Reflections with the Clergy Session of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, shared by Bishop Ken Carter at Florida Southern College, Lakeland, Florida, on June 5, 2019
My mother, who died this year, was a Baptist. My great-grandfather, who was born in Sanford, was a Congregationalist. My grandfather, who was born in Winter Park, was a Quaker. I am a Methodist by choice. In my lifetime it became the United Methodist Church, in 1968. I was 11. Several traditions flowed into it. That is a complex and important story, and, as we are here, we may be in a time when streams that have converged will now diverge.
We are in a divergent time. We have left behind a convergent time. We united as a church during that convergent time, the 1960s. Gil Rendle writes that in a convergent time “the questions and answers are the same for everyone.” In a convergent culture the person who is different hides or conforms. In a convergent culture immigrants come and they blend in.
In a divergent culture, we are not asking the same questions and the answers are multiple. In a divergent culture we lead with our differences. This is not about one of us or another. This is the air we breathe.
An annual conference is an exercise in convergence, at the precise time when we place a higher value on divergence. Each is important.
Divergence lifts up voices and convictions that are suppressed or oppressed. There are likely alternative strategies for this week. Different people have different hoped for outcomes.
Convergence is mutual support, sharing of resources, the strong and the weak together and what they have to teach each other, it is connection.
I share this briefly so you will have a language for what will happen this week. At times you will likely want to be with more like-minded colleagues (divergence). And at times you will see the strength of what we do together (convergence).
My interest this week is in the whole. Many of you continually tell me two things. You want to be divergent in some way. You want to be the exception. Or somehow you are the exception. And you need what the conference or denomination can give you. A pathway to serve, a protection, a basic provision of a need.
This is why we are a connection. It is my interest, and what the church has asked me to do, to keep us in connection.
We are in an in-between time and the work is both-and. We are in-between St. Louis and what will come next. We are both-and in that we are resolving difference and we are focused on the mission. All of this is confusing and there is little certainty to it. And we are simply going to be there for some time.
• We are a large, global church.
• We are not in agreement.
• We have a complex and democratic form of decision-making.
• Florida itself is a state that is divided and has within it many cultures.
• And we seek to be a united church in a time of divergence.
My calling has been to grow the center and to include as many as possible in that. Some will approve of the way I have functioned in the role of bishop, some will not. I genuinely move towards all kinds of people and listen to and include every possible voice along the spectrum. The attention in social media and media is to the extremes, where perhaps one to two percent of us live. The one to two percent of us are an important. And the remaining 98 percent are important as well. We are all in this together.
Through the year we are scattered. And my itinerant role is to move toward you. This is my seventh annual conference with you. At the end of my first year, Chuck Weaver and I were in conversation and he said to me, “you might know more about the Florida Conference than any other person.” I share that not to boast in any way. If it is true, it is simply because no one else has specific responsibility that has them visiting the Madison Youth Ranch and Branches and Echo and Warren Willis and the Children’s Home, or churches in Sparr and Avon Park and Inverness and Pahokee, not to mention Miami and Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Estero, Orlando and Tampa.
You have welcomed me to meals, to your churches, into your lives. As challenging and divergent as this work is, I am blessed to do it. And I do it with you.
For my work, there are basic tasks that must be carried out—making appointments, presiding at annual conference, presiding at the COB, preaching in local churches, responding to conflict, which sometimes take the form of complaints.
Underneath these basic tasks is always the subterfuge of uncertainty and anxiety, fatigue and fear. We are simply going to be there for some time. A question I would ask of you is this. What kind of annual conference are we going to be this year? I want to call upon your maturity. I will be reading the Letter to the Galatians. I invite you to read it with me. I want to ask us not to do harm to one another. I want to ask us to see the good in each other. Can a progressive see the covenantal beauty in a conservative person? Can a conservative see the passion for the marginalized in a progressive person?
My core values are to keep us in connection with each other, to try to do what is best for the local church, to do what is in the long term interest of the annual conference, to appreciate and focus on the strengths. At the moment, these strengths are…
• Development of new churches and fresh expressions
• An exceptional pipeline of younger clergy
• In many places, the right pastors in the right settings and more diverse leadership
• Innovation and design thinking for sustainability
• A diverse cabinet that is respected by the annual conference
• And faithful and better conversations about the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in our life together
I appreciate your divergent strengths, gifts and passions. I see God in them. And in this moment, and in these days, I appreciate as well the ways we are on mission together. I hope you leave here more connected, inspired and equipped to lead in a complex season. Be assured that you are in prayers. I am grateful to you, each and every one of you.