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Conference leaders delve into denomination’s areas of focus

Conference leaders delve into denomination’s areas of focus

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference leaders delve into denomination’s areas of focus

By Erik J. Alsgaard | Feb. 16, 2009 {0973}

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — What happens when nearly 14 million United Methodists around the world focus on a single idea with four “themes”?

Denominational leaders pray some amazing transformations will take place around the corner and the world in the next four years as a result.

Participants worship during the quadrennial training event. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #09-1096. For longer description see photo gallery.

The heart of that denominationwide concentration is the “Four Areas of Focus,” adopted by the 2008 General Conference and rolled out in earnest at the quadrennial training event for annual conference leaders Jan. 29-Feb. 1 in Jacksonville.

More than 1,200 United Methodists from across the denomination gathered for the “Living the United Methodist Way: Turning Worlds Upside Down” event to learn how their respective places of ministry can connect with others to transform themselves and the world.

Susan Ruach, chair of the design team and staff member at the General Board of Discipleship, said the event was designed to give annual conference elected and paid leadership “the big picture” about the four areas.

“My prayer, my hope has been, that this event will really help us as The United Methodist Church to come together and move forward in God’s vision in ways that we’ve not been able to do for a while,” she said.

During the four-day event, plenary sessions and workshops devoted to each of the four areas — developing principled Christian leadership, starting new churches and renewing existing ones, ministry with the poor and global health — were offered.

Texas Bishop Janice Riggle Huie tells participants the denomination’s four areas of focus “came from Scripture and from you,” referring to the thousands of people who responded to e-mails, online surveys and conversation invitations. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #09-1097. For longer description see photo gallery.

Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the Texas Annual Conference explained how each area was developed.

“The four areas of focus came from Scripture and from you,” she said, referring to the thousands of people who responded to e-mails, online surveys and conversation invitations. “This is where we believe the Holy Spirit is at work in our church and our world today. In the end, we said God is always calling forth new leaders, new places for new people, the need for improving health around the globe, and reaching out to the poor.”

Huie invited participants to “move out … of our little boxes” and follow “where we believe the Spirit is calling us.”

If the church did that, she said, United Methodism would once again become a movement.


Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker of the Florida Conference led participants on a trip down memory lane, noting that a loss of memory may lead to a loss of one’s identity.

“If a group begins to lose memory of its origins, it loses its identity,” he said. “We need to change, but we must change and do so without losing our identity.”

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker reminds participants that a loss of memory for the church may lead to a loss of its identity. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #09-1098. For longer description see photo gallery.

The bishop explained how John and Charles Wesley — Methodism’s founders — articulated a clear theological vision, often encapsulated in their hymnody. The Wesley’s strong Trinitarian roots, Whitaker said, forged a theology based on the belief that the living God is acting in history for the sake of humankind, that transforming creation starts with transforming the individual and that a theological vision without a community in which to live it is no good.

“Early Methodists had a connection with each other through the societies, classes and bands,” the bishop said. “Each person lived out this theology through the means of grace — prayer, reading the Bible and the Lord’s Supper — and through other means, such as love feasts, the Covenant Service and conferences.”

He said leaders today need to cultivate this Wesleyan theological vision in order to answer the question, “Are we as a denomination ‘mainline’ or ‘Methodist’?”

Jay Williams, a 27-year old seminarian from New York and chairman of his conference’s delegation to the 2008 General Conference, offered his thoughts on developing church leaders from the perspective of one who is being developed.

“Some folks just ain’t leaders,” he said. “That’s OK because leadership is a gift of the Spirit. If we force people into leadership, the result will be complete disaster.”

Williams offered three theses on living The Methodist Way.

“First, death is not always a bad thing,” he said. “It’s time to let deadly practices die. Some of our churches have been struggling to die for decades.

“Second, our primary task is to be a Christian, not United Methodist. Too many of us can talk about strategic plans, but too few of us can give a witness. Too many of us know the Book of Discipline and the rules of polity, but not the Bible.”

The third thesis, he said, is that in order to lead, one must follow. The church needs to develop a culture of apprentices and followers of leaders.

Church growth, transformation

The Rev. Tom Butcher, executive officer of New Church Starts and coordinator of the Path1 team at the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn., helped participants learn about the four areas’ congregational development focus.

Noting that The Methodist Church started one new church every day between 1870 and 1920, Butcher said starting new churches is “the most effective evangelism tool we have.”

“We want to get to the point in the future where we are starting one new church every day,” he said.

