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Bishop promotes clusters as way to reconnect the connection

Bishop promotes clusters as way to reconnect the connection

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Bishop promotes clusters as way to reconnect the connection

Feb. 13, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0797}

An e-Review Feature
By Erik J. Alsgaard**

POMPANO BEACH — Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker says many clergy “look upon the connection as a kind of institutional mechanism.”

Bishop Timothy Whitaker (left) preaches during the Plantation Cluster worship service Jan. 27, while Aurilus Desmornes, a pastor intern at Norland United Methodist Church in Miami Gardens, one of the churches in the Plantation Cluster, provides translation in Creole. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #08-0747.

Whitaker shared that assessment while speaking to a group of clergy and lay leaders from eight churches that are informally known as the Plantation Cluster.

The group had gathered for its regular meeting at Pompano Beach United Methodist Church, now a satellite campus of Christ Church United Methodist of Pompano Beach.

“That was not the tradition in the early Methodist Church,” Whitaker continued. “All of the societies, later congregations, were parts of circuits. Whenever you had quarterly conferences, they all came together for a time of worship and to be held accountable for their ministry. The experience that Methodists had in (early) America was one where all the different congregations came together.”

Clusters, a concept introduced by Whitaker during the transition time when the Florida Conference went from 14 to nine districts, are sprouting new ministries, bearing fruit or sometimes not working at all. The bishop’s visit to the Plantation Cluster was designed to show his support for what he considers a vital link in the denomination.

“Asking congregations to be in clusters was a way to try and experience again what the connection once was — a living relationship with one another,” Whitaker said.

The move away from connection

In his comments to the cluster, Whitaker offered his own theory of why churches went from being more interrelated to more on their own.

“Our church tended to follow the culture in American society,” he said. “In the middle of the 20th century, American culture was dominated by certain kinds of corporations and bureaucracies. Our church started patterning our life after them, and that’s when each individual congregation started seeing itself as standing alone and each pastor saw him-or herself as having a relationship only to the church to which she or he was assigned.”

By trying to mimic corporate life, Whitaker said, United Methodism lost some of its customs.

“As we all know, that culture (previous corporate culture) has pretty much disappeared, but it survives in our church.”

A ‘good explosion’

The Plantation Cluster is one group that is beginning to experience more connections between its churches.

At the cluster-led worship service during Whitaker’s visit, more than 300 people prayed for each other and their churches, listened to the Sanctified New Jerusalem Mission choir sing in Creole and celebrated communion.

For the Rev. Debbie McLeod, superintendent of the Florida Conference’s South East District, it was a wonderful evening.

Members of the Sanctified New Jerusalem Mission choir provide musical leadership during the Plantation Cluster worship service in Pompano Beach. The Haitian congregation — a new member to the cluster — served as host for the Sunday night, two-hour worship service. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #08-0748.

“This was a great experience of vibrancy in worship tonight,” she said at a reception following worship. “This is a lot what The United Methodist Church looks like in Southeast Florida … we’re no longer all white. It’s a wonderful thing for people to come together and experience Christ.”

McLeod sees a strong benefit in churches coming together, like those in the Plantation Cluster, to do ministry or just be together.

“In South Florida, the communities are very fragmented,” she said. “The churches can become like silos, and it’s hard for people, even though at work and school they know people from other cultures. It’s hard for the church to really be the Kingdom. Having a chance to come together with other United Methodists who may worship in a different language or come from a different culture or country is a wonderful way of being together in Christ.”

McLeod said the Plantation Cluster in particular has had a “wonderful experience” of going to each of the congregations represented and having a time of prayer and praying for each other.

The Rev. Mary Beth Packard, pastor at Norland United Methodist Church in Miami, said being in the cluster has been helpful to her and the church. She said the church recently went through a painful process of losing its previous pastor, and cluster members literally showed up and prayer with and for that congregation.

“The cluster has also helped me to learn about the diversity of culture, both within and outside the congregation,” she said. “They’ve helped me deal with my own prejudices and assumptions.”

Jonas Milice leads the Sanctified New Jerusalem Christian Mission, the host congregation for the worship service. His church is experiencing significant growth as it reaches out to the Haitian community in Pompano Beach.

“The church is having a big explosion,” he said. “When we became United Methodist church, God gave us a bigger place, a nice sanctuary to worship in.”

Milice said he and his wife started the church three years ago in a storefront. They just recently began worshiping in the sanctuary at Pompano Beach United Methodist Church. Today, they have more than 300 people in worship, a youth group of more than 25 and a choir of 30.

Milice and his church are new members of the Plantation Cluster, a connection he welcomes with open arms.

The Rev. Jonas Milice, pastor of the Sanctified New Jerusalem Mission church in Pompano Beach, leads worship during the Plantation Cluster worship service Jan. 27. The Sanctified New Jerusalem congregation serves the Haitian community in Pompano Beach and has grown to more than 300 worshipers since it began three years ago. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #08-0749.

“God has blessed us; God makes us a good explosion,” Milice said. “We’re from Haiti. A lot of people have immigration problems, but God keeps moving with us; we feel the Holy Spirit with us when we worship. I want people to pray for us, pray for me.”

Different places, different clusters

Whitaker reminded the Plantation Cluster the conference gave church clusters freedom at the local level to determine how they would organize. Some have organized around geography, some around ethnicity and some on doing ministry together.

“We have a cluster in Port Orange that is starting a new congregation this year,” Whitaker said. “They came together and decided they were being led to start a new congregation.”

Whitaker mentioned another cluster in which a mega church is working with churches in the poorest communities of its region. This move frees the mega church from being isolated from the poorest members of its community and offers support to the smaller churches in the cluster.

One cluster in rural North Florida has started a creative outreach program. After learning there is a high concentration of single mothers in their community, cluster leaders began asking how they could reach out to that group.

A spare room at one of the church’s in the cluster was turned into a Laundromat. Church members come together and offer to baby-sit while mothers do their laundry.
Breaking down barriers

Whitaker said one of his personal dreams is that, through clustering, the church will break down some of the segregation McLeod noted.

“I heard about your cluster, not as one that was focused on doing something, but as a cluster of churches that represented people of different ethnic communities who came together for worship, in order to build a spirit of unity among different communities,” Whitaker said to the assembled group.

“We have very diverse congregations, ethnically, in our conference,” he said. “So often, though being in the same locale, there’s no real interaction. Clusters encourage people to come together.”

Whitaker estimates one-third of the conference’s clusters are doing exceedingly well; another one-third are in a somewhat “awkward” place, seeking to figure out where the Holy Spirit is guiding them. In the final third the cluster concept is not working very well.

“It does take time if a cluster is going to be a means of grace,” he said. “It takes patience to build relationships. You can’t live the Christian life all by yourself.”


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.