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Florida United Methodists make headway during first days of annual meeting

Florida United Methodists make headway during first days of annual meeting

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Florida United Methodists make headway during first days of annual meeting

June 4, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0496}

NOTE: This is an overview of the first two days of the “Witness With Power” 2006 Florida Annual Conference Event June 1-3 in Lakeland.

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LAKELAND — Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker (center) leads communion June 1 with help from the Revs. Vicki Walker and David Dodge during the evening worship service, which focused on missions and featured Dr. Evelyn Laycock as preacher. Photo by Greg Moore, Photo #06-366.

LAKELAND — The 2006 Florida Annual Conference Event kicked off its annual meeting June 1 at the Lakeland Center, with an estimated 2,000 lay and clergy delegates from across the state participating.

The session ends one day earlier than usual so clergy and can be back at their home churches to celebrate Pentecost Sunday. The Rev. Charles Weaver, assistant to the bishop and chairman of the annual conference program committee, said the three-day conference is a first in recent memory.

With less time on the agenda, delegates focused their energies on working through the business of the conference. Under the theme “Witness with Power,” based on the first and second chapters of Acts, delegates also paid particular attention to the ministry of the laity.

While clergy met Thursday morning, laity gathered in their own session and heard from Dr. David Lowes Watson, who stressed the importance of bringing into focus the role of clergy and laity.

Watson is director of the Office of Pastoral Formation for the Nashville Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church. He has written extensively in the fields of Methodist history, theology, evangelism, congregational life and mission. His books include “Accountable Discipleship,” “The Early Methodist Class Meeting,” and “God Does Not Foreclose.”

During his brief address Watson talked about how The United Methodist Church began, with circuit riders going out and preaching the gospel in between planting and harvesting their crops. He said United Methodists should not lose sight of that foundation.
“Congregations were started to look after the new people who had come to Christ,” he said. “We should never lose the priority of being in mission.”

He said the church needs to be more clear about lay and clergy roles. “Clergy were called to preach and teach the gospel. The laity are at the front lines, living out the gospel, leading us into the mission of the world.”

Marking the first day of the 2006 hurricane season, the conference’s disaster response team led the opening session that afternoon with a unique report on its activities since the last annual conference session.

LAKELAND — The Rev. Marta Burke, a.ka. the Disaster Diva, (right) helps Marilyn Swanson, director of the Florida Conference Storm Recovery Team and Tom Hazelwood with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, share what has been accomplished by the disaster response team since last year's annual conference session during the group's report to delegates June 1. Photo by Caryl Kelley, Photo #06-367.

Waving an umbrella and sporting a red feather boa, the Disaster Diva, portrayed by the Rev. Marta Burke, led a mock talk show, interviewing Marilyn Swanson, director of the conference Storm Recovery Center, and the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, executive secretary for disaster response in the United States for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Swanson said the conference has been able to help more than 5,000 people affected by the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes, but there are still people who need help.

Promising to deliver “All you need to know, so you’ll be good to go,” the Disaster Diva asked delegates questions to test their knowledge about hurricane preparedness.

Watson struck a serious note after the report, speaking to delegates about the power struggle between clergy and laity taking place in numerous congregations.

A firm believer that church leadership should rest with laity and not clergy, Watson said the church is experiencing a time of spiritual disturbance, which is healthy.

“Something is afoot when young clergy, within five years of ordination, leave the church,” he said. “How did we get here and how do we respond?”

LAKELAND — Dr. David Lowes Watson spoke during the afternoon session June 1, focusing on the historic role of laity in the Wesleyan tradition. He also helped lead discussion around three questions relating to the roles of clergy and laity. Photo by Greg Moore, Photo #06-368.

Clergy and laity spent some time considering that and other questions in small groups throughout the Lakeland Center arena. Whitaker, Watson and Florida Conference Lay Leader Bill Walker then took questions from the floor.

During the evening worship and communion service Dr. Evelyn Laycock talked about the sacredness of communion and what it means to share a meal with someone.

Laycock served as director of the Lay Ministry Center for the Southeastern Jurisdictional (SEJ) Administrative Council in Lake Junaluska, N.C., for 10 years.

“In the Middle East, when you eat together, you are friends for life,” Laycock said. “When people eat together, there is a pledge of solemn affection and mutual concern. There is a mutual intimacy where we regard one another as sisters and brothers, with God as the father.”

Laycock said the greatest sin is to break that covenant. She said each time Christians take communion they are called to remember what God has done for them.

“We must tell our stories of remembering the mighty acts of God in our lives,” she said. “We must tell them to friends and family and pass them on to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

During the service delegates also gave an offering that will be distributed among three ministries. Sixty percent will support the work of the East Angola/Florida Partnership, 30 percent will help fund the Encounter with Christ in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 10 percent will enable the Council of Bishops’ Initiative on Children and Poverty (BICAP)/Children’s Harvest to purchase backpacks and school kits for at-risk children and youth.

June 2 began with music and prayer and another talk show spoof.

