With dreams of joining her husband on months-long, cross-country trips, the Rev. Nancy Lambert will retire from the Great Plains Conference at the end of June.
“We’ve always talked about traveling across the United States, getting to see places we haven’t been able to drive to. We’re hoping to spend some time traveling while we are both still healthy,” said Lambert, 65, who has been director of clergy excellence and assistant to the bishop of the conference since 2013.
Her husband, the Rev. Dale Lambert, retired from ministry in 2016. They have lived in Topeka since the conference offices were consolidated in 2018. Both of their sons live in the Denver area.
Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. said Lambert has always excelled as assistant to the bishop, clergy excellence director and as a member of the appointive cabinet.
“Nancy brings a high degree of commitment and excellence to each of those roles,” Bishop Saenz said. “She’s very prudent in following through on all of her commitments to whatever she has planned to do.”
The bishop describes Lambert as very persistent and extremely loyal.
“There’s nothing that I ask Nancy to do that she doesn’t do and exceed expectations with,” he said.
Bishop Saenz said he hopes to name a successor to Lambert by the end of March.
“She has a very easygoing spirit,” he said. “She works hard, and she is very driven, but she enjoys what she does. When you look at Nancy, (her job) doesn’t seem burdensome. She produces enormous amounts of work and high-quality work.”
Eight years ago, Nancy and Dale Lambert were so entrenched in their ministries in Nebraska — she in Minden, he in Holdrege — that they informed the Rev. Alan Davis, then Gateway District superintendent, to not even consider them for clergy moves.
“Leave us alone, just forget about it,” she recalled telling Davis about Minden, where she had served for four years.
She didn't know her name was being discussed by Bishop Scott Jones, who had shortly before added the then-Nebraska Conference to his episcopal area, in a cabinet meeting.
“Alan had arranged to meet with Dale and I,” she recalled of the nerves-inducing meeting, “which we knew was not a good sign.”
Meeting at their home in Minden, Davis told the couple to expect a call from Bishop Jones, asking if she would be interested in a new position — director of clergy excellence and assistant to the bishop — for the Nebraska Conference and the soon-to-be-formed Great Plains Conference.
“I love where I’m at. I love ministry. I love working in the local church,” Lambert said. “It was a hard decision.”
Aside from a visit to their district and serving on a large committee with him, Lambert wasn’t very familiar with Bishop Jones at the time.
“Why do you think I’m the right person?” she asked him, and was told it was because she was well-read, believed in lifelong learning, respected by her peers and was supportive of the transition to make way for the new Great Plains Conference.
She agreed a few days later and that July moved to the Lincoln office while Dale was reappointed to Seward UMC.
As the first director of clergy excellence, Lambert worked with the bishop to write her own job description.
“I hadn’t thought about how the challenges of this position could really be so rewarding,” she said.
The Rev. Mitch Reece, district superintendent of the Wichita East and West districts and dean of the cabinet, said Lambert has represented the pastors well.
“She’s always been an advocate for clergy improvement and helping give clergy what they need to be successful in their field,” he said.
The second of four daughters of a county extension agent and his wife, Lambert grew up in Battle Creek, Nebraska, then moved halfway through her high school years to Concord, graduating from Laurel High School in 1973.
Active in her church but never seeing any female pastors, she had never considered pursuing ordained ministry.
“I never explored that as a call in high school because I didn’t know it was a possibility,” she said.
She attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to study home economics education, and as a freshman became involved in the campus’ Wesley House campus ministry and attracted the attention of a senior named Dale Lambert.
After marrying in 1974 and transferring to the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Nancy spent two years as a high school home economics teacher, leaving the job to raise the first of their two sons. She and Dale owned a hardware and appliance store for four to five years before Dale started seminary at the Methodist Theological School of Ohio.
Lambert saw her future and wasn’t pleased.
“I didn’t find myself fitting well into being a clergy spouse,” she said. “There were some congregations he was serving that had expectations of a clergy spouse, and I said, ‘Nah, that’s not me.’”
How would she relate to the church now that her husband was a pastor, she asked herself.
“I started a real discernment process,” she said.
Eight years after her husband entered seminary and four years after he graduated, Lambert entered Saint Paul School of Theology.
She was gratified that even her family saw her gifts and graces.
“My mom said something to the effect of ‘When you told us Dale was going into seminary, we thought it would be you,’” she recalled.
As a student pastor, her first assignment was at Rulo Trinity UMC, sharing a two-part charge with her husband who served at Falls City First. She then spent seven years as an associate at Grand Island Trinity before being appointed to Minden.
