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Q&A: delegates share expectations for General Conference, the church

Q&A: delegates share expectations for General Conference, the church

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Q&A: delegates share expectations for General Conference, the church

Feb. 21, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0801}

NOTE: A headshot of the Rev. Jorge Acevedo is available at

An e-Review Feature
By Erik Alsgaard**

The Rev. Jorge Acevedo and Bill Walker hold the distinction of being the first elected clergy- and layperson to represent the Florida Conference at the 2008 General Conference, now about 60 days away.

Florida Conference Lay Leader Bill Walker offers a comment during question and answer time following a panel discussion at the Jan. 24-26 Pre-General Conference News Briefing in Fort Worth, Texas, the site of the 2008 General Conference. Walker leads the conference’s delegation for the quadrennial gathering. Photo by Erik Aslgaard. Photo #08-0757.

For the past three years Walker has served as lay leader for the Florida Conference. A lawyer based in Winter Park and an active member of First United Methodist Church, Winter Park, Walker was also director of the Conference Council on Ministries/Connectional Ministries office from 1999 to 2003, the first layperson to hold that job.

The Rev. Jorge Acevedo is pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, an appointment he has held since Sept. 1, 1996. Under his leadership, the church has experienced significant growth. Worship attendance has grown from 400 to more than 2,300, and this summer the third campus of Grace Church will open with a holistic ministry center and a third worshipping congregation.

The Rev. Erik Alsgaard, director of communications for the Florida Conference, sat down in late January with Walker and Acevedo in Fort Worth, Texas, site of the April 23-May 2 General Conference, to get their views on some of the key issues that will be addressed at this year’s quadrennial gathering and what they hope will be accomplished. All three were in Texas Jan. 24-26 for the Pre-General Conference News Briefing sponsored by United Methodist Communications.

Erik: Talk about General Conference. What are your hopes and expectations about General Conference?

Rev. Jorge Acevedo

Jorge: For me personally, it’s just to see the church order itself around its stated mission: making of disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world. And I think there are some efforts and initiatives to try to get alignment between our stated mission and our corporate life together, in our global denominational life together. That is, at least here on the front end, it seems relatively hopeful that there are some movements towards that end.

Erik: Can you describe some of these movements?

Jorge: It’s just some of the conversations that are happening, from the general boards and agencies, some conversations that we had with the (Florida) delegation with the General Council on Finance and Administration folks (who recently visited the delegation), talking about some outcomes, talking about funding things that produce stated outcomes, understood, accountable. I think the four themes that have come out of the Council of Bishops around leadership, congregational life, health care and poverty are helpful to the church in the sense that it’s not just this nebulous, bureaucratic, denominational entity that we’re supporting, but yet it’s very much Kingdom-minded initiatives. Now, it’s all conversation now; you know, I want to see what the outcomes are. Those are different conversations than my two previous experiences at General Conference have been. Those aren’t the kinds of conversations we were having in the last two GCs, as I recall.

Erik: So this will be your third?

Jorge: Third General Conference, fourth Jurisdictional Conference.

Bill: This will be my second General Conference and my second Jurisdictional Conference. I second what Jorge is saying. I would use a little bit different language, coming out of my experience in the last sessions of the General Council on Ministries and the transition to the Connectional Table. The theme of that transition is to gain focus and clarity around mission. We have reached such a state in The United Methodist Church that you could not get a small group of people in a room from across the church to even agree what the mission was, never mind some areas of focus that would implement that mission and give us some areas of commonality. The other thing I find very hopeful is that so many folks have become concerned that we don’t know who we are and we are now being led to clarity of identity. Now, that’s obviously sort of related to an organization that can’t identify its mission and is into 50,000 things. But now we have the Council of Bishops on board, trying to lead us to nourish our roots through the so-called “Methodist Way.” That strategy is reconnecting us back to our historic and solid theological grounding that nearly all of us are convicted of. Out of that — and the kind of clarity that Jorge has spoken of, which is not binding folks into particular activities, but it’s giving them a highway down which they can drive their truck, car, bicycle or whatever they’re peddling — we can make some serious mission progress. We will all be headed in the same direction, no matter what we are riding in or on!

