It’s been a year since the Rev. Jeff Clinger was offered the position of director of congregational excellence for the Great Plains Conference, and seven months since he took over the job.
“I made the right choice when I said yes to (then-Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr.),” he said of his time so far. “Working with the congregational excellence team I was able to look at those leaders and people I really admire and respect, and it’s been an incredible gift to come along and work alongside them.”
The congregational excellence team at the conference is dedicated to providing training and resources to local congregations, and it oversees campus ministries, mercy and justice ministries and disaster response.
Clinger has seen an unusual amount of change for just seven months on the job, including a new episcopal leader (Bishop David Wilson replacing Bishop Saenz); the election of his office neighbor, the Rev. Dee Williamston as bishop, now serving the Louisiana Conference; the departure of Shane Warta as lay leadership development coordinator; and the shifting of camping ministries from under the congregational excellence team (Sara Shaw, who had been camping coordinator, left the conference Jan. 31).
He said he’s also working with churches still in a post-pandemic mode and other churches in various phases of discernment over disaffiliations.
But Clinger and his team have their focus set down the road — to 2050.
“For congregational excellence as a whole, we continue talking about what does the church of 2050 look like? Bishop Saenz had invited that reflection this spring and it’s language that’s really captured our imagination. 2050’s really not that far away. It’s now as far away as 1996 was,” he said.
“It’s gonna be the blink of an eye when we’re there,” Clinger added.
Clinger and his team see the key word for the church of the mid-century as diversity — not only in race, culture and gender, but thought and interaction.
“We see that in the Great Plains with clergy from across the world serving in different places,” he said.
“When I think about the future of congregations in the Great Plains, there are some that will probably primarily default to Anglo because of the demographics of the community. We’ll continue to have Hispanic congregations, African congregations, Korean congregations — but I also think a growing frontier for us is intentionally multiethnic, multiracial, even socioeconomically diverse congregations,” Clinger continued. “Because I think that’s what the kingdom of God looks like. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, and our neighbors are increasingly diverse. But that will take great work. It will not happen by accident.”
A veteran of 17 years in the pulpit — the last seven of which were as senior pastor of Topeka First UMC — Clinger said churches and clergy are already changing their perspectives for the future.
“I think the church of 2050, maybe today even, is less about the transmission of information — I can’t say anything in a sermon that people can’t find in Wikipedia, right? — … and more about the cultivation of transformation,” he said. “It’s about spiritual practices, spiritual communities. I think there’s a discipleship focus at its core that we have to figure out how to reclaim.”
Clinger said he was inspired by the Hope Together program, initiated by the Rev. Karen Rice Ratzlaff, Salina and Hutchinson districts superintendent and a former director with the Neighboring Movement, which promotes asset-based community development, what Clinger calls “the shift from scarcity thinking to abundance thinking.”
“Historically the conference has been ‘What are the needs of our churches and how do we who have expertise and resources provide what’s needed?’” he said. Now, the question is “what are the gifts that already exist in our local churches, communities and districts?” and “How can we as a conference be a connector of those resources rather than someone who comes in and tells people how to fix it?”
Clinger said he doesn’t envision making big changes to the congregational excellence team and its work, aside from adjusting the liaisons for the districts after the departures of Warta and Shaw.
“It seems to me we’re entering a season as a conference where we’re going to have the opportunity to redefine a lot — districts, networks, the way we provide support for that connection across the conference,” he said. “My hope is that we can continue to make life and leadership at the local church level more fruitful and life-giving for those leaders who are doing that ministry and the communities where they exist.”
Early in his time leading the team, he said during district tours this fall with Bishop Saenz, Clinger said he wanted to define what an excellent congregation is, which is “emotionally and spiritually healthy communities of Jesus followers on their mission together with God in all the places they live and work and play.”
He spoke to lay leaders throughout the conference about their needs, and the primary response was dealing with disaffiliations.
“I think there’s a lot of grief in the bigger connection around the disaffiliation stuff that’s happening,” he said. “There’s no program congregational excellence can offer for that.”
Congregational excellence staff members are praising Clinger.
"Jeff brings a new perspective to the team. Jeff cares deeply about the spiritual and emotional health of our team, church leaders, and churches,” said the Rev. Nicole Conard, young adult leadership and campus ministries coordinator. “We look forward to continuing to work into this vision.”
“Jeff desires for all of our congregations to be vital in their communities,” said the Rev. Hollie Tapley, disaster response coordinator. “He reflects deeply on the team’s perspective as we work to produce transformative resources and events for our congregations in the Great Plains Conference.”
Clinger succeeded the late Rev. Nathan Stanton, his longtime friend and colleague, as director of congregational excellence in July. Stanton died in March 2022, about 19 months after being diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Clinger, who turns 43 in mid-February, said he frequently thinks about Stanton and wants to keep his memory alive, while praising the team for its work during the transition from one leader to another.
“The congregational excellence team did really great work this spring. They did really good work, around their grief, and were ready to welcome me as the director,” Clinger said. “We say his name pretty regularly in our meetings, and it always feels like it was just right. For whatever reason we were able to create a space where nobody’s trying not to bring up his name because it would be hurtful for people to bring up their grief. There’s a space that feels very appropriate to remember Nathan.”
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