Bishop announces structural changes to allow for stronger emphasis on mission field
Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. has announced a change in district superintendent appointments, with goals of fostering more peer-to-peer collaboration among clergy, empowering the laity to more fully participate in the sharing of the Wesleyan witness, and focusing ministry squarely on the mission field for each congregation.
The moves are meant to help the more than 1,000 Great Plains Conference churches innovate to focus on the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by leveraging the connectional strengths of the United Methodist Church within our geographic boundaries. The opportunity for a shift in the structure of superintendents arose in part as the result of the retirement announcements for the Rev. Kay Alnor and the Rev. Jim Akins, superintendents in the Great West and Hays districts, respectively.
Bishop Saenz has appointed the Rev. Cindy Karges, Gateway District superintendent, and the Rev. Eldon Davis, Elkhorn Valley District superintendent, to provide leadership to the Great West District. The Rev. Don Hasty, Dodge City District superintendent; the Rev. Dee Williamston, Salina District superintendent; and the Rev. Dennis Livingston, Hutchinson District superintendent, will provide leadership to the Hays District. The five district superintendents will oversee disciplinary processes and other responsibilities.
Alnor will retire June 30 after seven years of innovative and strategic development of a mutual-ministry model as a district superintendent. The model addresses the opportunities and challenges of the large western Nebraska region. Under her leadership elders, local pastors, deacons, certified lay ministers and lay leaders organize themselves into regional networks to encourage each other, share best practices and coordinate missional strategies. Numerous lay persons indigenous to the region have been trained as Certified Lay Ministers. These CLMs provide effective pastoral leadership for smaller, rural congregations and help ensure that the Wesleyan witness of making disciples that proclaim Christ, serve others and seek justice continues in vital and sustainable ways in western Nebraska.
The structural changes will build on the efforts in the Great West District.
“The lay and clergy makeup of the United Methodist Church have been given many gifts,” said Bob Cox, lay member of the Hays District Superintendency Committee. “Each of us has unique qualities which can be used to make a difference. The change in administrative structure of the districts leads to an opportunity to examine, re-examine and use those talents. The changes ahead offer an opportunity to help what we do well now be even better. We are called to participate. We are called to activity in our churches, in our communities and with our sister churches and communities.”
Livingston, the Hutchinson DS, said the mission-based, peer-to-peer model should deepen and multiply points of connection among clergy and congregations. He said the shift has the ability to transform the culture of the Great Plains so United Methodists in the region view the conference territory more as a cascade of connected mission fields and not siloed congregations spread across two states.
“Clergy will be connected in new ways that spread ministry and responsibility outward to other clergy and laity,” Livingston said. “Also exciting is that there is actually a plan taking shape, and the appointive cabinet has jumped fully on board. While we haven’t worked out the details – and there are many of those – we are seeing our way through the fog enough that we are ready to push forward.”
Davis, the Elkhorn Valley DS, said this shift to a mission-field-focused model hearkens to the churches recorded in Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 4:32-35.
“They met in people’s homes. They shared resources. They took care of widows and orphans,” Davis said. “This really is what the church is all about.”
Davis said the peer-to-peer component of sharing best practices and providing encouragement will allow the conference to tap into the experts the church already has.
“When I worked in the mental health field, when things would happen locally, the thinking was we needed an expert to come in. And you had to be from at least 120 miles away to be an ‘expert.’ But we often already had the expert there,” he said. “In this case we already have the expertise in our communities. And we already have the Holy Spirit working with us.”
Karges said one of the most exciting aspects of the mission-field model is the opportunity for churches to provide greater focus on the context of their ministries within their particular area while still recognizing the individuality of pastors.
“This combination provides an opportunity to better support churches and their pastors for fruitful ministry,” Karges said. “We know that as great as a particular program or approach is there is no ‘one size fits all.’”
Karges said using district superintendents and pastors strategically will provide churches with better resources to engage their mission fields in ways that best suit their particular situations.
“Tailoring structure and resources – material and human – allows us to not only maintain but strengthen our Wesleyan witness in communities of all sizes,” she said.
What this new model looks like in each community will depend on the needs of the mission field. Timing and strategy of when to roll out similar models to other districts will depend on a number of factors. Regardless, Bishop Saenz said pastors and laity will work together to enhance current ministries or launch new ones – each dependent on the context of the needs of their constituents and each focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ.
