LAKELAND – The business and discernment process of The United Methodist Church’s Southeastern Jurisdiction (SEJ) came to the Florida Conference last week, as nearly 60 church leaders from 13 episcopal areas gathered for the annual College of Bishops meeting.
Chief on the business agenda were discussions around the upcoming elections in July to fill five episcopal spots being vacated by retiring bishops, as well as the evaluation of bishops who plan to continue leading annual conferences and discussions aimed at matching those bishops to the areas best suited to their gifts.
|The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel at Florida Southern College, a building designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, is among features of the Florida Conference that leaders of the United Methodist Southeastern Jurisdiction visited while meeting in Florida. 2014 file photo by Susan Green.|
Lay leaders from around the jurisdiction also met and enjoyed worship and fellowship together. The SEJ Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders, Committee on Episcopacy members and bishops – active and retired – spent time together in worship and fellowship, gathering Jan. 6 for dinner at First UMC, Lakeland, and for an Epiphany service at the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel at Methodist-affiliated Florida Southern College.
Florida Bishop Ken Carter said after the event that he thought the visit went well and the gatherings were fruitful.
Speaking about the College of Bishops, he said in an email, “Our discussions were shaped first by the questions of ‘how is it with our souls?’ (spiritual practices and disciplines) and ‘what is fruitful in our area (active) or season (retired) of ministry?’ This led us to conversation about missional engagement, congregational vitality, generational shifts, the unity of the church and new methods for beginning faith communities.”
The annual meeting of the three groups rotates among the 13 episcopal areas, and it was Florida’s turn to play host.
“The conferences are quite different, from Virginia to Mississippi to Florida,” Carter said.
“For this reason, I was grateful that these leaders were able to see some of the context of Florida Methodism — the Florida Southern College campus, the Conference Center and a vital local church, First UMC in Lakeland.
“In my tenure, we have met in Pensacola, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina. In Charleston we learned about how the church there is engaging with poverty in the schools, and met some of the Pan-Methodist bishops. These relationships were important, as we were able to reach out to them after the [June 17] shootings,” the bishop said, referring to Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, also known as “Mother Emanuel.”
Rev. Jorge Acevedo, lead pastor of the multi-campus Grace Church in Southwest Florida and co-chairperson with Sharon Luther of the Florida Conference Committee on Episcopacy, chairs the SEJ episcopacy committee. He said the 30-member jurisdictional group discussed issues ranging from how episcopal candidates should use social media in their election bids to logistics related to upcoming episcopal elections in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, in July.
Five bishops have announced plans to retire: Young Jin Cho, who is serving the Virginia Conference; Larry Goodpaster, Western North Carolina Conference; James King, South Georgia Conference; Michael Watson, North Georgia Conference; and Lindsey Davis, Kentucky Conference.
|Rev. Jorge Acevedo, chairman of the Southeastern Jurisdiction episcopacy committee, converses with Bishop Jonathan Holston of the South Carolina Conference during meetings of regional church leaders at the Florida United Methodist Center. Photo by Tim Turner.|
That means delegates to the SEJ Conference will elect five new bishops to fill the region’s episcopal roster. After the election, the SEJ episcopacy committee will interview the newly chosen bishops and combine the resulting information with insights from last week’s meeting before assigning each of the 13 bishops to an episcopal area.
“We take that very seriously, very respectfully,” said Luther, former Florida Conference lay leader. “What are the gifts of each of our bishops? We try to match those together [with conference needs]. … That’s very, very difficult. We just ask the Holy Spirit to help us.”
Acevedo said he was impressed with how well the SEJ committee members worked together.
“It has been, for me, the healthiest team that I’ve been on beyond the local church,” he said. “It’s a delight to be with 29 other leaders from around the jurisdiction who each passionately love the church.”
He urged all United Methodists to pray for the delegates, episcopal candidates and returning bishops – including Carter and his wife, Pam – as they head into the election and assignment season.
Homegrown bishop shares her story
A highlight of the week listed by Bishop Carter was the testimony of retired Bishop Charlene Kammerer, a Florida native and lifelong Methodist, at the Epiphany service. Kammerer not only was the first woman bishop to be elected in the jurisdiction but the first woman ordained in the Florida Conference. She recounted her uphill pursuit of ordination when she entered a ministry field then dominated exclusively by men.
The church approved ordination for women in the late 1950s. But by the time Kammerer went to seminary in the early 1970s, she had never heard a woman preach, despite being a Methodist from birth and active in her church in Winter Garden from childhood to young adult.
In a phone interview this week, Kammerer said she felt “very cared for” spiritually by her local church, but she knew nothing of the polity of The United Methodist Church or how people pursued ordination. As she completed undergraduate studies at Wesleyan College in Georgia, her religion professor encouraged her to pursue graduate school by attending seminary, and Kammerer chose Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary near Chicago. She planned to become a Christian educator.
At seminary, Kammerer saw and heard women preaching for the first time.
“It was there that the call to ordained ministry took shape in ways that totally surprised and disturbed me, all at the same time,” she recalled. “It took me quite a while to embrace that.”
But embrace it she did, finishing her education degree and re-enrolling in the Master of Divinity program. As she learned about the steps to ordination, she made an appointment with a district superintendent in Florida.
|"I love, love, love my home annual conference." Retired Bishop Charlene Kammerer shared the trials and triumphs of a pioneer among women in ministry during the College of Bishops gathering in Florida. 2015 file photo from www.SEJclergywomen.org.|
“He simply did not know what to do with me,” she said, recalling an awkward moment as she sat in his office and he phoned local churches to see whether any would accept her. “I was the first woman candidate who had presented herself to him.”
In early 1974, she interviewed with the Board of Ordained Ministry, then made up totally of men. Questions seemed to focus on how her husband would react to her ordination and appointment, Kammerer said.
“I was told at the end of the interview, if I really felt I had a call to ministry, I should pursue it in another conference,” she said. “I went back to school absolutely devastated.”
Even so, at the urging of supporters at seminary and her local church, she scheduled a second interview in Florida. This time, the board sent Rev. Dr. Raymond Alley to observe her activities at Garrett-Evangelical. Alley became her advocate, the first of several men that Kammerer credits with nurturing her call to church leadership.
Others included the late Rev. Caxton Doggett, pastor at Arlington UMC, Jacksonville, where Kammerer received her first appointment, and Rev. McCoy Gibbs, then superintendent of what is now the North East District. Then-Florida Bishop Joel McDavid, who died in 2003, affirmed her ordination as elder in 1977, despite a less than enthusiastic vote by many of her male colleagues. She went on to be elected bishop and serve the Western North Carolina and Virginia conferences.
“I am just deeply grateful for all the people who stood with me,” Kammerer said. “I knew it was the work of the Holy Spirit.
“I love, love, love my home annual conference of Florida,” she said. “I had the extraordinary privilege of having been rejected by my annual conference and then being embraced.”
– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.