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The Annual Conference is about coming together in celebration and hope

The Annual Conference is about coming together in celebration and hope

Bishop Tom Berlin Conference News

The word of the day, and for all days in the future, is “hope.”

At times in the last few years, that simple concept has been hard to come by for members of The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. But it’s a different feeling now as members and laity prepare to gather in Lakeland on June 8-10 for the Annual Conference.

The COVID-19 pandemic is largely in the rearview mirror, and the contentious season of disaffiliation is likewise working toward a fair and equitable conclusion for all affected churches.

That’s why Bishop Tom Berlin, presiding over his first Annual Conference as Florida’s Resident Bishop, has struck the theme ‘Abound In Hope’ to set the tone for the three-day yearly meeting.
Bishop Tom Berlin

“I drew that from the writings of the Apostle Paul: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that the power of the Holy Spirit, you may abound in hope,” he said.

As always, there is business to complete, but there are also celebrations from all corners of the Conference.

At Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, for instance, the distractions of the last few years have given way to making a significant difference in its community. Its partnership with Dunbar Elementary Magnet School has produced great fruit.

Dunbar is what education experts describe as an “economically disadvantaged” school. Of its 270 students, 225 are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Yet, after receiving an “F” grade from the Florida Department of Education in 2016, Dunbar has improved to a “C” score in the most recent assessment.

It’s part of a Conference-wide initiative to partner with a local Title I school and provide support and encouragement to students and staff. This initiative follows the example of John Wesley, who believed that every child matters.

“Dunbar is one of the fastest improving schools in our district,” Hyde Park Senior Pastor Rev. Magrey deVega said.

But that’s not the only place Hyde Park UMC makes a difference.

“Our online service is reaching people across the country and engaging them with our church,” Rev. deVega said. 

“We also had one of our largest new-member classes join in the spring. We had 20 new members join our church and 31 kids through confirmation. Our downtown satellite campus, The Portico, continues to draw new people in new ways. It’s a litmus for social transformation.”
That was highlighted by a remembrance of Robert Johnson, a Black man who was lynched in Tampa in 1934 after he was unjustly accused of assaulting a White woman. Soil from the site along Tampa’s downtown riverbank, where he shot four times, was collected in a jar and transported to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala.

Outreaches around the state

Superintendent Rev. Dr. Cynthia Weems noted ongoing projects at the First Church Miami, Shalom House of Grace (a Haitian mission), and the University of Miami/FIU campus ministries in the South East District.

“All three of those involve exciting partnerships supporting vital ministries,” she said. “One thing evident around the Conference is a positive energy around our new Bishop. People see him as approachable and passionate about Florida. It’s good to see.

“Churches aren’t letting anything distract them from going along, doing their thing, and they deserve our attention.”

Rev. Kim Uchimura of Emmanuel UMC in Bradenton noted that the ministry at her church has “amped up” since the end of the pandemic.

The church has partnered with other churches and agencies to advocate for 500 additional affordable housing units in Manatee County. They lobbied the local Sheriff to consider an intervention program so young first-time offenders won’t
be saddled with a criminal record.

And they work across the community for racial equality.

“We are excited at the results we’re seeing,” Rev. Uchimura said. “The affordable housing initiative went well. To me, that’s really exciting.”

Retired pastor Rev. James Martin said he sees an ongoing change.

“I have a general sense of a more positive attitude of affirming love and acceptance since we started to put the LGBTQ+ issue behind us,” he said. “Further, I see more affirmations of John Wesley’s theology and evangelical spirit.

“Still further, there is less effort in ‘doing’ church and more on being the church – feeding the hungry, closing the naked, visiting the sick, and looking after the disenfranchised of society. The pandemic seems to have made us, the church, more sensitive to the human needs surrounding us.”
Zoe Empowers makes a difference
Rev. Emily Hotho, Superintendent for the Gulf Central District, agrees. Her district is sponsoring an orphan empowerment group in Rwanda through Zoe Empowers

“Each church only needs to contribute $125 to help us reach our funding goal.  We share updates about our group, names of the children on prayer cards, Zoe curriculum for Lent, Advent, and VBS, and we even have two trips planned to Rwanda with Zoe this summer and next,” she said.

“This has given our churches a common goal to unite around. We have also started a monthly Bravo Awards in our newsletter, celebrating churches, laity, and clergy living our goals.

“The clergy Facebook group started in our District during COVID has remained very active in Gulf Central. There are multiple posts daily where pastors ask for help with an issue, share a prayer request, or give away free resources or items.  We’ve seen churches share VBS supplies, share a bus ride to camp, find help with clergy taxes, pulpit swap, and more.”

Also encouraging is that the district is seeing new candidates for ministry and many other new candidates enter the process.

“These are diverse candidates from various theological perspectives, and they are excited to serve the future UMC.  It gives me hope for our future,” she said.

Moving past divisions

Churches that chose to disaffiliate have largely completed the requirements to leave the Florida Conference. But it isn’t about looking backward anymore or focusing on divisions. It’s about realizing that the United Methodist Church remains strong, and the Florida Conference is vital.

That’s something to embrace as the Conference moves forward.

“An Annual Conference session is really about coming together. It’s about seeing one another, sharing ideas, and supporting one another in our shared mission of making disciples for Jesus for the transformation of the world,” Bishop Berlin said.

“In this past year, we’ve had a lot of talk about disaffiliation, a lot of talk about difficulties from the pandemic, et cetera. But our future, our future together in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, is bright. It’s a place of hope, and I want us to celebrate that shared hope during Annual Conference, and I want us to enjoy one another.”

Joe Henderson is the News Content Editor of

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