“We will do so by organizing ourselves for missional movement rather than institutional maintenance,” Bishop Saenz said. “We will foster and support peer-to-peer learning platforms, and church-to-church learning platforms will help us harness and accelerate the expansion of our Wesleyan witness throughout the Great Plains.”
Such a movement cannot be initiated by clergy alone, said Akins, the current Hays DS who has led conversations with clergy and lay leadership in the Hays District to reimagine ways to be a United Methodist witness and start a movement led by the ministry of baptized laity empowered by clergy.
“The true ministry of the church is not and should not be clergy-centered,” Akins said. “As we move to a mission-field focus in our appointments, laity will be led by clergy to step up in preaching, teaching, pastoral care, mission work and evangelism.”
Hasty agreed, citing the biblical principle of equipping the saints – or lay people – for ministry.
“This shift to a mission-field model excites me because it gives us the opportunity to help the church and lay people engage their mission fields more so than we have in the past,” Hasty said. “I think this will bring us into alignment with the purpose and vision of the conference, and we’ll be very intentional about making disciples.”
Williamston, Salina DS, said the shift will help the Great Plains Conference innovate by sharing ideas and by using the gifts and graces of United Methodists to foster a movement.
“I’m excited because I see this as an adventure, and we’re all on the journey together,” she said. “It may not be perfect at first, but God will lead us and equip us as we go.
“We will be at the ground floor with this model,” Williamston continued. “We will experiment with new things as we work together. In many ways, this is taking us back to our Methodist roots.”
Gains for Current Districts
All five superintendents who will help provide leadership in the Great West and Hays districts said they believed their added supervisory responsibilities will benefit their current districts as well.
“This will help us be more intentional about listening to one another,” Hasty said. “Working on a team of three in the Hays District will give me an opportunity to learn and reflect on what I do in the Dodge City District. That will make my ministry deeper and richer there through collaboration and the sharing of ideas.”
Those ideas then will be shared with other congregations in the conference so pastors and laity can discern how best to fulfill needs in their communities by understanding how similar issues have been addressed elsewhere.
“One of the most enjoyable and hopeful aspects of my time in the Gateway District has been to see and hear about the great ways United Methodists are serving,” Karges said. “Our churches are vital to our communities. I look forward to hearing and seeing how United Methodists in the Great West District are living out God’s call and claim upon their lives in their communities.
“We all have something to share,” Karges continued. “I believe as we move forward we will find ourselves inspired by the stories we share and hopeful about our future as God’s people called United Methodists in the Great Plains Conference.”
The Rev. Mike Rose, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Hays, Kansas, and chair of the Hays District Superintendency Committee, quoted Isaiah 43:18-19a: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See I am doing a new thing!”
“God is doing a new thing in the Hays District,” Rose said, “and my prayer is that we will see all the Hays District United Methodist Churches thrive.”
Strength in Connection
Bishop Saenz said the connectional structure of the United Methodist Church provides this opportunity to start a renewed ministry movement.
“The United Methodist Church has a good name, or brand, in our communities because of our ministries of healing, education, civic engagement, compassion, mercy and justice,” Bishop Saenz said. “We also have a horizontal and vertical connectional system that allows us to harness and concentrate our strengths and resources for greater collective impact for the transformation of lives, communities and the world. Above all that, we have gifted and talented laity with a wealth of knowledge, life experience, successful vocational careers and a love for Christ that compels them to serve God and their neighbors with joy.”
Bishop Saenz said even with the denomination’s strengths, this kind of missional movement in the Great Plains would not be possible without the gifts, graces and baptismal calling of laity.
“I have faith in the leadership capacity of our clergy to lead our congregations into the mission field to create pathways for people to encounter Christ and grow in the love of God, to proclaim Christ’s redemptive grace, to serve others – especially the poor – and to seek justice,” Bishop Saenz said. “I believe our Wesleyan theology and heritage – along with the power of the Holy Spirit – provide us with an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of thousands of people across the Great Plains Conference. Adelante! (Forward!)”
Todd Seifert is communications director for the Great Plains Conference. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @ToddSeifert.