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Conference Table scrutinizes ins, outs of clergy excellence

Conference Table scrutinizes ins, outs of clergy excellence

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference Table scrutinizes ins, outs of clergy excellence

Dec. 14, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0586}

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

TAMPA — Excellence is an attainable goal some Florida Conference clergy say they feel they are achieving, while others admit they struggle with the all-encompassing, sometimes arduous, aspects of ministry.

The Nov. 28 Conference Table at St. James United Methodist Church in Tampa focused on that issue and the role of the conference ministry that is dedicated to providing resources and support for clergy.

The Rev. Dr. L. Gregory Jones, dean and professor of Duke Divinity School, speaks during the Conference Table on clergy excellence. He was invited after conference leaders read the book Jones co-wrote with Kevin R. Armstrong called “Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry.” Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #06-482. Web photo only.

Titled “Excellence for Ministry — A Focus on the Agenda for the Center for Clergy Excellence,” the session began with a time of worship led by Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker. The Rev. Dr. L. Gregory Jones, dean and professor of Duke Divinity School, then offered insight into the calling, profession and office of clergy.

Jones said that while increasing numbers of applicants are vying for acceptance to divinity and seminary schools, a high grade point average and generic letters of recommendation are not enough to ensure a person is truly being called into ordained ministry. He said there should be a multi-layered process to make certain a person is authentically being called — not the result of a passionate response to a summer camp, Walk to Emmaus or discipleship experience.

Jones is also an advocate of what he refers to as “learning for life” and was critical of annual conferences that allow clergy to enroll in courses for continuing education units, but which aren’t appropriate to their ministry. He said the standards must be higher and similar to those in the regimented medical profession because there is much at stake. He said the caring of the soul is equally as important as the life and death matters of caring for the body.

“I have a sister,” Jones said. “She has a brother who is dean at Duke Divinity School and a brother who is a United Methodist bishop, and she does not attend church. When she was a young adult she had a bad pastor who did serious harm to her soul.”

Telling that bit of personal history, Jones wanted to illustrate what is at stake as clergy strive to reach excellence.

“Life-long learning for life sustains and gives hope,” he said.

The Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, director of Florida Conference’s Connectional Ministries office, echoed Jones’ thoughts on the importance of continuing education and called for “revisioning” expectations of life-long learning.

Jones believes excellence in ministry can be achieved if clergy ask a great deal of each other. He said the short-term point-of-view of looking at things must vanish.

“There is a turn-around occurring in the ministry,” he said. “There is going to be decline before there is growth. It cannot be measured in a quarter-by-quarter process. Now, just because you are declining does not mean you are in the midst of a turnaround. There must be a clear focus, and that focus is making disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Producers of culture within the conference

There are churches within the Florida Conference meeting that long-term goal, and part of the day focused on a panel of clergy conference leaders feel are leading their congregations in a way that is shaping and producing a community culture that is more Kingdom-like.

The Revs. Ken Johnson (left), pastor of Everglades Community United Methodist Church in Pembroke Pines, and Tom Nelson, pastor of First United Methodist Church in South Miami, participated at the Conference Table as part of a panel of pastors who are leading their congregations in shaping and producing a new culture in their communities that is more Kingdom-like. Johnson said a schism within his church caused 230 people to leave within two years, but the change has led to the church being more outwardly focused. Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #06-483.

The Rev. Jennifer Stiles-Williams, pastor at Avondale United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, described her church as off the beaten path, white collar and where men used to run the day-to-day operation of the church and women played supporting roles behind the scenes. She said she felt members were ready to move forward and open their doors to their diverse community.

Stiles-Williams experienced that diversity during her first visit to a local hair salon. When the stylist, a young woman with multi-colored hair and assortment of piercings, asked Stiles-Williams what brought her to the community, she told her she was the new pastor at the church. The stylist said she had been experiencing a longing to go to church. Stiles-Williams invited her and preached her very first sermon on “radical hospitality” and meeting people — loving them as they are.

The church revamped its worship services to allow people to “get a taste of God” and “have a sacred place to touch Jesus.” Today the church is experiencing rapid growth, and 56 people joined this year alone. While some may think the area is a hot spot in connecting with young families moving in to renovate historic homes, Stiles-Williams said one of the seven people baptized this year was 75 years old.

The church has also reached beyond its doors to help recent hurricane survivors. It received donations of $100,000 in five hours to renovate one of its properties, a two-story home used for storage, to house Hurricane Katrina survivors.

When the Rev. Tom Nelson, pastor of First United Methodist Church in South Miami, arrived at the church in 2002 it was 78 years old and its membership had dwindled from a robust 850 people to a low of 115. He said even then he had a vision of what the church could be, and his first summer there 53 children attended Vacation Bible School, a significant number considering the church had only eight children from birth to 18 years old.

