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August 29, 2003


Conference Table reconvenes with new focus

Conference Tables examines clergy culture and its impact on the Florida Conference.

By J.A. Dunn

LAKELAND — The Conference Table is back, and it has a lot on its plate for the Florida Conference to digest.

The Conference Table, created in 2002, is a venue for clergy and laity to discuss the connectional life and current context of the United Methodist Church in Florida in the 21st century.

All clergy and laity are invited to attend the next Conference Table meeting Sept. 12 at Lake Gibson United Methodist Church here from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The theme for the gathering is Ministry Culture: the Conference, the Community, the Congregation and Clergy Family.

At similar gatherings last year the group created mission and vision statements, identified nine areas of concern about the conference and focused on congregational transformation. The goal for the next two years is for nine task groups to focus on the areas of concern and present their research at Conference Table meetings.

The topic for the Sept. 12 meeting is transforming clergy culture.

There is a body of assumptions, behaviors and expectations placed on clergy by laity that clergy have been conditioned to accept, but these same sets of beliefs are increasingly becoming outdated, according to the Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, the conference’s new director of Connectional Ministries.

Burkholder provides leadership for the coordination of the Conference Table process as Bill Walker did when he served as director of Connectional Ministries. Walker resigned from that position at the 2003 Florida Annual Conference Event.

“A major part of the problem is that many laity still expect and many clergy are still trying to live out their call through traditional practices that ministers ‘are supposed to do,’ in a world where that understanding no longer fits,” Burkholder said. “This results in morale and health problems, struggles within the clergy family, the mismatching of clergy and churches, and a high number of clergy who leave the ministry.”

She said some skills and tasks normally designated to clergy in the past might not be appropriate in today’s society. Examples of pastoral responsibilities being shifted from ministers to laity are leading weekly Bible study groups, providing pastoral care and visiting members who are sick and shut-ins.

“We are in the middle of a 30- or 40-year span where traditional roles of both the clergy and laity are changing,” Burkholder said. “Only recently have we been able to articulate what is happening. We [the conference] are attempting to escort churches and clergy through this shift in a healthy way.

“Some churches are operating in a new way, and for the churches which have not, we want to help them understand how they can make this happen and lead them into that brave new world.”

Burkholder said it is important that the conference not leave behind pastors who see themselves as “paradigm traditional” pastors and equally important that churches not view the conference as dragging its feet in keeping pace with “the changing understanding of how a clergy person’s call to ministry is lived out in the congregation and community.”

“We need to help people become more sensitive to the shift that’s taking place,” she said. “This will help clergy and laity have more reasonable and appropriate expectations of one another.”

While researching the clergy family for her doctoral dissertation, Trudy Rankin said she has discovered there is the hope that the clergy family will not suffer the work hazard of “suffocating expectations” and that the church and clergy family have an opportunity to accommodate each other with ease and patience.

Rankin is coordinating Shade and Fresh Water, a new ministry approved at the 2003 Florida Annual Conference Event. The ministry’s vision is to promote the health of the conference’s clergy and their families.

Examples of weekly expectations of clergy are performing administrative tasks, preaching every sermon, visiting the sick, teaching and taking responsibility for the spiritual leadership of the congregation, according to Rankin. These tasks and others often leave pastors overwhelmed, she said.

As the role of pastor is transformed The United Methodist Church finds itself at a crossroads, Burkholder said.

“We need clergy and laity to come to this meeting who recognize the shift with churches and who can articulate the struggles it places us in,” she said. “This is a place where voices can be heard who feel like they are not heard.”

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