Preaching Event Equips Clergy for Upcoming Advent Season

published 9/8/2019
Under the leadership of Dr. Sam Parkes and Rev. Jeremy Steele, clergy from around the Alabama-West Florida Conference gathered on Thursday, September 5, 2019, at Montgomery FUMC to collectively explore sermon preparation around the Advent season.
Parkes, senior pastor at Mary Esther UMC, and Steele, teaching pastor at Christ UMC in Mobile, co-led the group through multiple exercises that would encourage reading scripture in various ways. As the leaders read scripture in the morning session, the attendees were asked to reflect on out-of-the-box imagery connected to scripture and collaborate with their table to accept other imagery discovered. A unique method of doing this was through art; whereby the participants drew images with oil pastels on canvas without editing, keeping the crayon active on the page the entire time.
“Part of what we are doing through this process is to collaborate, which means both being assertive with our ideas, but also respecting the ideas of others enough to build on them without feeling the need to ignore them or offer stark alternatives,” said Parkes. “We wanted to encourage the pastors to just say YES, AND to the ideas of others without saying YES, BUT.”
The group also engaged in verb processing to identify what stirs, evokes, fascinates and bothers them in scripture passages. Questions such as, “What do you know about God from this moment in text that gets you” and “Why does your community need to hear this today?”
As participants began to shape their sermon ideas for each week in the series, Steele asked them to think about preaching to the whole person:
-What one idea do you want the listener to KNOW?
-What would you hope the hearer would FEEL?
-What action might the hearer DO in response to the gospel proclaimed in the sermon?
The participants departed the workshop with two complete sermon series themes for Advent/Christmas along with themes for each sermon in the six-week series. Steele will work with his creative team at Christ UMC to produce graphic elements for bulletin covers, media templates for worship, and social media promotion. 
“This is just the beginning of walking alongside pastors to better equip them with the tools they need to become better preachers,” said Rev. Ashley Davis, AWF Director of Connectional Ministries. “Not only does this specifically speak to one of our conference priorities, research shows that of all the needs church members and visitors have, a good sermon each week is at the top of the list. With the leadership talent in our conference, we have the ability to better teach, coach and train our pastors in our own backyard.”
The Alabama-West Florida Conference Preaching Excellence Team will analyze feedback from this event and hopes to offer future events like this in the coming months. Click here to see more photos by Luke Lucas

Oldest Conference Clergy Member Turns 100

published 9/5/2019
(Kari Barlow for AWFUMC) - On a summer evening in Grove Hill, Alabama, in the early 1930s, a 12-year-old Ray Whatley answered the call to pastoral ministry and never looked back.
He and his younger brother, Billy, had walked seven miles from their home to a revival being conducted at Grove Hill Methodist Episcopal Church.

“Both of us went to the altar,” Billy recalled. “He committed himself to the pastoral ministry and me to accept Christ as my savior. As far as I know, Ray never had second thoughts about his decision.”