I happen to be a Rotarian. I’ve been in the Rotary Club in my community for many years. Rotary International took on polio. And they, like the United Methodists, are scattered around the globe in groups of concerned people. Now, the Rotary Club and the church are two different things. But this bunch of people (Rotarians) have just about whipped polio on the planet. Well, millions of United Methodists can do the same thing, with malaria, AIDS and other plagues, and then you start getting things about which you celebrate and are known to the larger community. Someone said today that we have things going on in our United Methodist churches such that strangers look over and say: “I don’t know just what’s going on, but I want some of that! That’s what I’m looking for in my life.” Then evangelism becomes easy.

Jorge: I would say that when we get on the right mission, the fish almost jump in the boat. The fish almost jump in the boat.

Bill: Because we got what people want. It’s not a hard sell.

Jorge: Our theology as Christians in the Wesleyan tradition is a theology of personal evangelism and piety and social justice and holiness. It speaks to the soul of our culture.

Bill: That it does.

The Rev. Deborah McLeod (left), superintendent of the South East District of the Florida Conference and a clergy delegate to General Conference, and Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor listen to budget discussions at the Sept. 7, 2007, joint meeting of the Connectional Table and the governing board of the General Council on Finance and Administration in Nashville, Tenn. Agency chiefs reported on the initial impact of the proposed budget on church ministries and programming over the next four years. McLeod is a Connectional Table member from the Florida Conference. A UMNS photo by Marta W. Aldrich. Photo #08-0758.

Jorge: People want that deep, authentic, Christ-centered spirituality. They want that connection that comes with Christ. They want to develop their Christian spirituality in all of its rich diverse ways in which people connect to Christ. But they want that expressed in tangible, hands-on, experiential, life-changing mission, where they see that they’re making a difference in the world. It’s not simply sending money up stream to some denominational entity that somehow takes care of “those people” over there, whoever those people are. Those kinds of loyalties died off in the 60s, in terms of denominationalism. People want to know that their life, their giving, their prayers are making a difference in their community and around the world. And if the stated mission and these initiatives around that stated mission can be lived out by the people called United Methodist, our best days could be in front of us. If not, it could be a sad day for our denomination.

It’s interesting that the growing North American churches and movements — the Saddlebacks, the Willow Creek-type churches — have really hijacked our theology and our practices. Here are these folks who are typically out of the reformed tradition — we’re on the same team, just different sides of the bench — but they’ve stolen our message. So you have Rick Warren with his peace plan talking about attacking the big giant issues of the world: disease, illiteracy, hunger, poverty, AIDS. And I’m thinking, “That’s our job!” That’s who we are as Wesleyans. That’s what John Wesley lived for.

Bill: So we need to be sending them a “welcome aboard!”

Jorge: Welcome aboard! And, and you have the Bill Hybels and the whole Willow Creek movement, and it’s very international, and it focuses on the urban context in North America, and I’m saying, “This is us; they’re stealing our stuff; they’re doing our material,” if you will.

Erik: Would it be a fair assessment to say that both of you are hopeful about The United Methodist Church, but … ?

Bill: I’m hopeful about The United Methodist Church, period. One reason is that not only do we have the right theology for the age in which we live, but I believe that

“People want to know that their life, their giving, their prayers are making a difference in their community and around the world. And if the stated mission and these initiatives around that stated mission can be lived out by the people called United Methodist, our best days could be in front of us.”

