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Pre-conference classes inspire members

Pre-conference classes inspire members

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Pre-conference classes inspire members
By J.A. Buchholz | June 14, 2010 {1182}

LAKELAND — Many of the nearly 900 lay and clergy members who registered at the Lakeland Center a day before the official start of the Florida Conference’s annual session hadn’t arrived early just to get ready for the business of the conference. They were there to learn.

In his class “Making Prayer a Priority,” the Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis tells participants prayer is not a way to impress God and others hearing a prayer. Instead, prayer is having a “love relationship” with God. Photo by Angie Bechanan. Photo #10-1465. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Six classes on a variety of topics — from discipleship to transforming leaders and congregations to salty service at home and abroad — were offered at two different times in the afternoon June 9 so people could attend more than one. Two more classes, including one on cultivating a culture of peacemaking, were held that evening, along with a film and discussion on the reality of poverty in the world.

Some of the sessions were designed to prepare clergy and laity for discussions during the annual business session, which convened June 10-12 around the theme “Transforming the World by Eradicating Extreme Poverty.” Others offered information to help members be more effective in their local church ministries.

All were open to both clergy and laity participating in the annual session and members of their churches.

‘Portfolio of blessings’

The Rev. Dr. Harold Lewis, director of Black Congregational Excellence, led a full room through the pitfalls and benefits of having a solid prayer life.

Lewis said believers might know the importance and power of prayer, yet struggle with its practice, often because they have a false idea of what prayer is. Prayer is not a formula, reciting statements or trying to impress God and others hearing the prayer, he said. It’s also not being thoughtless in the words chosen, using a lot of religious words and phrases, or making habitual references.

Instead, Lewis said, prayer is having a “love relationship” with God. It means sharing and being in fellowship with God in an intimate way, surrendering to him, requesting and pleading with him, and acknowledging and praising him.

Prayer tools, such as the Upper Room and Daily Bread, are good resources to help enrich one’s prayer life, Lewis said, but it is important for disciples to evolve and pray to God in their own “authentic voice.”

Referencing Psalms 66:18 and 24:3-4, Lewis said one readies the soul for prayer by first having a clean heart and clean hands. It is also important to be able to forgive (Mark 11:25), approach God in faith (Hebrews 11:6) and be humble before God (Luke 18:13).

Gloria Cramer (front), a member at First United Methodist Church in Hobe Sound, and other participants take a survey on prayer before considering what prayer really means during the class “Making Prayer a Priority.” Photo by Angie Bechanan. Photo #10-1466. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

When those requirements are fulfilled, Lewis said, a person must determine the best time to pray. “God wants us at our best,” he said. “God understands how we are wired; he wired us.”

God must become a priority in the time set aside for prayer, Lewis said, adding it takes at least 21 days before a new practice can be fully integrated into someone’s life.

Lewis said creating a prayer journal or notebook to record one’s prayers and when they are answered helps establish a regular prayer life

“It will be a portfolio of blessings,” Lewis said. “You will look back over it and realize if he showed up, then he will again and ‘all I have to do is ask.’ ”

Lewis also suggested praying for a person or situation on specific days so prayers are more centered and focused.

Jill Kinbacher, a member at First United Methodist Church in Boca Raton, said she could relate to what Lewis was saying about people’s difficulties praying. “Prayer is a challenge for me,” she said. “It comes, and it goes.”

Kinbacher is hoping what she learned will help jumpstart her prayer life. “Hopefully this will get me going,” she said. “It was very encouraging.”

Rubber meets road at local church

The Rev. Dr. Jim Harnish used his time to talk about the challenge of offering Jesus Christ to people who think they would never attend church.

Harnish is senior pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa. In his class, “Transformed Leaders for Transforming Congregations,” he noted how, while serving as pastor at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, people were “spiritually struck” by the church sharing the message of Jesus Christ with a dose of social justice.

“People said, “This is what I’ve been looking for,’ ” Harnish said.

Many people who are unchurched or have been away from the church for an extended period of time may not know a caring, loving church exists, he said, and their numbers constitute a “massive population waiting to experience Jesus Christ.”

The answers members seek for transformation of themselves and their churches are not in Nashville, home of many denominational agencies, or Lakeland, headquarters of the Florida Conference administrative and ministry offices, the Rev. Dr. Jim Harnish tells participants during his class on transforming leaders. Instead, he says, help and hope for churches are in the local church. Photo by Angie Bechanan. Photo #10-1467. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

“While the church has always been present, our voice has not been clearly heard by those who need to hear it most,” Harnish said.

It will be those individuals — the ones who hear the message, come into church and go on to be cultivated and matured — who will improve the viability of the church, he said.

Help and hope for the church are in the local church, Harnish said, not in Nashville, home of many denominational agencies, or Lakeland, headquarters of the Florida Conference administrative and ministry offices. The answers churches seek are found from the ground up, not the top down. That insight, he said, is only possible if local churches have the right lay and clergy leadership.

Laity must possess a fire in their bones that can’t be extinguished, Harnish said, just as John Wesley experienced his heart “strangely warmed” during what is described as his Aldersgate experience.

Wesley, an Anglican minister, founded The Methodist Church. On May 24, 1738, at age 34, he attended an evening worship service in London and described the experience in his journal. While the leader spoke about the change God works in people’s hearts through faith in Christ, “I felt my heart strangely warmed,” he wrote. “I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Using a term borrowed from Dr. L. Greg Jones, dean of Duke Divinity School, Harnish said laity and clergy must become cruciform leaders, or those whose lives are centered on the life and love of Jesus Christ.

“We need to lead in ways that invite others into the life of Christ,” he said.

Referencing the title of his 2004 book, “You Only Have to Die: Leading Your Congregation to New Life,” Harnish said churches and leaders must be willing to change anything they are doing to accommodate the mission.

“I can tell you it’s really tough,” he said. Church members often have a clear picture of what they and their church were in the past, but no clear vision about what the church should be in the future. And even when a church becomes clear about its mission, Harnish said, members will either stand up and cheer or jeer at the prospect of changing.

Todd Spear, a member at Seminole Heights United Methodist Church in Tampa, looks through materials on the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s One-Ton Challenge and other social justice initiatives at a class on salty service to the world. Photo by Angie Bechanan. Photo #10-1468. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Leaders must be willing to die for the right things, he said, and that doesn’t include bickering over the color of carpet in the sanctuary.

The key is being clear about “who God is calling the church to be for the next century,” he said, not becoming fixated on events that happened in the past. Churches must die to living that way.

That means members must sort through their method and mission. They must also be willing to learn from any source and do whatever it takes to transform.

Harnish said Hyde Park United Methodist Church frequently sends representatives to other congregations, sometimes outside Florida, to see how church is “done” elsewhere. The goal isn’t to replicate programs or ministries, but to observe and learn new things.

It is also important, he says, for members to really understand their communities, instead of making assumptions about them.

“You need to find out who’s out there,” Harnish said. “It’s not the same people who were out there in 1950.”

Judy Degginger, a member at First United Methodist Church in Pinellas Park, said the class gave her realistic ideas to help move her church forward.

“We need to learn how to let some things go and die,” she said. “We don’t need to hang on so much. We can let some things die.”

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando
*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Seffner, Fla.