"We Are On The Way to a Better Church”
Bishop Carter's Farewell Message to The Florida ConferenceLeadership
“We Are On The Way to a Better Church”
Remarks shared with The Florida Conference
Hyde Park UMC, Tampa
December 11, 2022
Bishop Ken Carter
I want to say that I am grateful to The Florida Conference for the past eleven years. You have shaped me as a minister, as a Bishop and as a person of Christian faith. I have seen Jesus Christ in you. I have seen the Holy Spirit in you. I have seen the image of God in you.
This is not the place to document the ministry we have shared, the disruptions we have experienced, the trauma and the joys, the mistakes and successes, the tears and the laughter. For me this has been a significant season of life and ministry amidst what has been constant and what has changed.
The Gift of Tradition and Faith
In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6) we say the words “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” Where I have sinned against you, through commission or omission, I ask forgiveness. And where you have sinned against me, I extend that same forgiveness.
I mention the Lord’s Prayer. I would identify as a person with a traditional faith. The church of my preference would say the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed (UM Hymnal, 881) in worship. It would sing more about God than me. If you know me you know that I have a traditional faith, my “convictional stance” (Book of Discipline paragraph 427) is generously orthodox. Orthodoxy is rooted in the scriptures, creeds and hymns I was taught. It is life-giving. Generosity is essential because orthodoxy can also be used as a knife to separate and do harm.
To characterize me otherwise is a lie. It justifies a reason to depart, for some, but nevertheless it is untrue.
That same faith is deeply rooted in God’s grace. And that grace is for all of us. The parables of Jesus make this point over and over and over— the prodigal (Luke 15), the Samaritan (Luke 10), the great banquet (Luke 14), touching the leper (Matthew 8), the woman at the well (John 4), the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14), the thief on the cross (Luke 23) and I could go on.
We do struggle with the “all.” At our best, Florida is a non-binary collection of people: traditionalists, LGBTQ persons and their allies, those who have blessed us by journeying from Haiti and Puerto Rico and Cuba and Korea and I could go on. It’s best if we are non-binary. We have many differences and they are important, and we do not suppress them, but they are not as important as the way Jesus sees us and embraces us on the cross and calls us to a lifelong journey of transformation (Matthew 4).
We struggle with all of this.
A United Methodist Way of Life
So who is the we?
We are United Methodists. There is a United Methodist way of life. It involves our response to the grace of God, in ourselves and others. It includes searching the scriptures and singing about the amazing love of God, so free, so infinite is his grace (“And Can It Be”, UM Hymnal, 363). It insists on our need for connection and social holiness. I cannot be holy on my own, I cannot be holy without you, you cannot be holy without me.
It understands holiness as love of God and love of our neighbor, it draws us toward each other, it does not separate us from each other into groups of pure and impure people.
A United Methodist way of life is welcoming. Our conference has welcomed Cuban Methodists, Haitian Methodists, Korean Methodists, people from reformed and Pentecostal denominations, people from other states and nations.
You have brought gifts to us. I want to make the claim today that we continue to have a gift for you.
It is a United Methodist way of life. It is rooted in prevenient grace—God is present in all, every person is of sacred worth Book of Discipline, paragraph 4). It is anchored in scripture and is Christ-centered. It requires a convicted humility. We are on a lifelong journey to holiness and we are not there yet. We see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13). We are connectional. We believe that institutions are important—they provide many of the things we need, especially for the most vulnerable. And we need innovation and fresh expressions of church. The good news does not change. The ways people gather and grow and serve and understand themselves, all of that changes.
Pam and I have some undeniable grief in leaving Florida. And we are in our eleventh year, not far from the limit defined by the Book of Discipline. But the grief is mixed with an even greater measure of gratitude.
I want to thank a few people:
- Three administrative assistants with whom I have served: Joanna Proferes, Winnie Dean and Shannon Redden
- The 27 district superintendents with whom I have served.
