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January 4, 2002


Common Table moves from listening to strategy

By Michael Wacht

LAKELAND — The members of the Florida Conference’s Common Table have completed a major part of their listening process after visiting the conference’s 14 districts and soliciting lay and clergy opinions through the Internet. They are now ready to digest the information gathered and begin creating a process for transforming the conference.

The Common Table is a group of elected leaders of the official bodies of the Florida Conference that are meeting at the invitation of the Florida Conference Council on Ministries (CCOM). Bishop Timothy Whitaker and Bill Walker, the conference’s director of connectional ministries, are also members. The Common Table is designed to be a forum of conference leaders discussing how best to accomplish the conference’s mission.

“The responsibility of leadership is to listen very carefully, then, out of that collection of responses, to craft a strategy that responds to the issues expressed,” Walker said. “Through study, prayer, reflection, God will lead us to a fresh sense of who we are as United Methodists in Florida.”

Walker compared the listening process to a medical diagnosis. He said the conference knows its symptoms and that it’s not healthy, but does not know the cause of its ailment. The Common Table process has so far helped bring out a description of the symptoms and is now moving into a deeper diagnosis of the problem.

The Rev. Jim Rosenburg, pastor of St. Petersburg’s George Young Memorial United Methodist Church and CCOM secretary, said the focus groups gave him “a sense of people’s internal struggles and how unfulfilled they were.”

Rosenburg said there is a basic need for people to be heard, but the conference has not provided those opportunities. He said the reason delegates to annual conference events become passionate during resolution debate is “it’s the only time we make them feel they’re heard.”

The Rev. Jim Harnish, chairman of the CCOM and senior pastor at Tampa’s Hyde Park United Methodist Church, wrote a summary of the listening sessions and Internet responses to a survey posted on the conference’s Web site. He identified several areas in which the Florida Conference is stressed due to misunderstanding or a conflict of goals and visions.

A major issue identified by both laity and clergy was confusion about the mission of the annual conference and how that mission is fulfilled. Harnish said the understanding of the church’s mission as “making disciples of Jesus Christ” is widespread, though more clergy than laity were able to clearly articulate that mission.

The stress point is the lack of consensus about whether the conference should be actively making disciples or supporting local churches in making disciples.

How the conference supports churches and which churches it supports was another issue identified. Harnish said smaller congregations had a higher expectation of support from the conference, but the cabinet and conference already spend “significantly more energy, time and money in supporting small, indeed struggling, congregations.”

“Larger churches don’t need the conference as much as smaller or struggling churches do, and that’s neither good nor bad,” he said. “But in the focus groups, we asked, ‘Help us understand what you would like the conference to do to help you.’ It was difficult for most people to define what they wanted the conference to do. There’s a hunger there, but most people have a hard time defining it.”

Harnish said the feedback also revealed an increased spiritual hunger and a desire for more spiritual leadership. “Local churches really look to the pastors to provide real spiritual leadership,” he said. “If the pastor is not in tune with spiritual awakening or spiritual leadership, the church is not going to move.”

Local churches expressed a desire to be more active in the appointment process with more say regarding their pastor, Harnish said. He said this desire is at odds with the cabinet’s policy of making appointments based on the mission of the conference.

“We need to decide…how historically very valuable systems will look in a different world,” he said. “We haven’t found those answers.”

Rosenburg said the Common Table must act on what it has heard. “The challenge is to not ignore what they say,” he said. “A fear is that we put a whole lot of energy and time into this, and then we’ll lose interest. How do we…get so excited we’ll put ourselves behind it?”

Walker has begun a process he calls a “talking paper,” which is an interactive draft of ideas and proposals that is circulating among Common Table members. “The leaders carry on a conversation within the document about the ideas and proposals,” he said, adding that each person makes edits and comments.

The talking paper contains a proposal for a Conference Table, chaired by the bishop and around which representative leadership of the conference discuss how to carry out the conference’s mission. He hopes to fine tune that proposal enough that it can be presented at the 2002 Florida Annual Conference Event in Lakeland.   

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© 2002 Florida United Methodist Review Online