In the years that followed, Ray went on to lead a fiercely principled life, taking stands on civil rights issues that would ultimately derail his career as a church pastor but place in him in a position to help transform the United Methodist Church’s pension program. Along the way, he married Katherine Green of Conway, Arkansas, and they adopted a son, David. After Ray retired from the UMC in 1981, he and Katherine settled in the Lake Junaluska community near Asheville, North Carolina.
Today, almost nine decades after answering the Lord’s call, Ray is turning 100 and being recognized as the oldest living pastor in the Alabama-West Florida Conference. Katherine died in 2012, but Ray still makes his home in Asheville—now in a UMC retirement center—and his family and friends are planning a big celebration at Lake Junaluska the weekend before his birthday, which is Oct. 16.
“It’s going to be some turnout!” David said. “I am so proud of my dad. I’m so fortunate to have him in my life. He will be 100, but his mind is as clear as it can be.”
‘Ahead of his time’
Dr. Herb Sadler, who is Ray’s nephew and a retired pastor from the AWF Conference, fondly remembered his uncle as a pretty straight arrow.
“He was kind of straitlaced,” Sadler said. “He always wore a white shirt and tie everywhere for everything. … He was very precise, and he was great at administration.”
Sadler was never surprised by his uncle’s enduring service to the UMC. After all, their family comes from a long line of Methodist preachers dating back seven generations to the 1790s. Ray was licensed to preach in 1939, only one year after graduating from Clark County High School in Grove Hill. After earning his degree from Huntington College in 1945 and receiving his full connection in the UMC, he continued on to pastor several congregations across Northwest Florida and Southeast Alabama.
It was while pastoring St. Mark Methodist Church in Montgomery—at the time of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott— that Ray’s understanding of God stood at odds with mainstream Southern culture. He served as president of the Montgomery Council on Human Relations, alongside Vice President Martin Luther King Jr., working to find a solution that would work for all involved.
“He was preaching that we were all God’s children and deserve respect,” David said. “When I talk to Dad now, he thought he did the right thing, taking the positions he did on racial issues, but it was hard on him and my mother. But he wouldn’t change it.”
Before long, Ray was labeled a liberal and a radical and transferred to a series of small country churches that didn’t particularly want a pastor of his reputation.
Sadler described his uncle as a pastor who was always “ahead of his time” and a “prophet” who was unafraid to tell the South how it needed to change.
“A few years ago, when he was in his early 90s, he spoke on the floor of the Annual Conference for full inclusion of gays and lesbians,” he said. “At that time, it was shocking!”
After leaving the pulpit altogether, Ray took a position with the UMC General Board of Pension where he played a critical role in convincing church leaders to fund their pension program.
“Every pastor should be grateful to him,” Sandler said. “It’s the difference between having a livable pension and not having a livable pension.”
David said his father has told him that he’s most proud of the work he accomplished at the Board of Pension.
“He’s a pastor, and he wanted pastors who devote their lives to the church to be taken care of,” he said. “He fought many battles.”
Sadler agreed, adding that the most important lesson he learned from his uncle was courage.
“He was always a man of principles,” he said. “The moral integrity he showed was his greatest gift to me.”

Alabama-West Florida Conference Task Force Reviews Initial Denominational Plans

published 8/28/2019

The Alabama-West Florida Conference Discernment Task Force met on Tuesday, August 27, 2019, at Greenville FUMC. This group had its inaugural meeting on July 16, 2019.
Since the first gathering in July, several denominational structure plans have come forth from various sources. The three working plans, thus far, are as follows. 
The Indianapolis Plan
UMCNext Proposal
Bard-Jones Strategy
The task force was divided into three teams to review the working plans. Each team was assigned a specific plan to review and was asked to comment on the following:

  • The strengths and challenges of the plan assigned;
  • How our annual conference would likely respond to the plan’s adoption by General Conference 2020;
  • How our local churches would likely respond to the plan’s adoption by General Conference 2020. 

The three aforementioned plans are a glimpse into potential legislation at General Conference 2020, which will be held May 5-15, 2020, in Minneapolis, MN. The legislation deadline for the upcoming conference is September 18, 2019. It is projected that these plans will continue to be modified until the deadline and new plans could emerge.
“Although it can be difficult to speculate on how General Conference 2020 will unfold, it is important to bring various theological perspectives to the table in our conference,” stated Bishop David Graves. “I feel that it will benefit our conference to project multiple scenarios so that we can properly lead the Alabama-West Florida Conference in the coming year. We ask for your prayers that we will arrive at a solution that will glorify God and enable us to reach people in the name of Jesus Christ.” 
The goal of the discernment task force is to have conversations that will provide guidance to potential strategic decisions that could come before the annual conference. The next meeting, under the direction of Dr. David Saliba of Perdido Bay UMC, will be in the fall after the legislation deadline has passed.

A Word from Bishop Graves

published 8/26/2019

We invite you to watch a video message update from Bishop David Graves. Click here to view. Click here to read transcript

You may also listen to this message as an audio-only podcast by clicking here, by searching for "AWFUMC Podcasts" on iTunes or in your preferred podcast player. We invite you to subscribe to these podcasts.

Fascinating Discussion Leads to General Conference 2020 Theme

published 8/16/2019
General Conference organizers chose “…and know I am God” as the theme of the 2020 United Methodist General Conference, but not before discovering the Psalm’s words and even its verse numbers vary by translation depending on the language.

Read about the fascinating discussion in this UM News Service report at

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