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September 26, 2003


Conference Table focuses on clergy culture

Photo by Michael Wacht   

The Rev. St. Clair Moore, pastor of Rogers Memorial United Methodist Church in the Sarasota District, shares his small group's answers to discussion questions related to clergy issues with the more than 160 clergy and laity who attended the Sept. 12 Conference Table gathering at Lake Gibson United Methodist Church here.
 Clergy and laity come together to discuss evolving role of serving todayís society

By J.A. Dunn

LAKELAND ó Who will pastor the pastors? It must be a combination of pastors themselves, in addition to laity.

That was the consensus from the Sept. 12 Conference Table meeting at Lake Gibson United Methodist Church here. The gathering focused on the clergy culture and its impact on the Florida Conference, local churches and clergy families.

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 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.

Focusing on the clergy culture, Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker emphasized Christ has gifted clergy and they, in turn, must share those gifts with others. He said that becomes difficult, however, when clergy are emotionally, physically and spiritually depleted. He said they could be more effective if they take better care of themselves.

"Clergy can experience the replenishment of their gifts from Christ," Whitaker said at the start of the meeting. "Clergy give of themselves, and they need to be cared for by the church."

The church specifically allows clergy an opportunity to take time for themselves, as noted in the denominationís "The Book of Discipline" in paragraph 349.3, according to Whitaker, who took renewal leave this year in Virginia. He summed up his time away by saying he enjoyed being outdoors and "hanging the clothes on the clothesline." He suggested clergy might receive that same feeling of relaxation if they practice self-care and if congregations properly care for their clergy.

"What is the morale of clergy? Many think it is low across the [various] denominations," Whitaker said. "I think there is a profound satisfaction, love of their work, and deep frustration and dissatisfaction with their lifestyle."

The meeting, facilitated by the Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, the Florida Conferenceís Connectional Ministries director, and Trudy Rankin, a licensed therapist and certified spiritual director, included contrasts of how ministry has changed throughout the past 40 years and how pastors handle those changes.

The group of about 160 clergy and laity spent a portion of the meeting in small groups discussing their stresses and elected a representative from each table to share their ideas with the entire group.

The Rev. Bill Roughton, who joined the conference in 1948, shared insight he wishes he had learned before he retired in 1990. Throughout his tenure he was appointed to a variety of churches, including a three-acre vacant lot where he grew the church from the ground up to churches of more than 1,000 members. Yet, he said his most exhilarating ministry has come since he retired.

"Iíve been set free from the nitty-gritty routine of administration," he said. "Meetings every night of the week take a lot of pastorsí time. I wish I had done a better job of enabling lay people. I could have been a better pastor, husband and father."

Terrell Sessums, conference lay leader, said laity cannot take on all the responsibilities of the pastor.

"Laity have work and family responsibilities, along with health and economic burdens that make it difficult, or impossible, to do more," Sessums said after the meeting. "Some larger churches have a larger number of successful business and professional members who may be able to do more, and some others have some active retirees with good health and financial resources that will enable them to do more.

"Overall, however, most laity have less income, benefits and free time than the clergy, so it is unrealistic to expect them to attend more meetings, training events and to do more. Nevertheless, a few can, should and will do more if they are really committed."

Miami District Superintendent the Rev. Clarke Campbell-Evans said it is possible for clergy to transform a culture that has been built throughout the decades.

"I think it was good that we could share together what we could do to be a more intentional, healthy, vibrant culture," he said after the meeting. "I donít think we got to everything, but it was a good beginning."

The Rev. St. Clair Moore, pastor of Rogers Memorial United Methodist Church in the Sarasota District, said while the church is addressing how congregations deal with pastors, pastors should address how they relate to one another.

"I think pastors are competitive and there is a lack of trust there so that they cannot honestly share with one another for fear of being judged or stereotyped," he said.

Burkholder said, overall, she was pleased with the meeting. "We were hoping for 125 people on the high end and we got 160. Weíre pleased with the interest and the level of engagement."

Information and feedback shared at the meeting will be compiled and made available to the public in the coming months.

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