With a record number of retirees this year – more than 55 – the Great Plains Conference has worked to fill the vacancies in several ways.
Among them is a new influx of international pastors. Of the the new pastors this year, four are from South Korea, four are from the Congo and three are from Kenya.
“Our conference is very open to receiving international pastors,” Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. said. “A lot of conferences shut the door to international pastors. They don’t want them. They don’t want international pastors or ethnic pastors, because they create an appointive challenge. Does the pastor have the bandwidth to minister to all people, or just a certain segment of the appointive churches?”
Bishop Saenz calls the foreign-born clergy – about 90 pastors, nearly 12% of the Great Plains – “transcendent” in their ministry.
“They come with high levels of education – many of them are Ph.Ds and professionals – and they have a value system that really resonates with a lot of our congregations,” the bishop said. “Congregations love them, they receive them, they’re heartbroken when they get reappointed. Our congregations also provide a welcoming place for them.
“I believe it’s a mutual benefit,” he added.
The appointments that take place this summer are a result of a vetting process that began last fall, Bishop Saenz said.
Online interviews take place with a panel that includes district superintendents, Board of Ordained Ministry members and laity.
“They get asked questions and then they’re sorted out,” Bishop Saenz said.
Those with strong applications, good interview results and transcripts and good marks on a video sermon are approved.
A major consideration is the candidate’s grasp of the English language.
“When they get appointed to a local church, can they speak clearly in a way parishioners can understand?” Bishop Saenz asked.
The Rev. Nancy Lambert, assistant to the bishop and director of clergy excellence, said that language skills are taken into account for a variety of situations.
“When they submit a sermon video, we see how they present themselves in preaching moment,” Lambert said. “But sometimes their English is different in the preaching moment than in one-on-one conversations.”
Lambert said that those who pass the initial interview are given a biographical questionnaire, including their understanding and experience with baptism and holy communion.
“It kind of gives us a feel for whether they’re going to be in line with the broad range of theology we have in our churches,” she said.
About half of the applicants are approved after the vetting process, Lambert said.
Bishop Saenz said it is often the foreign-born pastors who are already established in the Great Plains who bring their colleagues to Kansas and Nebraska.
“As a matter of fact, it is the presence of our international pastors here who communicate opportunities to their friends in Africa and South Korea,” he said. “They then become kind of the pipeline to connect their ministerial colleagues to opportunities here in the Great Plains Conference.”
The experiences by international pastors is not always positive, the bishop said.
“Some have experienced racism, especially (their) children in schools, which has created tension, and some of them seek to move for the sake of their children,” Bishop Saenz said. “Oftentimes they’re in places where they’re the only racial or ethnic person in their school.”
Overall, the bishop said, churches have been “very welcoming and very supportive of our foreign pastors.”
“They’re a key component to our appointive strategy, as well as CLMs (certified lay ministers) and DSAs (district superintendent assignments). Without them, we couldn’t be able to provide pastoral leadership in many of our rural communities,” the bishop said. “We are grateful for their leadership, their gifts and their graces.”
Bishop Saenz said he doesn’t feel like there is competition with other conferences for the international pastors.
“Most of our competition is really at the seminarian level. Most of our seminarians do return back the Great Plains Conference,” the bishop said. “(The Rev.) Ashlee Alley (Crawford, clergy recruitment and development coordinator) has done a fantastic job of recruiting for us and keeping track of seminarians for the conference. I think that’s very important to maintain that connection. When a seminarian is out there, they want to feel the support and the concern and the presence of the conference.”
Lambert said next year’s class of seminarians from the Great Plains is expected to be larger than the number that graduated this year.
Bishop Saenz said the Great Plains cabinet has done admirable work in filling the other vacancies because of retirement.
“We’ve had several churches move to less than fulltime,” he said. “Because of that we had to yoke churches that were formerly fulltime with another church, so that it requires one clergy instead of two.”
A number of associate pastor positions in larger churches have been discontinued, the bishop added, and many of the retirees were from extension ministries.
“Although the number seems to be overwhelming, once you start differentiating the different classification, the number of pulpit pastors is low,” he said.
Lambert said she expected another large number of retirements in 2020.
“It’s not going to slow down,” she said.
Although very few of the retirees made their decision after the special session of the General Conference in February, Lambert said the debate about LGBTQ issues may have played a factor.
“I’m sure there are some who are choosing to retire because they’re tired of having of continually having conversations around human sexuality,” she said. “They’re just tired of dealing with it. But that’s happened every year for several years.”