The Connecting Council heard details about what Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. learned during district meetings with clergy, updates on the conference’s justice initiative and more during its fall meeting Oct. 23 via Zoom video-conferencing software.
Bishop Saenz opened the meeting by sharing lessons churches have learned since the onset of the pandemic. Chief among those lessons: “Flexibility is not an option, it’s a must,” the bishop said. “And we learned we need to celebrate the church that we now have, not the church that we had.”
The bishop visited with pastors in 15 of the 17 districts in the Great Plains Conference in September and October, with a meeting coming up later in October with pastors in the Wichita East and West districts.
“Our churches always knew we needed to make changes, but the pandemic has forced us to make shifts that we knew were coming,” the bishop said.
He cited changes in how churches use social media and other forms of technology, as well as how churches measure attendance and vitality. He noted that many churches are reporting in-person attendance numbers of 40% to 60% of pre-pandemic numbers.
“Some are higher, but those are anomalies, not the norm,” the bishop said.
In his district meetings, Bishop Saenz led clergy in times of discussion on four questions:
What have been key events of the past 20 months?
Use a metaphor to describe the past 20 months. Some metaphors shared included juggling dangerous objects, driving with a broken GPS, being given a 500-piece puzzle with no picture and riding a roller coast.
What did pastors learn from things that went well and areas in which they struggled?
How will the experience of the past 20 months affect what they will do in the coming year?
“We learned we’re not in control,” Bishop Saenz said. “No matter how hard we try to set dates and start times, it’s all subject to what the pandemic is doing. So it’s really hard to plan in a disruptive world. We’ve learned we’re more resilient and innovative than we could have imagined.”
During the time of the pandemic, the bishop said he has gained clarity on what is needed for the conference to be successful. Those include embracing core values that guide behaviors and decisions, putting a strong focus on making disciples for Jesus Christ that change the world, and making strides to be a diverse, equitable and inclusive conference.
On that final point, the bishop shared the formation of the Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive (DEI) Task Force to foster improvement in the Great Plains Conference. Bishop Saenz noted that when The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968 with the unification of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church, about 36% of United Methodists were African-American. Now the number is less than 3%.
The Rev. Kathy Williams, coordinator of clergy development, is serving as chair of the task force, which met for the first time just days before the Connecting Council meeting. The task force will study appointment-making, salaries and more, and then it will make recommendations to the bishop.
Bishop Saenz said the pandemic and logistics involving technology overseas may force yet another postponement of the General Conference, which is the meeting of delegates from around the world who gather every four years to determine polity and other matters of the denomination. The 2020 regularly scheduled meeting was postponed due to the pandemic. Another attempt in 2021 was postponed. And the next attempt is set for late August and early September in 2022 in Minneapolis.
Bishop Saenz said he and others in conference leadership wanted to help churches discuss and discern their options for moving forward. So the conference has commissioned the Rev. Dr. Leah Schade — who led the 2021 Orders & Fellowship clergy gathering through a discussion process detailed in her book “Preaching in the Purple Zone” — and the Kettering Foundation to develop an issue guide to talk through the many aspects of the topic. Titled “Finding Our Path in The United Methodist Church: Can We Talk? What Can We Do?” the issue guide was developed after conversation with people on progressive and conservative sides, as well as many in between.
“The hope is that respectful and graceful conversation will undergird the church’s discernment on complex issues,” Bishop Saenz said.
Lay Leadership report
Lisa Maupin, conference lay leader, shared what churches are facing in what she called latest phase of the pandemic, and what laity needs amid those changes.
Maupin announced the next Laity Summit is being planned for an all-virtual meeting for Saturday, March 19. It will be the gathering’s third consecutive year.
“When we do things virtually, we can record them,” Maupin said. “We’re not devaluing in-person meeting. We’re doing this to make it more accessible.”
The theme is “Courage to Thrive.” Citing a need to have courageous conversations on a wide variety of subjects, Maupin said the featured speaker will be the Rev. Dee Williamston, director of clergy excellence and assistant to the bishop. The goal is to inspire people to thrive before allowing people to choose between a diverse set of workshops, with at least a dozen offerings for an anticipated audience of 250 to 300 people. Workshops scheduled so far include community organizing, youth ministry, evangelism, and difficult conversations. Registration is expected to open in January 2022.
“As a laity leadership team, we’re identifying things we’ve identified as gaps that we think we can fill,” Maupin said.
Such gaps include training lay leadership how to best do their jobs within the local church. The goal is to help lay leadership understand expectations, how to do their jobs well and tools they can use to be as efficient as possible in completing those tasks.
Maupin said the lay leadership team for the conference plans to venture throughout Kansas and Nebraska to meet with laity at some point in 2022. More details will be shared toward the first of the year.
Scott Brewer, conference treasurer and director of administrative services, reported that comparing financial statistics year-over-year has been challenging due to the pandemic and the many nuances necessary because of health restrictions.