— Rev. Jorge Acevedo

the winds of the Spirit are moving. Actions have been taken in earlier years to help us collectively welcome that new wind, and open ourselves and take the risks that are involved in that. My sense — and I tend to be intuitive — is that it’s beginning to happen. Now, don’t press me for the time line, but when I compare the session we had this afternoon, coming out of the Connectional Table and its vision for the work and the kind of conversations that are taking place and the importance that is being placed on coming to grips with our reality, and when I think about the extended cabinet convocation, with the similar themes and the authentic parting of the veil and saying, “Folks, here’s the wizard behind the curtain, and he’s got a cold,” I get excited! Those are very healthy ways to start addressing the future. Until you deal with where you are, you cannot move forward, and I see that in lots of places. And when you get in the General Conference, you know, it’s a sausage factory. To some extent we’re going to have to break some old habits, but there again, this conversation we had this afternoon about helping us to be focused on what God is calling us to be, instead of just studying the pending legislation and which General Agency is involved with which legislation … I mean, that’s mechanical stuff. Opening yourself up to God’s guidance is the key. In our own delegation, (the Rev.) David McEntire, currently pastor at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, has lead us marvelously in establishing a covenant community within our delegation, both GC and JC, that really calls for us to conduct ourselves in a way within that community that will welcome the flow of God’s word to us. We’re already experiencing that, and we expect to continue experiencing that.

Jorge: I have a kind of guarded optimism. It’s guarded, I think, because of the nature of institutions, and you know, there’s an old saying that I heard years ago, about there’s typically a man and a movement, but after time it disintegrates into a monument. So you have John Wesley, and the renewal, revival, awakening was the movement. And are we sitting 250 years later, 300 years later, are we sitting at a monument? Does history tell us that institutions don’t change? That’s the more guarded side of me. History says, for the most part, I mean, I think you’re hard-pressed to find many religious/church/spiritual awakenings. Typically, out of the monument comes a new movement, a new man or a woman that leads into a new movement. So, that’s the guarded side.

The more hopeful, the more optimistic side is the kind of things that Bill is talking about. In my experience in the general church, we’ve never named the elephant in the room. I’ve never heard general secretaries or bishops name the elephant in the room.

Members of the United Methodist Council on Finance and Administration and the Connectional Table open a budget session with worship and prayer. The joint meeting took place May 22-24, 2007, at Simpsonwood Conference and Retreat Center in Norcross, Ga. The leadership group approved a $642 million budget for the 2009-2012 quadrennium to present to the 2008 General Conference. A UMNS photo by Marta W. Aldrich. Photo #08-0759.

Erik: And the elephant in the room is …

Jorge: … the decline of United Methodism. You have these institutional leaders, vested leaders in the institution, saying there’s an elephant in the room. In our opening session, to hear the dialogue at the Connectional Table, among the Council of Bishops, where they’re inviting a prophetic voice like Lovett Weems to take information garnered from a survey, to take that information and say, “Okay, Lovett; take the gloves off and tell us the whole unedited truth.” And not only do they hear it and welcome it, but they invite him to come back and share it again. And then they are inviting the church to say, “Folks, we’re broke.” My own personal background in the church where I’ve served is steeped in recovery. And I’ve learned more about health from the rooms of AA and from the 12-step traditions than I have learned, sadly, from the church. And that first step from AA is acknowledging our powerlessness, that we cannot fix ourselves. You have to get to that place of utter powerlessness … you know, I don’t have what it takes. And that’s the kind of language I’m hearing. Bill, am I overstating it?

Bill: No.

Jorge: But that’s the kind of language I’m hearing from institutional leaders from the life of our church — and you can put whatever value you want to on institutional leaders. Some would devalue that; some would value that highly. I’m saying that in my 20-plus years as ordained, appointed clergy, I’ve not heard bishops, general agency secretaries, acknowledging the elephant in the room. And so that’s the hopeful side for me, because we are broke. We are broke when, in many of our areas, where there is double-digit population growth, the churches in those areas are maintaining or declining. We can’t keep pace with that. Something’s not right when membership, worship attendance, in many of our places is not growing.

Erik: Let me switch gears. What are persons in the pews in the Florida Conference, as they read about General Conference and all the actions and all the stuff that happens, what are some of the things they should be looking for that are going to have some impact on them? Are there any particular issues? I know that finance is a huge issue because the Florida Conference is the largest contributor to the general church.

“I’m hopeful about The United Methodist Church, period. One reason is that not only do we have the right theology for the age in which we live, but I believe that the winds of the Spirit are moving.”

