FL Review Online

General Board of Global Ministries

UM Information

UM Reporter

Florida Southern College

Cookman College

FL UM Children's Home


September 13, 2002


Bishop sets honest, open tone for Conference Table

Photo By Michael Wacht

Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker (left) and Aaron Zimmerman (right), chairman of the conference's spiritual formation task force, prepare to serve communion during opening worship at the first gathering of the Conference Table. "The Conference Table is an extension of the Lord's Table...it's the conversation that goes on after we receive the Lord's Supper," Whitaker said.
By Michael Wacht

LEESBURG — Florida Conference Bishop Timothy Whitaker set a tone of honesty and apostolic vision for participants at the first gathering of the Florida Conference’s Conference Table Aug. 28-29 at the Life Enrichment Center here.

Whitaker delivered his state of the conference address to nearly 150 conference clergy and laity at the gathering’s opening session.

The Conference Table was approved at the 2002 Florida Annual Conference Event as a forum for discussing and discerning how the Florida Conference can fulfill its vision to make disciples of Jesus Christ. The bishop is the chairman, and the lay leader is the vice chairman. An additional 16 leaders from the conference are expected to participate, but all conference laity and clergy are invited to attend.

Whitaker’s opening comments challenged participants to be honest in their assessment of the church today and free in visioning what the church can become. Whitaker began by saying his observations about the present state of the conference came from listening to the “observations…concerns and hopes of United Methodist people in Florida” during last year’s listening sessions throughout the conference.

Anyone who listens filters what they hear through a certain set of beliefs “…more like a screen,” Whitaker said. His screen includes the belief that “the church of Jesus Christ is called by the spirit of God to be a missionary church in a missionary culture.”

“Christendom has fallen apart,” he said. “Much of the culture has freed itself from collusion with Christianity…and does not want to be aligned with any one religion.

“The missionary church must witness to the kingdom of God in a culture of moral confusion, consumerism, militarism and ethnic hatred. Congregations do not stand alone, but must understand themselves as part of a larger missionary church.”

Whitaker believes the United Methodist connection is not effective in helping churches fulfill their missionary calling. “The connection is an institutional structure, rather than a web of people in relationship for a common mission,” he said. “There is not a lot of connecting in the connection.”

People in the connection need to embrace freedom and “surrender our defensiveness,” Whitaker said. “…This does not mean everything old must be discarded. Freedom is a gift, a gift we’re going to have to give one another and a gift we’re going to have to pray for.”

The church must also be focused on transformation rather than growth, Whitaker said. “What is important is not growth, but it is transformation. When a church is a healthy, living organism, it grows.”

Whitaker also laid out a list of issues facing the conference as it begins the process of discussion and discernment about its vision and mission. He said the conference needs new vision and mission statements, which “must emerge naturally out of our discerning who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.”

The conference must begin to articulate expectations of its congregations and their members, Whitaker said. “We are not providing Christian direction on how to love God and how to love our neighbors.”

Congregations should be classified not by size, but on where they are in their life cycle, Whitaker said. Congregations should be considered missions, new, transforming, exploring or parish. Missions and new congregations would be defined as they currently are. Exploring congregations are those in the process of assessing their mission and future. Transforming congregations are those in the process of transforming their mission and ministry. Parish congregations are those participating in worship, pastoral care and some mission, but are not transforming themselves or their members.

Whitaker said the conference must be in the process of developing clergy and lay leadership and facilitating better relationships between pastors and congregations.

Calling clergy the “workforce…spiritual leaders in congregations,” Whitaker said the conference must help them develop new skills for ministry, provide periodic brief sabbaticals and relief for spouses and children. He also said the conference needs to seek new ways to work through conflicts in churches and provide for long-term ministry.

The laity are “hungry to be confirmed as ministers and be employed in the adventure of mission in the world,” he said.

The role of the annual conference in equipping churches to be in ministry must change, Whitaker said. “There are many resources available to local congregations…that don’t need to be repeated by the annual conference.”

Whitaker said he envisioned the conference being more active on social issues and developing an international institute that would focus on Florida’s ethnic and immigrant population.

Whitaker said the conference needs to re-examine the connectional giving system and how it funds its ministries. He said the annual debate over funding campus ministry “shows we’re not convinced the current method of delivery is best.”

“The CCOM [Conference Council on Ministries] does its budgeting expecting it will only get 60 percent of its budget,” he said. “This is not a healthy development.”

Top of this page

© 2002 Florida United Methodist Review Online