“We are still up 1% from where we were in 2018,” Brewer said of mission shares paid by local churches. “That tells me we are on track for meeting the goal of 90% participation in 2021.”
Brewer noted the conference is seeing strong support from the largest apportioned churches, though there has been a slight decline among the smallest of churches.
He reported investments have done well in 2021, with a $3.1 million gain on investments so far this year.
Regarding the budget, Brewer reported spending is still down, particularly in travel and events-related costs. For example, annual conference expenses were down $28,000. That may allow for a price break of some kind for registration in 2022.
During his presentation, Brewer also thanked Niki Buesing, assistant treasurer and controller, for her more than 11 years of service to the conference. Buesing announced she is leaving in November to serve as chief financial officer for Nemaha Valley Community Hospital in Seneca.
One area of the conference budget that has seen increased expenses is legal fees. Brewer shared one topic for legal fees has been the Boy Scouts of America bankruptcy proceeding, which includes financial settlements from more than 84,000 claims of abuse nationwide. Brewer said the conference was working on behalf of the churches identified with goals not only of protecting churches but also to provide justice by compensating those who were harmed.
New conference office
Brewer provided an overview of the new conference office that is under contract in downtown Topeka. He anticipates having drawings to share from architects prior to Thanksgiving.
Brewer said the conference would pay $738,000 for the structure — about 65% of asking price and over $100,000 below the appraised value.
“What we’re really doing is buying a frame, and we will build a building within it,” Brewer said.
More details will be shared as they become available.
Clergy Excellence update
Williamston said the Clergy Excellence team is working to empower and equip pastors for the church of tomorrow.
She said her team’s goal is to cultivate clergy and leaders for faithful and flourishing ministry by developing, equipping and empowering today’s leaders for tomorrow’s church.
“We are in the church of tomorrow right now,” Williamston said.
Clergy renewal grants for as much as $3,000 have eight applicants so far, and the process is being developed. She said clergy well-being mini-grants are available for people who do not qualify for the larger grants so that more people could participate. Money can be used for such activities as retreats spiritual direction, coaching, the Center for Pastoral Effectiveness and other appropriate opportunities to promote clergy well-being.
Williamston said Orders & Fellowship 2022 will be in a new section of the Younes Conference Center in Kearney, Nebraska. Tim Wise, the author of “White Like Me” and “Dear White America,” will be the featured speaker.
Annual conference is scheduled for June 8-11 at the LaVista Conference in LaVista, Nebraska, just west of Omaha.
Doing Justice Initiative
The Rev. Sarah Marsh, Mercy & Justice ministries coordinator, invited staff members of Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) and Direct Action & Research Training (DART) to share where they are working and progress on the initiative.
Staff members introduced include:
Rachel Zatterstrom, project lead for the initiative with the Great Plains Conference for WORC. She is based in Montrose, Colorado.
Alina Lopez, Nebraska lead organizer for WORC, is based in Omaha.
Hannah Bohacek is working to build the initiative’s first local chapter for WORC, in Norfolk, Nebraska.
Ben MacConnell, is the lead organizer in the region for DART. He has been working on launching initiatives in Johnson and Wyandotte County in Kansas and in the Omaha area. He has prior experience with Justice Matters in Lawrence and Topeka Justice, Unity and Ministry Project (JUMP).
Aileen Ball, lead organizer for the Johnson County initiative for DART. She is based in Lawrence.
“The work that you have chosen to invest in through seed money is going forward in very exciting ways,” said Marsh, noting the seed money of $2.1 million over five years provided by the Great Plains Conference for the Justice Initiative in 2019.
She announced that the Kansas Health Foundation last week decided to partner with the conference by providing an additional $1.7 million over the next three years for initiatives in Sedgwick and Wyandotte counties. She credited Bishop Saenz; the Rev. Nathan Stanton, director of Congregational Excellence; and Rev. Dr. Tom Brady, Kansas City District superintendent ,with providing leadership to expand partnerships for the Justice Initiative in those communities.
Livestream platform and devotions
Todd Seifert, director of communications, shared information about a new livestream platform available for churches in the Great Plains Conference starting in November. The cost for churches will be about $20 per month, a significant savings from most other streaming platforms. Four churches will launch in early November, with as many as 40 others coming on board prior to the beginning of Advent.
Seifert said interested churches should complete a homework assignment to ensure they are ready to launch the service:
Audit their equipment to ensure they have the hardware necessary.
Determine if their budget yet in 2021 or early in 2022 can absorb purchase of necessary equipment the church doesn’t already have.
Audit their talent so at least three people can operate the equipment during worship to allow for illnesses, vacations and other absences.
Ensure they have a fast enough upload speed to allow for livestreaming.
Seifert also urged members of the Connecting Council to take part in providing daily devotions for the more than 3,000 subscribers of the free service. Participants need not be clergy. Each day’s devotion contains a scripture, a reflection of 150 to 350 words and a prayer. People can sign up to take part in providing a daily devotion by going to www.greatplainsumc.org/dailydevotions.