The last time Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. led a gathering in Salina, the largest crowd of his town hall tours – 375 people – became contentious at times in October when discussing the special session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church regarding human sexuality issues.
But in the first of 10 planned regional gatherings across the Great Plains Conference, March 8 at Salina First UMC, the 115 people attending were more in a spirit of cooperation for the future of United Methodists.
“Today, we’re going to talk about what we agree with,” Bishop Saenz said at the onset. “This is a different meeting.”
Bishop Saenz gave an overview of the decisions made at the Feb. 23-26 special session in St. Louis, including the vote to adopt the Traditional Plan, which retains the denomination’s stance on LGBTQ ordination and officiating at same-sex weddings.
“Regardless of what happened in St. Louis, our core values are not compromised,” the bishop said.
He said the sometimes-heated debate at the special session was not reflective of the church that he knows.
“You did not see the best of who we are as a people,” Bishop Saenz said. “We have taken a hit in social media and media outlets.”
Bishop Saenz called the results a “trauma to the body” of the United Methodists.
“As a body, we have bruised each other,” he said. “Now is a time for healing.”
The 10 meetings throughout the conference were scheduled before the special session, the bishop said, anticipating disagreement from proponents of plans that did not pass the General Conference.
“This was a train wreck waiting to happen,” Bishop Saenz said. “I knew there were people who were going to be disappointed.”
The regional gathering began with prayer and a hymn and ended with communion. In between were two videos about the missions of the church. Discussions took place at every table about the strengths of the church and the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Jeff Graber, a licensed local pastor serving Marquette UMC, said the meeting “refocused” him.
“It changed my focus toward serving the community rather than dwelling on the issues of the United Methodist Church,” he said.
Graber said he experienced “shock, a little bit of disappointment and confusion” about the decision at the special session, as well as “how to move forward with my congregation.”
Discussions at his church, Graber said, have been plentiful.
“Our ties are very strong at Marquette UMC,” he said.
Jack Stueve, a member of Olpe Ebenezer UMC, said he appreciated the information and the discussion.
“I think it’s always good to get together and learn first-hand what takes place,” he said. “I think it always helps to talk and get other peoples’ views.”
The Rev. Geniese Stanford, pastor of Salina University UMC, said she enjoyed participating in — rather than leading — worship, and the conversation around her table regarding General Conference.
Stanford, in her fourth year at Salina University, said more work needs to be done in hers and other churches.
“We’re focused on the same mission we were focused on before, which is ‘Love God, love all,’” she said. “Now we just have to witness even more.”
The next meetings are March 23 at Columbus, Nebraska, UMC, and March 24 at Omaha St. Andrew’s UMC. The complete schedule of the meetings is here.
David Burke, communications content specialist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.