A week after the Great Plains Conference approved the disaffiliations of 156 churches in Kansas and Nebraska in an online business session, clergy and lay members were ready to mold the future during the in-person portion of annual conference, at the La Vista Convention Center in La Vista, Nebraska, an Omaha suburb.
“Clay in the Hands of Our Creator” was the theme of this year’s annual conference, with Wanda Jackson with Centering Souls Retreat at Parksville, Missouri, at the potter’s wheel in front of the stage throughout many of the plenary sessions.
Opening his first annual conference as episcopal leader, Bishop David Wilson reprised the themes of his installation sermon, talking about how pottery can be both decoration and functional.
“My friends, in this room alone is a great wealth of talented and gifted people,” the bishop said. “However, there is also a wealth of talent and gifts that is going unused for the kingdom of God not just in this room, but across the Great Plains Annual Conference.
“God has gifted us all with various gifts to be used to transform lives and this world,” he later added. “Some of us have been given opportunities to do so and others have not, for whatever reason.”
Despite the loss of churches, the conference — numbering more than 750 congregations after the recent disaffiliations and closings – is excited for the future, Bishop Wilson said.
“They are excited to see what God will do through us in the days ahead,” he said. “We are ready to put this chapter of our lives behind us and to ‘get into the best’ as Paul writes.”
Scott Brewer, director of administration and chief of staff, said during his report that he has felt energized by the annual conference and was excited about the future.
“I want to build,” Brewer said. “I want to build a church where all are welcome and all are changed. I want to build a church filled with such joy and grace we cannot help but share it with everyone we meet. I want to build a church where we seek justice for all God’s children. I want to build a church that’s filled with children.
“I want to build a church where we love one another, trust one another, where we are accountable to one another,” he continued. “And I want to build that church with you, not the one of building and steeple we have meetings about, the one with all kinds of people that we sing about.”
The church of 2050 has been a focus of the Rev. Jeff Clinger, congregational excellence director, since his appointment began in July.
“To be clear, I have no crystal ball, but there are some things we can know,” Clinger said. “2050 will be here before we know it, and the question for us is if we’re going to be intentional about being the church of 2050, or are we just going to wake up in 2050 and go, ‘Ohmigosh, here we are.’”
Clinger led a session on the church of 2050, and some of the most moving testimony came from the youth he invited to the lectern.
“We want to have fun. We want God to love us, and we want to love God,” said Zander Seth, 18, Lyndon, Kansas, president of the Conference Council on Youth Ministries. “In 2050 we want to focus more on including all people. … We’re going to continue to focus on social justice and activism. … We’re going to continue to focus on community engagement.
“We’re not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and as 2050 nears closer, we’re going to be able to do so, so much,” he added. “If we push away the next generation, will there be a church of 2050?”
Isaac Langley, a teenager from Topeka, told the audience that he grew up Southern Baptist, where being gay was not discussed and women held no position of power beyond nursery coordinator. That changed when he and his family started attending Topeka First UMC.
“It was the most eye-opening experience I’d ever had, going from this very, very, very conservative church to The United Methodist Church, which is really open. Just seeing gay people and LGBTQ people in the church as well,” he said. “I have so much hope for the future of The United Methodist Church. I am very excited to see what happens in the future.”
Emma Yeon, a youth from Paola UMC, added: “No matter what, the leadership we’re going to have in 2050 is going to be able to allow us to grow with the church and be able to spread the love of Jesus to everyone.”
A record number of 50 elders — 24 ordinands and 26 commissioned, including 10 deacons — were ordained and commissioned in services on Friday night.
“The Great Plains Conference is so blessed to have such a committed, diverse group of women and men who have been on this sometimes-tumultuous journey to be ordained,” Bishop Wilson said.
In an online special session a week earlier, the conference overwhelmingly approved the disaffiliations of 156 churches and the closings of 10 others.
During the in-person session, Great Plains Conference clergy and laity rejected both a petition and a resolution that would have extended the deadlines for disaffiliation.
The conference had set an April 30 deadline, but the petition and the resolution wanted it extended to the end of 2023 and following the 2024 General Conference, respectively.
The conference did pass resolutions that supported the creation of a regional conference that would encompass the United States separately from the rest of the denomination; and prohibit membership on boards, councils and committees when immediate family members serve on boards, committees or councils to which a conference employee is accountable.
The 2024 conference budget of $15,124,101, a decrease of about $672,000 or 4% from the 2023 budget, was approved Saturday morning.
Rev. Amy Lippoldt, president of the conference Council on Finance & Administration, said half of the mission shares from disaffiliated churches, about $552,000, would be included in the '24 budget.
Earlier, Lippoldt said CF&A had approved $500,000 for the conference congregational excellence department to provide support for churches and individuals whose congregations had been split by disaffiliation votes.
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