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February 28, 2003


Conference Table discusses church health

By Michael Wacht
SARASOTA — Participants at the latest gathering of the Conference Table Feb. 15 at First United Methodist Church here discussed giving the Florida Conference a slogan similar to “Catching God’s Transforming Wave” and offered feedback on key issues surrounding the conference’s efforts in congregational transformation.

The Table was approved at the 2002 Florida Annual Conference event as a forum at which conference laity and clergy can discuss and discern how the conference can best fulfill its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker and 17 other conference leaders are expected to attend each gathering, but all conference laity and clergy are invited.

The Rev. Kendall Taylor, director of the Florida Conference’s Office of Congregational Transformation (OCT), and the Rev. Rick Neal, pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg and chairman of the Committee for Congregational Transformation, were the key presenters.

Taylor told participants he has focused on educating himself and others in the five months he has been director of OCT. He has attended several regional and national gatherings on church transformation, begun consulting with churches and pastors, and visited seven districts to talk about OCT.

Neal told participants the Committee for Congregational Transformation has been working on ways to help Florida churches focus on the issue of transformation. “We need to change the atmosphere…climate…attitude in the Florida Conference if we’re going to work on congregational transformation,” he said.

Part of the focus is to get a consistent definition of what healthy churches are, Neal said. The committee has discussed using the eight characteristics in the Natural Church Development model’s material, which include empowered leadership, gift-oriented ministry, passionate spirituality, functional structures, inspiring worship, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism and missions, and loving relationships.

Taylor said part of that focus is having a consistent standard for measuring congregational health. He said the Natural Church Development material provides a well-researched, usable, objective measurement tool, and asked the Conference Table to recommend the Florida Annual Conference adopt it as the conference’s standard.

Neal said the committee has also brainstormed an Academy for Congregational Transformation, a system for teaching coaches, pastors and lay people how to lead and participate in transformational ministries. It also worked with the Rev. Linda Mobley, director of Orlando’s Healthy Churches Initiative, to create and distribute a six-unit Lenten Bible study on transformation based on Mark’s gospel.

One issue Neal said committee members are discussing is a way to categorize congregations and describe their situations.

Taylor presented his proposed list of categories, which included mission, new church, transforming congregation, exploring congregation and maintaining congregation, and asked Conference Table participants for feedback.

“A church that is healthy is always transforming,” he said. “To make disciples, they must continually adapt to the situation and culture they find themselves in. Exploring congregations are aware of the potential of transformation and are in a decision-making process.”

Maintaining congregations are churches that are happy with the status quo and wish to maintain their current status, Taylor said.

Several participants suggested adding another category for dying congregations. “Maybe the reality of labeling themselves will be a jolt,” said the Rev. Annette Pendergrass, pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Jacksonville.

The Rev. Bruce Jones, pastor of Fernandina Beach’s Memorial United Methodist Church, said maintaining churches are committing “theological suicide.”

“Maintaining churches should no longer be churches…they’re not part of the Christian mission,” he said.

Taylor also asked participants whether they wanted the conference to offer one plan for transformation, a preferred plan with other alternatives or a variety of plans from which churches could choose.

The Rev. John Harrington, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Coral Gables, said having one plan would help standardize language when talking about transformation.

The Rev. Jim Harnish, pastor of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, was opposed to having one plan. “We are past the time when we can dictate top-down,” he said, adding the conference should redefine the role of district superintendents to empower them to look at the reality in congregations and offer guidance.

Dottie Graves, a member at First United Methodist Church, Melbourne, said the conference should help local churches choose the best plan and stay focused “and stop reading the millions of books that are out there.”

Taylor asked participants what they thought transformation should cost. “What’s transformation worth to you?” he said.

Participants discussed the cost in terms of lost members, clergy success and the pain that a transformational process can cause. Many agreed that local churches need to bear a portion of the monetary cost of the process, although many of the churches most in need of transformation can least afford the cost.

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© 2003 Florida United Methodist Review Online