— Bill Walker

Bill: Finances really play out to the local church in terms of how we balance our focus on our dollars being utilized at the local church/annual conference level and at the jurisdictional and, more significantly, general church level. Within the denomination there are two mind-sets and they’re more popularly held in some areas more than in others. One of those is that the church, The United Methodist Church, is our collective self, operating through our general agencies, such as the General Board of Global Ministries. And then another mind-set is that we are a collection of churches that have bound together and use a portion of our dollars for leverage purposes to have a greater impact in the world. The goals are the same, but the methods are different. So those dollars really translate to how we’re guiding that.

As Jorge mentioned, when you switch an organization that is “delivering services,” which to most of us in Florida, that’s the way we see the general agencies, from measuring their activities from inputs without a whole lot of regard to the measurable results, and you switch it directly to the measurable results, so that continued funding is directly dependant on the value received down at the local church, which is what the Book of Discipline says, effective 2004, things are going to change. During these past four years our general agencies have been shifting to that new model; that’s a part of the Connectional Table evaluation process for funding the general agencies. The agencies have to now establish the value that is being delivered, and that value is defined from the bottom-up. Once you start doing that, you will shift the organization dramatically. And everybody across the church wants to be in this mission that we share; they want to do a good job. Nobody wants to be in an organization like the current United Methodist Church that is failing. So, voices are now saying the way we’ve been doing it doesn’t seem to be working. Let’s quit doing that, and let’s try a different way and see if we don’t get better results. So far, I’d say it’s moving toward better results. Now, that’s a long journey, but it can’t be very long because about another 15 years of the present trends and we’re out of business.

Jorge: Related to what Bill just said, Karen Greenwaldt, the general secretary of the (General) Board of Discipleship, gave her report today (in which she offered a plan for) an output of 650 new congregations in the United States to jumpstart a cycle where we would be planting a new United Methodist congregation every day. That 650 is in the next four years, from 2009 to 2012. The goal is 650 congregations. That’s a definitive number. With 300 people in each one of those, at least 300 worshiping, that translates to more than 200,000 Christians in these churches. People want to be a part of that. They want to be a part of ridding the world of malaria; they want to be a part of that. I don’t have any problem as a pastor, Bill doesn’t have any problem as a lay leader, to stand up and shake that banner and say, “650 new churches across the United States,” or “Malaria ended in the world.” I’ll ask for money, prayers, people to go, to knock on doors, to do whatever it takes to help. To fund bureaucracy is just not gonna’ happen. The folks are not gonna’ to do that. I believe — I could be wrong — but I believe that that day may be over.

Bill: I hope what you’re hearing is we’re not talking about money, because if we shift this system and the outputs get right, the money will take care of itself. We won’t have to worry about money.

Members and staff of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship gather Aug. 22-25, 2007, in Nashville, Tenn., to prepare legislation for the 2008 General Conference. A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield. Photo #08-0760.

Jorge: Money follows vision. If there’s a clear stated vision with some clear stated outcomes, people will get on board. It happens in the local church; it happens in the annual conferences. If there’s a vision that’s compelling, that’s God-honoring, that helps people … .

It’s interesting, this past Sunday, I preached a sermon coming out of the Martin Luther King weekend, called “Waking the Dream.” I told our people at Grace that, as I studied God’s dreams in the Bible that he gives men and women, I noticed three things. Number one: God’s dreams are always for the glory of God. It’s never about me, about you, the denomination, the bishops, John Wesley. God’s dreams are always for the glory of God. If God doesn’t get the credit at the end of the day, then it’s not a God dreams. Second, God’s dreams are always for people’s good. At the end of the day, people are gonna’ be helped. So the dream that God gave William Wilberforce, who was an up-and-coming, rising politician in the 1700s, was a dream that would abolish slavery, not just in Great Britain, but in the entire British empire. A God-sized dream is always for people’s good. And, then, third thing is that God’s dreams are always impossible without God. They’re so big that unless God shows up, it ain’t gonna’ get fulfilled. And the reason is, if I have enough of my resources … if we United Methodists collectively have enough resources, wisdom, money, and we throw it on the table, and we can rid the world of malaria, or we can plant one faith community a day for every day of our life together, for perpetuity … if we could do that in and of ourselves, it wouldn’t be a God dream. Because at the end of the day, we’d say, “Look at my resources; I had enough of it; I had enough dollars, I had enough people; we just got it done.” But God-sized dreams are so big, unless God shows up, it’s not accomplished.

