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Upcoming Conference Table focuses on laity

Upcoming Conference Table focuses on laity

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Upcoming Conference Table focuses on laity

March 19, 2006    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0461}

NOTE: A headshot of Burkholder is available at

An e-Review Feature
By John M. De Marco**

The goal of the Florida Conference's 14th Conference Table, the fourth in a span of just four months, is to produce relevant discussions regarding the roles and expectations of laity in personal discipleship and congregational life.

Scheduled for April 1 and titled "The Culture of Laity," the topic of this latest Conference Table is grounded in the assertion that clergy are called, through preaching and teaching, to equip the laity to carry on the work of pastoral ministry in a local church, the community and throughout the world. David Lowes Watson, one of the speakers at this summer's annual conference session, offers this theological perspective. Watson grounds his argument in Wesleyan theology and the realities of laity more effectively reaching non-Christians in the current age.

Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder

The Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, director of the conference's Connectional Ministries office, said previous Conference Table sessions have engendered a sense of "holy conferencing."

"When people gather to talk about difficult and compelling issues and a variety of viewpoints are represented at the table, the whole always emerges greater than the sum of the parts," Burkholder said. "I hope this Conference Table will broaden the conversation leading up to Annual Conference about the role of the laity in the life of the church and introduce some new provocative ideas that will spur others on to thinking in news ways regarding the gifts that laity bring to ministry and the contributions they have the potential to make in the life of the church."

Burkholder said she is convinced the conference must continue to improve the way in which a person's spiritual gifts and skills are identified in the local church.

"Some churches have caught on to this change in the nominations process, now called the church 'leadership committee.' However, many continue to resort to sticking names in slots, just to have a full set of identified leaders, whether they are appropriate for the job or not," she said. "In addition, we have to discover a way to help folks identify their calling beyond traditional 'church work.' I don't think this is what Jesus really had in mind when he called disciples to help bring about the kingdom."

Church work, according to Burkholder, used to mean the laity helping "run the church and take care of each other." Today, she believes it means leading people to Christ, helping them deepen their understanding of discipleship and then sending them into the world on mission to their workplaces, families, communities and the world.

Burkholder says the conference and its churches are struggling with the tension between two historic views of the ministry of clergy and laity.

"One is the view that clergy need to be a well-trained, 'professional' order that results in a kind of 'ownership' of the knowledge of ministry and the resulting disengagement of laity in ministry," she said. "The second view is that ministry in a wide variety of expressions is the calling of all Christians as they grow more deeply in their discipleship. I would like to see us grapple with how we unite the two views. One (view) is that the training of clergy in preparation for ordination remains critical, but the focus of the work of the clergy is to empower and strengthen the ministry of the laity, rather than to view themselves as 'doing ministry to and for the laity.' "
Burkholder said Stephen Ministry is one example of laity trained to carry out ministry that has been viewed in the past 50 years as the purview of the laity. "We also find many laity who have gone into pastoral care ministry as professionals," she added. "Missional outreach areas, especially those that are grounded in relationship-building with persons with whom laity work, such as Habitat families and Florida-Cuba Covenant relationships, are another."

Burkholder said she feels conference leadership is catching on more quickly to new ideas that help clergy and laity move past those traditional roles than the congregations themselves.

"Our struggle lies in how to change the way in which churches are held accountable for the meaningful things. For example, our year-end reports don't really help us identify how well we are making and shaping disciples," she said.

LAKELAND — At the "One Body One Spirit" 2005 Florida Annual Conference Event, Conference Lay Leader Bill Walker talked about the role of laity, saying lay members must support and encourage clergy and the two must hold each other accountable for deepening each other’s spiritual lives. He also said a corps of spiritually molded laity is at the heart of the plan to transform the conference. Photo by Geoff Anderson, Photo #06-0325.

Bill Walker, the conference's lay leader and former director of Connectional Ministries, said there is a great need for leadership from clergy, but "many clergy are not apparent in their possession of the gifts of leadership."

"Rather, they are called to teach, most studies have shown," Walker said. "Laity have become very passive and have largely lost the Wesleyan role of responsibility for discipleship."

He added that many churches have been finding ways to help laity discover and hone the ministry to which God has called them, with clergy encouraging and celebrating the responses to those callings.

The Conference Table will address such issues as the expectations appointed and resident leaders of congregations should have of each other, how the church moves toward new ways of identifying people for leadership in the life of the church, what "church work" really means in today's apostolic age, what causes people to care about ministry in the first place, and how and where lay mobilization is working.

Those planning to attend the Conference Table should be prepared to listen to presenters and then engage in reflection within a small group, according to Burkholder. She said leadership planning the Conference Tables has tried to ensure ideas are shared throughout the room through a "reporting" process and that a method for allowing attendees to write down their ideas and concerns in order to allow feedback from those less inclined to share their opinions verbally is used.

The Conference Table will be held at First United Methodist Church, Sebring, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Individuals interested in attending are asked to register at Lunch is provided at a cost of $7 per person. More information is available on the Florida Conference Web site at by clicking on the Conference Table icon on the left-hand side of the home page.

The gathering will also be web cast live for those who are not able to attend. To enter the webcast on the day of the event visit the conference Web site at


This article relates to Lay Ministry/Conference Table Gatherings.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.