Reece said Lambert’s experience makes her an “ambassador for all the various sides of the church.”
“I really find Nancy is working for the best of all involved,” he said.
A top priority for Lambert and the rest of the staff in 2013 and 2014 was uniting United Methodists in the former Nebraska, Kansas East and Kansas West conferences into one as the Great Plains.
“We had to build trust,” she said. “If somebody suggested a Nebraska church be filled by somebody in Kansas, that Nebraska DS had to put a lot of trust in these new colleagues that they didn’t really know very well. There were a lot of ways in what which that trust was formed in the first three years.”
Starting to disregard state lines and seeing a growing number of pastors moving from one state to another helped build unity and shaped the conference, she said.
“We really worked to not care about where you were,” she said. “There are still divisions between those two states, but we’ve worked hard to say that those don’t matter.”
She credits Bishop Jones, now the leader of the Texas Conference, with the beginnings of that concept.
“Bishop Jones had to unite us and form us and work with us when we were still thinking as Nebraska, Kansas East and Kansas West,” she said. “How do you move beyond that separateness in order to become a unified organization?”
The arrival of Bishop Saenz in 2016 made for a logical second chapter in the Great Plains’ story, she said.
“I really admire the vision that Bishop Saenz has brought to us,” she said. “Bishop Saenz has initiated some changes that weren’t always comfortable for us to go through but thinks logically and strategically and having systems in place that help us keep track of information.”
As assistant to the bishop, Lambert is a liaison between the cabinet and the episcopal leader. It also means a long list of duties including odds-and-ends tasks such as transporting the bishop to the airport.
The initial instruction from Bishop Jones was simple: “Always make me look good,” she said.
“Sometimes that meant to tell him to comb his hair at conference,” she said with a laugh. “But it was about making sure the bishop was never blindsided because he didn’t know something.”
Both bishops have used her as a sounding board to process ideas and recommend ways to move forward.
“Bishop Jones told me I never had permission to tell him ‘I don’t know,’” she said. “If he asked me a question, he wanted to know what I was thinking.”
Bishop Saenz says he always knows that Lambert is watching out for him, professionally and personally.
“I would have accumulated a great list of lost-and-founds if not for Nancy,” he said with a laugh, counting robes, stoles and books that she has gathered after he left meetings. “She helps me acquire some of the things I have shed along the way.
“Nancy is always making sure I have everything I needed to do the work.”
Lambert is proud of the organizational skills she says are necessary to do her job.
“There are many different things that take planning and organization and even thinking time,” she said. “You’ve got to balance a lot of balls in the air at the same time and try not to drop any of them.”
She is the point person in planning the annual conference sessions, which are the result of nine to 10 months of preparation, and the annual Orders & Fellowship clergy gathering, which takes six to seven months. (While Orders & Fellowship will be virtual this year, the annual conference is scheduled to be in-person, May 27-29, in Grand Island.)
“I don’t consider myself a strong lover of administration, but there is a lot of administration in the position, so at any given time there are a lot of things happening on my calendar,” Lambert said.
Lambert said she is proud of the collaboration that’s taken place between hers and other departments in the conference, as well as working with Bishop Saenz in determining the direction of the conference.
“It’s been fun to be part of that process — I never thought I’d say it was ‘fun’ to do that,” she said.
Lambert also has worked closely with clergy entering the conference as a second profession and those coming from outside the two-state area, including many foreign-born pastors.
She said she was proud of advancements made by clergy excellence, including several retreats that help pastors organize, plan and rest.
“I think we’ve done some things that have been important for clergy in the conference. I hope so,” she said. “We hope that what we’re doing helps clergy be healthy and to be well-rounded as they lead. I think we’ve hit the mark some times and failed some times. But we’ve hit the mark on most of those.”
Lambert said she is proud of her team: the Rev. Karen Jeffcoat, Board of Ordained Ministry registrar; the Rev. Ashlee Alley Crawford, clergy recruitment and development coordinator; the Rev. Kathy Williams, who joined the staff Jan. 1 as clergy development coordinator; and administrative assistants Julie Kohr and Heather Clinger.
“Our team has just really worked well together. We’ve had fantastic administrative support for Ashlee, Karen and myself, and just being able to be visionary about what it means to work toward clergy excellence in our conference,” she said. “One of the things we really strive for is to develop things — whatever it is that we’re working on — that becomes something that is so great that other conferences want to copy what we do.
“We try to have high-quality events and products and resources that we create that which others can draw on and recognize that we really have lived up to our name of being Great.”
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