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December 5, 2003


Conference Table examines cooperative ministry

Photo by Michael Wacht     

OCALA - The Rev. Deborah McKown (right), pastor of Orlando's Faith United Methodist Church, shares her experiences in cooperative parish ministry with the Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder (left), the Florida Conference's director of connectional ministries, and others. The discussion was part of the recent Conference Table gathering in Ocala at which participants discussed strategies for developing cooperative parishes in the Florida Conference.
 Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker says cooperative parish ministry is “the blueprint for a new vision for the United Methodist Church in Florida.”

By J.A. Buchholz

OCALA — Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker said elders of the United Methodist Church are ordained for “delivering the word, sacrament and order,” and as such they are prepared to assist the church as it moves in the direction of cooperative parish ministry.

Whitaker spoke at the most recent gathering of the Conference Table at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Ocala Nov. 12. The featured topic was cooperative parish ministry and the impact it could have in the Florida Conference.

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

Cooperative parish ministry involves two or more churches working together in a formal arrangement, strengthening the ministry of the participating churches.

Whitaker said the model is good for financially struggling churches and pastors, and it might enable some churches to take on a new way of meeting the needs of their communities.

“The church is no longer the center of the culture,” Whitaker said. “This is a time when the church is being pushed out of the center. We’re asking, ‘What is the role of the church?’ It’s time for the church to re-image itself. The church has forgotten what it is.”

Whitaker said elders can help churches enter this model because they are trained in the task of order.

“Some elders get in a rut, become bored and depressed,” he said. “This is an opportunity to get them out of isolation, to work with other pastors and challenge one another. This way they are stimulated, motivated, have an outlet and accountability. They fulfill their mission and do what the spirit of God has called them to do.”

The cooperative ministry task force presented more than 13 scenarios in which cooperative parish ministry might be employed, but repeatedly told attendees it is not a quick fix for dying or troubled churches.

One way churches can begin to participate is through cooperative resources teams that assist churches with a specific area of need. Churches express a need, and then a team of five to six people within the district who have the gifts to meet that need are nominated by their pastor and recruited by a resource team coordinator to serve on the team.

The team would include primarily laity who have specific skills in such areas as hospitality, finances, fund raising, or children or youth ministry. Members could meet for one meeting or a year of informal coaching.

The goal of cooperative parish ministry is to enhance the function of the churches involved, according to the conference’s cooperative ministry task force, which presented a document highlighting the benefits of such a ministry.

The reported said churches working together in a formal arrangement and sharing at least one staff member would strengthen the ministry of all participating churches. It also cited data showing participating churches experienced enhanced stewardship and more ministry per dollar of investment. And potentially utilizing fewer clergy could reduce expenses and enable specialized ministry to be brought onto the team. A smaller investment in ministry staff could also lead to lower apportionments for the local church and the annual conference, according to task force members.

While it appears the advantages of the cooperative parish ministry are endless, the Rev. Bill Knight, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Wauchula, said he doesn’t view the model as something for churches to do to keep their doors open.

“There are few opportunities for growth in rural areas,” he said after the meeting. “No one church is strong enough to do everything.”

Knight said his church has worked with United Methodist Churches four miles to the north and south of his church to provide Christmas cantatas and looks forward to moving into the area of ministry outreach with those churches.

That’s the best way for churches to embrace the model according to the Rev. Charles Weaver, Tallahassee District superintendent and a member of the cooperative ministry task force. He said parish ministry cannot be forced on churches or pastors. They must arrive at the idea that the model is a good one for them.

Julie Bullerdick, a member of the Sarasota District, said it’s an exciting time for churches to give cooperative parish ministry a chance.

“I’m very excited about the ways churches are looking for ways to come together to reach people for Jesus Christ,” she said.

It’s for that reason alone that the Rev. Dr. Don Nations, secretary of the task force and director of the South Sarasota Teaching Parish, said he is not against cooperative parish ministry being imposed on unwilling churches.

“The mission [making disciples for Jesus Christ] is larger than any one of us,” he said. “Churches need to be realistic as they struggle. There are options and opportunities for them.”

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