The Connecting Council voted to show support for a variety of mission projects, a fundraising plan for Camp Comeca and, perhaps most importantly, to support new churches during its spring meeting March 20 and 21 at East Heights United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas.
The council, which meets twice annually to conduct the business of the Great Plains Annual Conference between sessions, is comprised of 72 people, including conference staff members, the bishop’s cabinet, conference ministry team members and laity from all 17 districts in Kansas and Nebraska. It makes recommendations regarding budget, policies and ministry goals to the annual conference session.
During the spring meeting, council members first heard from Bishop Scott J. Jones about goals and principles identified by the Mission Alignment Team.
“We have goals we want to accomplish but do so in a responsible way,” the bishop said. “We want to hold the line on spending. As such, you will see in the budget that we have no new conference-level positions added for next year.”
The priorities cited come from the plan of organization for the conference, which among other things set missional priorities of supporting local churches, new church starts, leadership development and global mission partnerships in Haiti, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
To meet those goals, conference staff members and teams developed strategic plans in areas of ministries such as new church development, clergy excellence, vital congregations, mercy and justice, campus ministry, Hispanic ministries and Board of Ordained Ministries, among others.
“New Church Development, in particular, will require a significant financial commitment,” said the Rev. Evelyn Fisher, director of congregational excellence.
The plan, if adopted and supported over the next five years, calls for reallocating about $5 million of reserves to start as many as 20 new faith communities by the end of 2020.
“We have to identify and equip leaders capable of planting and leading these new faith communities,” Fisher said. She stressed that the funds would only be released as leaders are identified and new faith communities are established.
The Rev. Nancy Lambert, assistant to the bishop and director of clergy excellence, explained that the Clergy Excellence staff and the Board of Ordained Ministry have set goals to encourage clergy to continue journeys of lifelong learning via additional training and opportunities to learn and hone skills, particularly preaching, and to provide stability by setting a goal of keeping clergy in appointments for five years or more whenever possible.
Fisher and the Rev. Gary Beach, conference treasurer and director of administrative services, shared statistical comparisons from 2013 – combined numbers for the final year of the Nebraska, Kansas East and Kansas West conferences – and 2014, the first year for the Great Plains Conference. The numbers showed declines in professions of faith (7.2 percent), worship attendance (2.7 percent), membership (0.9 percent) and small groups (5.5 percent). However, people involved in missions rose by 13.9 percent to almost 56,000.
Among the more than 1,030 churches in the Great Plains Conference, 50 percent showed no professions of faith reported in 2014. Almost three-quarters did not conduct a confirmation class. But only 8 percent indicated they had no small groups.
The financial side of the Fast Facts document, however, showed a more positive trend. Total income in 2014 rose 6 percent from 2013 to more than $207.2 million. And the percentage that churches paid on apportionments for wider missions rose almost a full percentage point from 2013 to 2014 to 87 percent overall.
Beach said while the conference still has a goal of having 90 percent of its churches paying 100 percent of their apportionments, the conference did have about three-quarters of its churches doing so as of 2014.
“We do have a few churches who either lack the resources or, for some reason, lack the will,” he said.
The discussion on a budget recommendation for 2016 for this June’s annual conference session focused on new church development, recruiting and training new leaders, youth, and spending on missions both inside the United States and far beyond its borders.
“I think inspiring and growing campus ministry and inspiring and growing a number of new churches should be our goal,” Bishop Jones told the Connecting Council members. “Of course, that is dependent on the places and on finding gifted and talented people.”
Carl Nord, chairman of the Council on Finance and Administration, addressed the council by saying he was pleased with the budget proposal being made to the annual conference session because of the ministerial work it will provide for across the Great Plains Conference.
“Yes, we’re spending money,” Nord said. “But we’re spending money with a purpose.”
The council also voted to recommend to the annual conference session a fundraising program for Camp Comeca, located near Cozad, Nebraska. The camp needs to catch up on maintenance issues that have been delayed in recent years but boasts some of the best facilities among the Great Plains’ camps, with an indoor pool, basketball and volleyball gym, tennis courts, zip line, lake, and a variety of lodging and meeting spaces.
Bishop Jones shared the history of a Kansas program known as “Bridges to the Future” with the council, recounting how a significant fundraising and investment effort prior to the merger helped at least one Kansas camp and put it on a trajectory of not just surviving but now thriving.
In a 2015 budget matter, the Rev. Eric Ford, pastor at Wahoo (Nebraska) First United Methodist Church, explained that the small-membership church team is developing its own curriculum for Vacation Bible School that incorporates Bible lessons with cultural aspects from mission partners such as Haiti, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. In some cases, children from those countries will communicate with kids in the Great Plains via letters and online via software such as Skype. Teams of interns would travel the summer throughout the conference conducting the Bible school programs. The demand was high enough that the team wanted to add a second group of interns.
“We can touch the lives of more than 1,000 children this year in the Great Plains Conference,” Ford said. “Think about the impact that can have for just a moment.”
The council voted to support expenses of $24,200 to help fund the VBS program from the Missional Opportunities Fund. Other programs that received support for use of Missional Opportunities funds included pastoral interns and matching funds for a grant from the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR) to bolster intercultural competencies.
Another in the broad range of topics discussed was a report from the Episcopal Residence Task Force. Bishop Jones reiterated that it is highly likely the Great Plains will receive a new bishop following the 2016 South Central Jurisdictional Conference in Wichita. The task force’s duty was to evaluate where to place the episcopal residence. While the group studied residences in Omaha and Lincoln in Nebraska and Topeka, Wichita and Kansas City in Kansas, its final recommendation was to keep the primary residence in Wichita and maintain an apartment in Lincoln.
“The rationale for keeping both residences is that an incoming bishop will need to travel to become acquainted with both states,” the task force wrote in its report. “This will necessitate more travel in both states for at least several years. Providing for the bishop’s well-being is a prime objective for our conference.”
The council did amend a proposal from a team considering changes to district boundaries. The Connecting Council recommended to the annual conference session that the team continue to study boundaries and consider a reduction in the number from the current 17 and report back to the annual conference no later than 2018.
The next Connecting Council meeting is scheduled for Oct. 30-31.