The Rev. Jeff Clinger says that getting the call to become the Great Plains Conference’s director of congregational excellence was “absolutely unexpected” and that he was “incredibly humbled” to receive the appointment from Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr.
Clinger, who turned 42 on Valentine's Day, has been the senior pastor at Topeka First United Methodist Church since 2015. He succeeds the Rev. Nathan Stanton, who is stepping aside from the position after a diagnosis of ALS in August 2020.
“The cabinet and I spent much time in prayer, discussion, evaluation, and discernment of candidates for the director of congregational excellence before Jeff was determined to succeed Nathan Stanton,” Bishop Saenz wrote in an email. “The more we prayed, discussed, and discerned, the clearer we became that Jeff was the right person for the position.”
Those criteria were shared with Clinger when Bishop Saenz approached him about serving in this new role.
“I looked at the list and thought, ‘OK, I check a whole lot of those boxes. I have a whole lot of those experiences and personality traits,’” Clinger said.
The congregational excellence team provides resourcing for ministries associated with mercy and justice, disaster response, camping, lay leadership, campus ministries, and intergenerational discipleship, among other ministries.
Clinger, who takes the new role when the appointment year begins July 1, said he’s been a longtime admirer of Stanton, and as a member of the Vital Congregations team in the conference since 2014, got to see much of his predecessor’s work in action. Stanton added the duties of congregational excellence leader to the work he was already doing in new church development.
“I thought, what a gigantic ask to get one person to do all this work,” Clinger recalled. “And then he just excelled at it. His grace and his humor and his rock-solid, steadfast demeanor just did incredible work.”
When Stanton, whom Clinger considers a close friend, received the diagnosis and would inevitably need to step aside, “I thought ‘What gigantic shoes to fill’ and ‘What a daunting task it will be for someone to follow him,’” Clinger recalled.
Clinger said he’s been impressed with his dealings with the congregational excellence staff as a pastor.
“I’ve been able to watch them do excellent work over the past couple of years, and I’m excited about stepping into a deeper relationship with them in this position,” he said. “I’m really excited to work with that team of excellent, faithful humans doing excellent ministry.”
An Overland Park native who moved to Tonganoxie at age 8, Clinger said he considers Lawrence First UMC his home church and was grateful for the guidance from the Rev. Dr. Virgil Brady, the church’s pastor, and Revs. Mitch and Jan Todd, his youth leaders at the time.
Clinger earned a bachelor’s degree in religion from Nebraska Wesleyan University and a master’s of divinity from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. After several years at churches in Indiana, he returned to the Great Plains as an associate pastor at Church of the Resurrection and pastor at churches in Easton, Leavenworth Southern Heights and Tonganoxie.
He became pastor at Topeka First in 2015, being told by the Rev. Kay Scarbrough, his district superintendent at the time, that the church had a longing to become more missional.
The church did not have a mission team at the time, Clinger said, and a lay group formed to drive more outreach for the church.
“I am proud of creating the space and facilitating the emergence of that,” he said.
That group has since grown, Clinger said, to become a model of the church in the 21st century, reaching out thanks to the Good Neighbor Experiment to its part of the capital city. One of its earliest efforts — “Cocoa, Cookies and Carols” following Topeka’s Christmas parade — was moved to Evergy Plaza and expanded thanks to the work of the laity, he said.
“We can be in mission in all those places where we work and live and play,” he said.
Clinger’s wife, Heather, is administrative assistant for the clergy excellence team at the conference office in Topeka. They have two children: Hannah, 13; and Joshua, who turns 10 later this month.
Bishop Saenz said he was expecting great accomplishments from Clinger and the congregational excellence team.
“Jeff is at the generational age that understands and connects with the generations ahead and behind him,” the bishop wrote. “His pastoral experience and insights will benefit the cabinet with support strategies that will help increase the number of vital congregations and new faith communities throughout our conference.”
The world and the church have changed because of COVID-19, the bishop said, and hybrid churches are a necessity for worship and mission.
“Jeff will do bridge-work,” Bishop Saenz said. “His primary task will be to resource existing churches and laity with the tools and resources for fruitful ministry – and to help us prepare the church of tomorrow for the next socially aware, diverse, hyper-connected, tech-savvy, tech-immersed, digital ‘screen-ager,’ spiritual-but-not-religious generation.”