That’s the vision of the Path1 team, the group charged with recruiting, training and providing resources for 1,000 new church planters who will start 650 churches in the next four years. Half of those churches are targeted to be racial/ethnic congregations.

The Rev. Candace Lewis, pastor of New Life United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., shares her experience starting a new church right out of seminary. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #09-1099. For longer description see photo gallery.

The Rev. Candace Lewis shared her experience starting the church she serves, New Life United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., in a local storefront in 1996. She said she was fresh out of seminary and knew only two people in Jacksonville. “And neither of them joined the new church,” she said with a laugh.

The new congregation began in an urban community, and its parking lot was its mission field, Lewis said. 

“When you’re committed to reaching new people for Jesus Christ, you have to try just about anything,” she said, including carnivals in the parking lot, concerts, picnics, health fairs and “heavenly harvest,” an alternative to Halloween trick-or-treating.

“Most of the people who came were not part of a church or The United Methodist Church,” she said. “We had contemporary, excited worship with people lifting hands. They weren’t getting arrested; they were just excited to be praising God.”

After almost nine years in a community that was growing slowly and a commercial space that was becoming more expensive by the month, the congregation moved into a new building — a former Baptist church that is now proudly United Methodist and has a membership of more than 200.

Despite the excitement that comes with starting new churches, the challenges are real, said the Rev. Dr. Bener Agtarap, a new church system strategist for the General Board of Discipleship and Path1.

Agtarap shared how the church in his native Philippines learned to grow again.

During his presentation, the Rev. Dr. Bener Agtarap, new church system strategist for the General Board of Discipleship and Path1, asked, “What if every annual conference had a policy that every local church had a mission to start a new church?” Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #09-1100. For longer description see photo gallery.

“Prior to the 1980s, most congregations in the Philippines had no program on mission or evangelism,” he said. “Most pastors had no training in mission evangelism. We had more clergy employees than clergy evangelists; more local pastors and fewer mission pastors.”

Further, he said, there was no clear policy at the annual conference level to promote mission evangelism.

“What if every annual conference had a policy that every local church had a mission to start a new church?” he asked.

Agtarap said the church answered that question in 1984 by declaring the province of Cavite its mission field. Churches in metro-Manila started 30 new churches in Cavite between 1984 and 1999.

“We were a new mission field in 1984, a new district in 1999 and a new annual conference with two new districts in 2008,” Agtarap said. “Today we have 600,000 members from a membership of 100,000 in 1984.”

Then there’s the story of Oak Cliff United Methodist Church in Texas. By the pastor’s own admission it was “two minutes from closing.” With the endowment used up and the people gone, the church decided to drastically change.

The Rev. Diane Presley, the church’s pastor, said her church could be almost anywhere in the United States.

Any transforming church, she said, needs three things: a stable financial base, members to nurture the vision and people.

“The question was, do you want to live or do you want to die? It was put to the congregation and they said they wanted to live,” Presley said. “So, then, are you willing to change drastically?”
The congregation did, and through the chaos and change she said it reached out to its community and found its purpose and mission again.

Eliminating poverty: ministry with the poor

The third plenary focused on “doing” ministry with the poor.

“As we begin this new quadrennium, it cannot be business as usual if we intend to make ministry to and with the poor a priority,” said the Rev. Ed Paup, general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries.

Paup said that while many United Methodists today are not poor, “more than 80 percent of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.”

“The poorest 40 percent of the population accounts for only 5 percent of income,” he said.

The only way for United Methodists to minister seriously to the poor, Paup said, is by looking poverty in the face.

“There are 26,000 children who die each day in poverty. They are invisible,” he said. “There are more than 72 million children of primary age who are not in school due to poverty, 350 to 500 million persons living with malaria (and) the billions who have no ready source of drinkable water.”

During a plenary session focusing on ministry with the poor, the Rev. Ed Paup, general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries, told participants the only way for United Methodists to minister seriously to the poor is by looking poverty in the face. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #09-1101. For longer description see photo gallery.

Paup said United Methodists must do three things for the poor: hear them, not just the statistics; accept them, which implies seeing them and acknowledging they exist; and serve them, by responding to their spiritual and physical needs.

“The value of souls and the depth of faith are determined neither by economic status or breadth of taste,” Paup said, quoting John Wesley, who, like Jesus, put the poor at the center of his ministry.

Noting that The United Methodist Church already has hundreds of effective ministries with the poor, Paup sounded a hope-filled note, saying the church today is “neither without model or practitioner.” The real difference will come, Paup said, when United Methodists — who make up about .002 percent of the world’s population — partner in new and sometimes strange ways.

