Category Archives: United Methodist Church

A Fond Farewell to Bishop Tim Whitaker

(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.”

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Can the United Methodist Church Reform Itself?

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The United Methodist Church is one of those phenomena – like baseball or public education – that until recently grew best in American soil but now seems to be fading here and flourishing elsewhere. It is the second-largest Protestant Church behind the Southern Baptists. Its broad representation is illustrated by the saying that if you want to know who the next president will be, just poll a sample of United Methodists.

But the church suffers from declining membership – from 10.6 million in 1970 to 8.2 million in 2010 – and a crisis of confidence and, some would say, of relevance. (Full disclosure: I am not a United Methodist, but I did work briefly last year for the Church’s Florida Conference.)

About 1,000 delegates are in Tampa this week for the quadrennial meeting of the General Conference, which determines policy for the church. And there is a distinct difference about this year’s meeting.

Going back to the 1970s, these conferences have seen bitter fights over the role of gays and lesbians, and whether they may be ordained or whether clergy may preside at their union services. While that fight continues, this year’s energy is focused on a proposal to restructure the denomination.

It is an internal matter, to be sure, but Wednesday’s vote to approve a restructuring plan suggests the church may have summoned the will to overcome some of the institutional inertia dragging it down.

Reformers, including a majority of its Council of Bishops, wanted a more unified structure for its national agencies. These agencies — which oversee everything from education to missionaries to accounting — are all independent, each with its own board. The plan approved Wednesday would create a central council and eliminate some agencies.

“So little of our alignment matches our stated mission. This is an attempt to get better alignment,” Bishop William Willimon of the Church’s North Alabama Conference told me last week.

But many agencies have vocal constituencies who oppose the changes. Some suspect the reformers want to take the church in a more conservative direction, reducing or eliminating agencies devoted to social activism in favor of an emphasis on church growth and evangelism.

The proposal appeared in jeopardy last week when a committee charged with refining the legislation could not agree. That impasse is illustrative of how a denomination once united around the twin poles of personal piety and ministries of compassion has badly splintered into ideological camps. Willimon said that had the plan failed, it would have confirmed his worst fears about the state of the church.

The restructuring won’t impact most local United Methodist congregations, except maybe how much they will be asked to contribute to keep the national agencies running. As Willimon put it, “What happens in the local church is infinitely more important than what happens at General Conference.”

But despite pockets of success, local churches reflect the malaise of the United Methodist Church in microcosm. In Florida, membership continues to decline and age, despite the efforts of the last two bishops to reverse the trends.

United Methodist leaders were hopeful the restructuring plan might help the church focus more on its essential tasks. But it strikes me as a bit like trying to turn the Titanic.

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