(Originally published by Florida Voices)
During the annual meeting of the Florida United Methodist Conference in June, a wickedly satirical video was shown poking good-natured fun at retiring Bishop Timothy Whitaker, a mild-mannered intellectual who reads books on fifth-century Trinitarian theology for fun.
The “farewell address” portrayed an unbridled Whitaker daydreaming about a retirement that includes skinny-dipping and competing on a Polish version of “The Voice,” singing about theology to the tune of “Brown-Eyed Girl.” It was hilarious, but induced wistfulness among his admirers about his departure.
Whitaker has been bishop of the Florida Conference for 11 years and has overseen organizational changes to foster cohesion and bring accountability to clergy performance. But like the United Methodist Church nationwide, and most organized religions generally, the conference continues to decline in members. In interviews over the years, Whitaker expressed disappointment about that, but also realism. The cultural forces at work over 40 years are not going to be reversed by one man.
In some ways, the United Methodist Church is a victim of its efforts to be, as St. Paul put it, “all things to all people.” Because it is excessively concerned with giving all parties and groups a voice, it has become organizationally paralyzed, as was demonstrated by the General Conference at its quadrennial policy-making meeting in April in Tampa. The event was widely regarded as a debacle, a genteel free-for-all that accomplished little.
Taking Whitaker’s place on Sept. 1 will be the Rev. Kenneth H. Carter Jr., of North Carolina, who was elected last month. Carter, 54, has been a successful pastor, leading churches that defied larger trends by growing. In an article in The Ledger of Lakeland, the Rev. Jorge Acevedo, senior pastor of Grace Church in Fort Myers, said Carter is someone dedicated to appealing to a younger generation.
“He’s a voice of reason and a strong voice of growth,” Acevedo said. “Our denomination is not doing well and Bishop Carter has been one of those voices of renewal.”
And yet Whitaker was a successful pastor before becoming bishop. Like him, Carter may find it more difficult to translate success among congregations that sprawl from the Apalachicola River to Key West.
Whitaker was widely liked by lay people and generally respected by the clergy, although some thought he needed to exercise more control over the bureaucracy. But he had the remarkable idea that his job was to be a spiritual leader who would attend to the faith, hopes and charity of his flock and leave the administration of Conference programs to others.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to measure how much stronger are United Methodist churches in Florida in their beliefs and their efforts to minister to their communities. Maybe, in the end, that matters more than numbers.
Preliminary indications are that Carter is likely to be more interested in the day-to-day affairs of the Conference. His challenge will be to keep his congregations focused on ministering to their local communities, rather than bickering about political and cultural issues. That, in the end, will matter more than numbers.
Whitaker will return to Virginia, where he should enjoy his retirement content that he has, as St. Paul wrote, “fought the good fight … finished the race (and) kept the faith.”