The 98 days between Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr.’s final town hall meeting and the opening of the special session of the General Conference focusing on human sexuality are becoming a time of study, debate and reflection for members of the Great Plains Conference.
More than 4,100 people attended the 18 town hall meetings, which took place from Aug. 25 to Nov. 17. In each meeting, Bishop Saenz shared details of the structure of the denomination and a history of its stance on LGBTQ issues, as well as outlining the three known plans – One Church, Connectional and Traditional – that will be discussed from Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis.
At Grand Island First-Faith United Methodist Church, discussion has focused on the books “Unafraid and Unashamed” by Will Cantrell, and “God and the Gay Christian” by Matthew Vines.
Rev. Trudy Kenyon Anderson, pastor of First-Faith, said about 20 percent of the average worship attendance has participated in the discussions.
“The dialog has been very healthy, and folk are appreciating the attentiveness to the issue before us,” she said. “The participants have consistently expressed a desire to be informed as their reason for
participating. Several have vocalized a change in their position that now leans toward full inclusion.”
The church council at Lenexa UMC in Kansas took an initiative to educate its members about the special session, with a plan created by a committee of four, including senior pastor, the Rev. Peggy Hillmon, from information on the Great Plains Conference website.
“We offered 11 small-group education sessions, taught by nine facilitators, over a three- week period, at various dates, times and locations, reaching 110 members,” said church council member Tammy Shepherd. “Four of the sessions were held in private homes, to encourage small-group discussion. We prepared members with potential decisions the local church might need to make after the special General Conference, depending on which outcome is approved.”
Shepherd said there will be more educational sessions after the special session, depending on its outcome.
At Valley Center First UMC, the Rev. Ji-Seok Ju will have two sermon series about the proposals in January, and will visit every Sunday school class to talk about them.
Manhattan College Avenue UMC has had discussions about the three proposals in an information-sharing session.
“We also spent time in this session sharing about the history of the issue in the UMC, the process followed by the UMC leading up to the General Conference, and information about the Great Plains delegation,” said the Rev. Dennis Ackerman, who also gives updates during worship services.
Speaking to the Great Plains Conference staff at its monthly briefing, Bishop Saenz said he was “grateful for the experience” of the town hall tour, particularly meeting new people and answering new questions at each stop.
Other bishops in the South Central Jurisdiction have had tours across their districts, but with far fewer districts those tours were shorter than in the Great Plains. Other bishops did answer questions, Bishop Saenz said, but their questions sometimes were vetted ahead of time while the Great Plains let the people ask questions from the floor of each town hall.
“I never knew what the person with the mic was going to ask,” he told the staff.
He said he saw people who wanted to “work for the unity of the church” with an “imagination for the future.”
“A lot of people are afraid” of the financial distress, an appearance of being unfaithful to God and what the community might think of the church’s decision, Bishop Saenz said.
“I want to be a spiritual leader of the people and to give the people hope in the midst of so much uncertainty,” he added.