ORLANDO—Conference attendees packed the Sabal Ballroom of the Buena Vista Palace Hotel for Thursday afternoon's plenary session, and organizers opened an adjoining conference room for overflow seating.
It's during the plenary session led by Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter that clergy and laity voted on constitutional amendments to the Book of Discipline, approved policy and organizational changes and received an update on the conference's health care costs.
|Rev. Dr. Candace Lewis, Gulf Central District superintendent, discussed the future of district realignment. Bishop Carter said the decision to eliminate one district was not taken lightly.|
The session also gave attendees a chance to debate five constitutional amendments.
Among the more hotly debated topics was a proposed constitutional amendment to the Book of Discipline stating that no member shall be “denied access to an equal place in the life, worship and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status or economic condition.”
Lay member Carlene Fogle-Miller said she believes the amendment is long overdue.
“We have been trying to add gender as a protected status for over 20 years,” she said. “It is very hard for me as a woman to be involved in a church that says I am not worthy as a woman.”
While she agreed with Fogle-Miller in principle, lay member Mary Byerman said she feared passing the amendment could have “unintended consequences.
“I appreciate the good intentions of the amendment and am strongly committed to women's equality and the importance of their work in ministries,” she said. “However, the word 'gender' doesn't explicitly say male or female.”
To pass, the amendments must be approved by a two-thirds vote of all conferences. The results of the Florida Conference balloting will be available after all conferences’ votes are tallied by the denomination.
However, conference attendees didn't have to wait to learn the results of a vote to reduce the number of districts in the Florida conference.
By a show of hands, attendees overwhelmingly approved a proposal to reduce the number of districts from nine to eight on July 1 as part of an attempt to cut costs.
|Along with voting on business items, the conference committed to ambitious goals for increasing the number of vital congregations by 2025.|
Carter said the change is relatively small compared to 11 years ago when the number of districts in the Florida Conference was reduced from 14 to nine. At that time, the conference also closed 92 churches it deemed were not financially sustainable.
Nevertheless, Carter said he and his cabinet did not make the decision to eliminate one more district lightly.
He said the leadership thought long and hard about where to draw the new district lines then solicited the approval of clergy, peer groups and leadership teams to ensure that the conference had the support of the churches affected by the new district lines.
“I believe this is a wise choice for us,” Carter said.
However, two lay members spoke against reducing the number of districts because the change would increase the size of the remaining districts and create greater distances between some churches and the district headquarters. One person spoke against the change, fearing the longer drive would result in a decline in involvement by lay servants.
“The change will mean a loss in leadership and will make it more difficult for churches to be involved at the district level,” said Dick Sargeant, a longtime lay leader at First United Methodist Church of Lakeland. “Our district office will be over an hour away from the church. This will lessen the number of voices and reduce administrative oversight.”
The biggest change to result from the redrawn districts is the impact on the Gulf Central District, in which 55 churches will merge with 33 churches along the Gulf Coast.
Other items discussed at the plenary session included:
The Conference's plan to focus on three key initiatives: doubling the number of vital congregations by 2025; increasing the number of Fresh Expressions to 500 by 2025, and building additional partnerships between churches and local schools to help at-risk students.
The adoption of a new interview process for ministers that will focus on small team interviews that are more hospitable, conversational and understandable.
Ways to reduce health care costs for the Conference's aging clergy. As sited in a report from Price Waterhouse Coopers and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical costs are rising 5 1/2 times faster than the consumer price index.
Bishop Carter preached the communion sermon, “Revive Us Again,” and was the communion celebrant.
--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in Valrico