“The cruise ship was turning,” he said. “ … The former church leaders were in the back (of the ship) because they were tired of being up front, but they had chosen to go to the back. So the cruise ship is turning, but they don’t realize it.”

The church has partnered with a new mission, the Studio, which began in 2005 to minister to people recovering from a variety of known and little-known addictions, such as substance abuse and sexual addiction.

“I believe God’s doing incredible things,” he said, citing an after-school tutorial program offered by the church that’s helping 24 children. Another “thing” that stands out in his mind is a prayer concert the church sponsored. Music was literally being blared into streets where it assaulted a homeless man who climbed out of his cardboard box and walked into the church.

“Church leaders washed his feet,” Nelson said.

During a question and answer period the panelists were asked if they have bad days and how they handle them.

Stiles-Williams said she has a guilty pleasure of cruising the want ads on a daily basis.

The Rev. Mike Moore, pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, said he goes to a private place behind the church and screams out, “Is there any other pastor experiencing what I’m experiencing?”

The Rev. Ken Johnson, pastor of Everglades Community United Methodist Church in Pembroke Pines, said his saving grace during dark days has been his ecumenical accountability group. He said it has encouraged him to follow his calling and sustained him for the long haul of ministry.

One participant asked Jones what he does when he finds himself overwhelmed. Jones said his wife asks him about his prayer life and what he is reading, the two things that require him to look beyond himself.

All about accountability

Expounding on Johnson’s comment about an accountability or covenant group, the Rev. Sharon Austin, pastor of Cason United Methodist Church in Delray Beach, took over as moderator and asked Burkholder about the benefit a covenant group.

Burkholder said she is not currently a member of a covenant group, but has recently began working with a life coach. She said she meets three times a year with other directors of connectional ministries.

The importance of the right types of covenant groups can’t be overlooked because they help maintain the fire and passion for Jesus Christ, according to Burkholder, who said it is vital to have an authentic covenant that focuses on the nuts and bolts of spiritual life.

The Rev. Clarke Campbell Evans, who participated via the webcast, sent a comment that was read to the assembly.

“One of the most important elements of nurturing a culture of excellence among clergy and within congregations is to set high expectations of the identification of persons who embody the gifts and graces for ministry,” he said. “Can we not covenant as clergy and churches to embrace a kind of ‘Elisha Project’ where we make a very high priority and hold one another accountable for the identification and nurturing of exceptionally gifted people for ministry? It is vitally important for the core responsibility of the annual conference to identify, equip and deploy leadership to churches and ministries.”

Proponents of excellence in ministry

Participants then discussed at their tables how the conference and local churches could be proponents of excellence and how individuals can be proponents of excellence in their lives.

The Rev. Brandon Wise, associate pastor at Crystal River United Methodist Church in Crystal River, reports the findings of his table's discussion to the 105 clergy and laity who participated in the Conference Table on clergy excleence and the 312 joining in by webcast. Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #06-484.

The Rev. Daphne Johnson, pastor of College Heights United Methodist Church in Lakeland, said her table talked about how crucial it is that clergy, local churches and the conference are all working toward the same goal — expanding the Kingdom of God. She said the mindset must change to show there is a partnership and oneness among the different groups.

One person said clergy should have a mentor throughout their ministerial journey, not only while going through the candidacy process. Another said a local church could be an advocate of excellence by selecting church leaders to attend continuing education courses, training sessions and events that impact a broad base of people.

The Rev. Daniel Jackson, executive pastor of New Covenant United Methodist Church in the Villages, said clergy should support one another and relinquish the competitive edge many harbor.

Considering the big picture

Jones closed the meeting by summing up the high points of the day. He said improvisation is at the heart of Christian ministry.

“The church must have the freedom to be creative,” he said, adding once that creativity begins and clergy see God at work, they have a responsibility to share those stories.

“Nobody will be encouraged by themselves,” he said. “There must be a rash of courageousness to share.”

Jones urged those in attendance to have long-term goals, what he called having “ambition for the gospel.” He said those seduced by short-term goals use a shortcut to improve attendance with a quick fix, such as giving $20 to every person who would attend church. Gospel ambition will allow clergy to keep working the goal.

“I think the most important thing is to keep the big picture before us,” he said.

After the meeting, the Rev. Felecia O’Neal, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, said in order for clergy to continue to grow it is important that they have fuel to sustain them for the long haul of a life in the ministry.

The Rev. Peter Cottrell, pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, said it was nice to hear stories from the panelists that demonstrated the most meaningful stories aren’t the normal ministerial stories. “It was nice to see they can happen anywhere in the oddest, most wonderful situations.”


This article relates to Clergy Culture/Conference Tables.

*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.