Where I thought you were going with your question was, what do we say to the people in the chairs about General Conference. And my hope, and I’m pretty optimistic — I’m a cup half-filled kind of guy about these kinds of things — my hope would be that we would pray that we would get God’s dream for our church and that that dream would be for the glory of God, for the good of people, and that we would be honest and humble enough to say that it’s impossible unless God shows up. And that’s a God-sized dream.

Bill: We started out talking about money as an issue. Our delegation — each member can speak for themselves — but my sense is that there’s a sense, both at the general church level and here, to hold the financing costs essentially where they are now for the church outside the local church and let these fresh ways of going about being the church, and our general agencies, work itself out. In other words, those changes don’t require more money. They require an entirely different way of being the church. So, let’s give that a shot. If those start working and start producing the results, money won’t be a problem.

Jorge: The issue in our conversations … is that I think the general church is starting to ask itself, “What are we not going to do?”

Bill: And that’s how you get focus. The way you get focus is not adding on a new thing, but start asking what are we not going to do. I sat there today, Jorge, in the back of the room, thinking to myself, “You know, I wonder how can we ask somebody from the right agency to come back to the 2012 General Conference (in Tampa) and have 200 pages of the Book of Discipline eliminated.” You see, if you start doing that, you get more people asking the right questions, instead of being busy giving out the right answers. And that’s what our bishops are starting to do. The bishops at the extended cabinet convocation said over and over, “We don’t have the answers.” Well, that’s refreshing, because we’re not supposed to have the answers. We’re supposed to be open to God bringing us the answers. But they’re now saying, “We don’t know.” We do know that what we have been doing isn’t getting it done. We need to open ourselves up to a whole new way, and they’re saying that to the entire denomination, because they had folks from all over the world there.

The Fort Worth (Texas) Convention Center spans 14 city blocks in the heart of downtown, providing nearly 255,000 square feet of exhibit space, 59,000 square feet of meeting space and a 13,500-seat arena. Nearly 2,000 delegates and other United Methodists from throughout the world will gather April 23-May 2 at the convention center for the denomination's quadrennial legislative conference. A UMNS photo courtesy of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau. Photo #08-0761.

Jorge: We’re talking about paradigm shifts. I leaned over and asked Bill this question and he confirmed it to some degree: It seems like the shift has moved away from propping up the institution and it’s shifted to more of a congregational focus, in the sense that what difference is it making for John and Jane United Methodist in terms of their spiritual life, their impact, their mission, their commitment both locally and internationally as Methodist followers of Jesus? And I think … my experience has been … that’s a shift. The kinds of conversations we’re having here about healthy clergy, healthy congregations, those are refreshing and new, I think, in the kind of honest, authentic ways that we’re experiencing.

Bill: And we’ve got to do this. I sent Bishop (Timothy) Whitaker an article that came out in the New York Times recently, titled something like, “We’ve decided to agree but forgotten to tell you.” When you look at what’s going on in society — we should always be counter-cultural, but we should pay attention — and you look at the current political campaign and you think of the past campaigns when an African-American has offered themselves for office, the issues raised, the polarity of the people, all were dramatically different than is what is currently happening around the Obama campaign. Now, I’m not promoting Obama. I’m just pointing out that the whole sense and culture is totally different. People have to work really hard and, forgive me, some of our talking heads in the media have to push race to even get it on the board, because people have moved on. Well, that’s a shift. We’re a part of the similar kind of whole new way of going about it. And Florida knows how to do this. We’ve been working at this a long time. Are we there? No. Are we moving in the right direction together? I think so.


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