- Members of the cabinet and conference staff
- And the three assistants to the bishop: Chuck Weaver, David Dodge and Alex Shanks
I want to thank the laity of the annual conference. I have preached in many of your churches, been in dialogue with many of you, traveled with many of you to the Holy Land and the cities of the Apostle Paul. You have faithfully held your local churches and communities together and you have done this with a depth of faith, hope and love.
I want to thank the clergy of the conference. It was an honor to ordain over one hundred of you, and for the ordinands we shared in retreats and traveled to the Holy Land, Israel and Palestine. To all of the clergy, you have represented Christ in ministries of word and sacrament, compassion and justice. You have done this in seasons marked by a pandemic, by polarization, by hurricanes, and by untruths said about you and your churches. And with many, many of you I have shared Sunday morning worship and preached in several hundred of our churches, sharing meals with your families and coming to know your children. I have praised you in front of your people. I do that again on this occasion.
The Future Calling
We are on the way to being a better church, much work has been done toward that, and it will happen as a denomination in the near future.
My prayer for our friends who are departing is that they will quickly move into the mission to which God has called them—-speaking in disparaging ways about our church and recruiting from within our churches are not your mission. I do believe you will have a mission and it can be blessed by the Lord. I urge you to let go of the lawsuit, which is not a New Testament way of resolving differences (1 Corinthians 6), and work with the plan that was advanced by many of your own leaders at the 2019 General Conference, paragraph 2553 of the Book of Discipline. It is transparent and fair. And I repeat: from my side, you and I are not enemies or adversaries. We have a different vision for the church. It is rooted in the soil of the same doctrine (Book of Discipline, paragraph 104).
For those who continue as United Methodists, and this will be the great majority of us, we will have the challenge of being an evangelical church that is inclusive of all people, that finds new and fresh ways to disciple people, and that does all of this within our core values of grace and holiness.
Challenges to our Discipleship
There are two facets of discipleship about which we have been challenged the most.
First, our historical racism, which has plagued Methodism from the beginning and which took institutional form in our separation and segregation, and which is our work in creating the beloved community in each local church, and in our public witness to unjust laws, and in our systems of an annual conference that are becoming more equitable, and all of this rooted in the recognition that racism is a sin and an obstacle to our sanctification and health as a church.
Second, our recognition that persons in the LGBTQ community, not issues but real people in our own churches and families, are blessed by the same grace, saved by the same cross, on the same journey to holiness, and that singling them out for discrimination will have been a fifty year, costly human error.
The harm we have done to these two groups of persons is staggering. It calls us, me, to confession, repentance and to a new life.
These are two unfinished facets of our discipleship. I have no arrogance about precisely we do this work. But I am convicted that in some of our churches there is a foretaste of it, and that God is blessing it. Because God has created us all in the divine image (Genesis 1). As the apostle Peter declared God shows no partiality (Acts 10).
If this is to be meaningful, it will happen at the local level. We will do all of this as we re-emerge from a pandemic where many died, many more became extremely ill, and all were disrupted. There is a complexity about this. We will need to be people of peace in all of this, and people immersed in the scriptures, and people who remain connected in a world whose default is to divide us. That is precisely what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in this present moment (Book of Discipline, paragraph 121). It is the rediscovery of a United Methodist way of life. It can be the gift God gives to us and the gift we offer to the world.
A United Methodist way of life is about grace, holiness and connection.
I will have been in ministry for forty years in just a few months, in June of 2023. I have a brief time of active ministry left to do this work, but I have little need to control how it will be done in the future. I trust the leadership God is calling. And that includes your new bishop, Tom Berlin. We have worked very closely together, on the Commission on a Way Forward, on the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. Bishop Berlin is very gifted. I trust the cabinet that I have left behind, and the appointments we have made to the local churches. My role is increasingly encourager and intercessor.
I thank God for assigning me to The Florida Conference for these ten plus years. I thank you for welcoming Pam and her gifts and calling. I thank you for receiving me as your bishop. Again, you have shaped me. Our relationship will now change, and I genuinely hope it is one of lifelong friendship. After a time, I expect to return to Florida in the years ahead, not in a role of oversight or episcopacy, but in friendship. Our friendship will endure, and for all that was, and is and is to come, I give thanks to God.
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