, campus ministries and now the Young Adult Missional Movement — and a number of younger men and women are sensing a call to ordained ministry. We do not want educational debt to keep them from responding to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives. This is a very exciting development in the Florida Conference, and will bear fruit in the years to come.
Q. What do you think the discussion around the resolutions indicates about the Florida Conference?
As we began to engage in “crucial conversations,” this revealed what we often assume: We are a diverse state, and we are not homogeneous in our thinking. Florida includes large metropolitan areas, smaller rural towns, retirement and university settings and first and second generation immigrant populations. We also have real theological diversity. The three resolutions that focused on farmworkers, abortion and trials surrounding human sexuality were offered clearly and passionately, and elicited equally articulate responses.
I always approach annual conference with the awareness of two important dynamics. In this setting we are a democracy — men and women come from across the state to speak the truth as they understand it, and as it grows out of their faith. At the same time, we are called (in our General Rules) to “do no harm.” I may have the right to speak, but this does not give me permission to harm another person in my speaking. I felt the covenant shared each day, a simple document that flowed from the Conference Table and was affirmed by the Conference Commission on Religion and Race, the Cabinet and the Executive Committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry, helped to create a culture of respect and trust.
Having adopted the resolutions (in one instance with revision), we are now called to participate in realities that we often avoid: How can we develop churches that nourish the spiritual lives of farmworkers as we also seek justice? How can we affirm the need for the well-being of mothers and welcome the unborn in ministries of radical hospitality? How can we move away from judicial and legal responses to behaviors that are better understood in forms of accountability that included confession, repentance, reconciliation and forgiveness? From my perspective, these are the deeper realities underneath the substance of the resolutions.
Q. The Fresh Expressions Vision Day held the day before Annual Conference attracted about 50 clergy and lay members from various parts of Florida. What do you think that says about the momentum building around this approach to disciple-making?
We are searching for a model of renewal that is biblical and sustainable. We are also seeking a way of being church that does not assume that the next generations will come onto our turf or cross our thresholds. Instead, we are attempting to create expressions of Christianity in the culture, where people (sometimes defined as “unchurched” or “nones”) gather for community. We are learning from the “Fresh Expressions” movement of the United Kingdom, a joint initiative of the Church of England and the British Methodist Church. Audrey Warren is giving excellent leadership to this initiative, and I believe it will be one of the primary ways we connect the next generations with the gospel of Jesus Christ.