The Connectional Ministries Team (CMT) gave its report using the format of NBC’s popular “Today” show, with local talent to play Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, Ann Curry and Al Roker.

The show touted the success of CMT’s Internet learning program and featured the Rev. Steve Price, co-pastor at Harvest United Methodist Church in Bradenton, who recently returned from a conference mission trip to East Angola. It also highlighted the conference’s focus on immigration, Hispanic ministries and the progress of the Leadership Connection.

The Camp and Retreat Ministry followed with a report on comprehensive plans to expand ministries and facilities at the conference’s four camp and retreat centers. Delegates also approved the Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry’s resolution urging every church to elect a representative by October to lead outreach efforts to 18- to 33-year-olds, an age group that accounts for only 21 percent of U.S. churchgoers.   

The Rev. Jeff Stiggins, the conference’s new Congregational Transformation director, briefly greeted the assembly. He said 75 percent of the conference’s churches are “coasting,” what he referred to as “charging stubbornly toward being ineffective.”

“Congregational transformation is a big challenge for all of us,” he said. “Congregational transformation is not just a conference program. It’s about local church members caring more about being what Christ calls us to do.”

Stiggins is succeeding the Rev. Dr. Kendall Taylor who retires at this annual conference session.

LAKELAND — Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker (left) and the Rev. Raphael Dessieu sign the Haiti/Florida Covenant delegates approved moments before. Photo by Caryl Kelley, Photo #06-369.

The conference approved the Haiti/Florida Covenant, creating a formal relationship between the Methodist Church of Haiti and the Florida Conference. Leaders of both hope to strengthen connections between the two and encourage the sharing of experiences and resources. They also hope to foster an equal exchange of ideas and a better understanding among Florida United Methodists about the plight of Haitians.

Whitaker and the Rev. Raphael Dessieu, president of the Methodist Church of Haiti, signed the covenant.

The Rev. Melissa Pisco, who is serving the Studio mission in Miami, led Bible study before the lunch break. The Studio is an intentional outreach to people suffering from a variety of addictions.

After showing a short video of man-on-the-street interviews in which many people said the church is not relevant in their communities and lives, Pisco said churches must get connected with their communities. She said churches often become fixated on their individual wants and desires instead of focusing solely on Jesus Christ, which can only be done through prayer.

“We have to be very intentional about our prayer life,” she said. “We can’t use it as a first-aid kit when something goes wrong.”

The Rev. Daphne Johnson, pastor of Highlands United Methodist Church in Lakeland, said this annual conference event has not been as eventful as others, but it has been well orchestrated. She said Watson has been a highlight for her. “He was enjoyable with a strong message,” she said.

Diane McAlhany, a lay member at Grace United Methodist Church in Gainesville, said the Bible study “blew me away.” “She said what we need to do. We need to meet people where they are — just step out.”

In other business:

n  The conference Council on Finance and Administration (CF&A) reported 2005 was one of the best years on record financially, with connectional offerings, apportionments, advance specials and other gifts totaling more than $25 million. Giving to apportionments increased more than $500,000 over 2004, and giving to United Methodist Committee on Relief for hurricane and other relief totaled more than $3.5 million. CF&A also reported the conference’s share of the denominational budget will increase less than 1 percent in 2007, the smallest increase in many years, causing Florida to no longer have the second highest denominational apportionments.

LAKELAND — Youth in the dance ensemble from Wesley United Methodist Church in Miami participate in the service of communion and celebration of missions  June 1. Photo by Caryl Kelley, Photo #06-370.

n Delegates approved CF&A’s recommendation that Milton (Mickey) E. Wilson become the new conference treasurer and director of administrative services effective July 1. Dr. Randy Casey-Rutland resigned from the position effective May 5 so he and his family could relocate to the Virginia Annual Conference where is wife, Helen, is an ordained clergy member in full connection. Wilson is currently chief financial officer (CFO) for the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA), United Methodist Property and Casualty Trust and the United Methodist Foundation. As CFO for GCFA Wilson is responsible for all accounting and property insurance issues, as well as all financial and investment activities.

n  The conference’s Risk Management committee reported churches filed 657 claims resulting from damages caused by the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes. Nearly 85 percent of the 2004 claims and a little more than 57 percent of 2005 claims have been paid for a total of $35 million paid to churches. The committee has added staff to resolve outstanding claims, the conference insurance broker has placed an employee on-site in the conference office to assist churches with insurance needs, and an insurance subcommittee is exploring options to contain costs.

n  The New Church Development committee reported churches launched in 2004 and 2005 experienced average worship attendance of 9,488 and 10,660, respectively, with the ratio of attendance to membership at more than 96 percent each year. A total of 18 new churches are scheduled for launch in 2007.

n  Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker asked all congregations to give to the Katrina Church Recovery Appeal to help rebuild churches and parsonages and provide funding for pastors’ salaries for United Methodist churches in the Gulf Coast region affected by Hurricane Katrina. Churches can send their gifts to the conference offices made payable to Florida Conference Treasurer and designated Bishops’ Appeal, #818-001.


This article relates to the 2006 Florida Annual Conference Event.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.