“If we do this in a way that I believe God calls us, we will see a renewal in The United Methodist Church and a new sense of relevancy in the world,” he said. “How will we be changed by taking ministry with the poor seriously? The transformation will take place individually, then in our congregations and then in our conferences.”

An offering taken at the beginning of the session raised more than $7,000 for outreach ministries of the Florida Conference’s North East District. Participants placed money and checks on a table at the front of the stage as the praise band from New Life United Methodist Church offered music.

Global health

From the beginning of the Methodist movement, John Wesley recognized the correlation between poverty and health, said the Rev. Larry Hollon, General Secretary of United Methodist Communications.

“Wesley’s holistic theology led him to engage with individuals and systems that dealt with health-care systems,” he said.

Following that example, the church has made fighting diseases of poverty, such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, one of the four focus areas.

Preventable diseases are taking a terrible toll on people around the world, Hollon said, but as a people of hope, United Methodists “have the power to make and create change.”

A central partner and inspiration behind Nothing But Nets, the denominational effort to eradicate malaria with bed nets, United Methodist Communications has begun creating wide-ranging conversations on the global health initiative.

“Bed nets save the lives of children in malaria-affected areas of the world,” Hollon said. “But it is not only about bed nets. It is about training community health workers in participatory health care … providing life-enhancing education through radio, mailings and other communication tools … enlisting and deploying new missionaries for global health … enlisting health champions and parish nurses in each annual conference.”

More than 700,000 bed nets have been distributed, but the goal of the initiative is to work with international partners to reduce the mortality of children under the age of 5 from malaria by two-thirds.

“The global health initiative has created a wide-ranging conversation,” Hollon said. “Not only are we connected with one another, but we are connected with others around the globe.”

Those connections include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nations Foundation and the Global Fund on HIV/AIDS and Malaria.

“It has a scope and scale that might cause even John Wesley to draw a deep breath,” Hollon said.

Dr. Cherian Thomas, a medical doctor and executive secretary for the Hospital Revitalization Program at the General Board of Global Ministries, said like poverty issues, global health issues require partnerships.

The most important function United Methodists have is to connect people, he said. Without people, there are no programs.

At the General Board and through its United Methodist Committee on Relief agency, the strategy is to strengthen governing hospital boards by offering them training on their responsibilities.

“The second strategy is to have full-time coordinators of global health in Africa,” Thomas said. “In each of the African countries, we have a coordinator on global health. We then bring the partners together — from the United States and from Europe — with people in Africa to hear what their dreams, their visions, are and to make plans.”

Although global health initiatives are not new to United Methodism, Thomas said the issues cannot be addressed in one four-year time span.

Melba Whitaker, wife of Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker, shares the story of how a church in Brazil began a ministry in the slums of one large town by investing in ideas and people. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #09-1102. For longer description see photo gallery.

“It’s not money we need; it’s ideas and investment in people,” he said. “This is my dream for today and for years to come.”

Melba Whitaker, wife of Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker, took the stage to share the story of her experience in Brazil and how a “mother” church began a ministry in the slums of one large town by investing in ideas and people.

“This mother church went in and asked the women of the slum what they needed,” she said. “The women said a dental clinic. So the mother church located a dentist who was willing to come work in the slum, a dental chair and other items, and they set a date for the opening of this clinic. They also selected a woman, Salina, to receive training on community based health care.”

When the new clinic opened, more than 100 children and women were served the first day.

“This is a story about a community deciding what they wanted to do and about someone willing to invest in them with education and training … and then letting them do it,” Whitaker said.

A second clinic has opened on the outskirts of the slum, serving even more people from the surrounding community, Whitaker said.

“When we invest in people like this, a community is totally transformed. For my money, I would rather invest in a poor community like this than a rich bank here in the United States,” she said. “I know where my money is going and what it’s doing.”

The Rev. Gary Henderson, executive director of the Global Health Initiative for The United Methodist Church, challenged participants to take seriously not only the global health focus, but all four areas.

“If we are going to turn the world upside down, this will require resurrection faith,” he said. “We hope that the clear ministry areas of focus would ignite a passion in you … a resurrection faith.”

The four areas give United Methodists an opportunity to live out that faith, Henderson said, offering a “healing ointment” to the world.

“Are we able to choose hope over fear?” Henderson asked. “I say, ‘Yes we can.’ Are we able to choose the four areas of focus? I say, ‘Yes we can.’ Are we able to raise $75 million? I say, ‘Yes we can!’ ”

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

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