The Great Plains Conference’s Connecting Council considered what it means to be a “great church,” discussed budget reductions amid the denomination’s tumultuous times, the possibility of a special-called annual conference session in 2020, a plan for disaffiliation of churches, and recommended a social-justice initiative during the council’s busy two-day meeting Oct. 19-20 in Topeka.
“We’re being real intentional about building community because that’s what is going to keep us together going forward,” Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. told the group comprised of representatives from the 17 Great Plains districts, various committees and cabinet members tasked with making decisions between annual conference sessions. The bishop was speaking in terms of district meetings with clergy he has been conducting throughout Kansas and Nebraska, but a similar theme held for the topics discussed across ministry areas during the Connecting Council’s annual fall gathering.
The Rev. Nathan Stanton, director of congregational excellence, shared the results of discussion and focus groups related to what the conference calls “greatness profiles.” These are traits and descriptions meant to help local congregations determine if they are living into the Great Plains’ vision of “Great Churches. Great Leaders. Great Disciples. Transformed World.”
“As we looked to the future, how are we going to continue to utilize this vision so that it empowers and resources local churches, networks and districts?” Stanton asked as an introduction.
The profiles group churches by size:
The process began with conference ministry-area directors and staff brainstorming traits and definitions for great churches, leaders and disciples in each of those four sizes of churches, recognizing the larger the church, the larger the expectations and capacities for ministry. Conference staff then looked at how those three categories could shape a transformed world.
Stanton explained that groups of pastors and laity within the four sizes of churches were brought together for video-conferencing focus groups to provide feedback on traits that should be added, amended or removed.
“The next part for us as conference staff is to use this as a guide as to how we resource every size of congregation,” Stanton said. “We also believe it provides congregations something close to a roadmap to see what it means to be a great church or to develop great disciples. And it may give you information to help you aspire to reach the next level up.”
Scott Brewer, conference treasurer and director of administrative services, provided an update on mission share payments provided by local churches. He explained how a remarkably consistent payout percentage in the past — plus or minus 2% fluctuation year-over-year,
month-to-month since the formation of the conference in 2014 — had changed dramatically amid the tension the denomination is facing over human sexuality and congregations choosing to withhold funds due to disagreement over the passing of the Traditional Plan during the 2019 special session of General Conference.
Mission share payout as of the end of September in 2018 was 62.5% but was only at 49.7% at that point this year.
As a precaution, Brewer explained, the conference’s Council on Finance and Administration (CF&A) asked conference directors to amend the 2020 spending plan to factor in a mission shares payout at both the 80% and 70% levels.
“I want to be clear that CFA was not in panic mode, but they believed it would be prudent to talk about adjustments to the spending plan we approved at annual conference,” Brewer said.
At an 80% payout, the conference budget would need to be reduced by just more than $1 million. At a 70% payout, the budget would have to be reduced by more than $2 million. Brewer explained that at the 80% level, unfilled positions likely would be left vacant, and programmatic and administrative spending would be cut by the following amounts:
If the conference is required to hit a 70% payout budget goal, at least nine staff positions would have to be cut, along with larger percentages across the board in the programmatic and administrative areas listed above.
The 80% payout plan is being honed and will be shared with the conference’s Mission Alignment Team at an upcoming meeting. The Connecting Council will meet via a video conference call later this fall to adopt the final, amended spending plan so that it can go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.
Brewer said one silver lining to the 80% plan is that it helps the conference more fully live in to 10% tithe paid by each church, which is the conference’s mission shares formula. He explained that the conference utilizes money earned from invested CF&A reserves to augment its operating budget each year, from 9.8% of the operating budget in 2015 to 7.1% in 2018. The 80% spending plan would set the conference on a course to be weaned off of the investment income by 2023, meaning that money then could be used to invest in local churches and districts.
“The thing I think is really exciting is that we can ask ourselves each year, what are those reserves for?” Brewer said. “We can make investments in ministry instead of using those funds for operating costs.”
Bishop Saenz said he is strongly considering a special session of the annual conference for sometime in September. He said the regularly scheduled General Conference, set for May 5-15, 2020, in Minneapolis, will conclude a mere 12 days before our scheduled annual conference session in Topeka. He expressed concern that the short time frame between the denomination’s worldwide meeting and the annual gathering of United Methodists in Kansas and Nebraska would leave little time to process the General Conference’s decisions on human sexuality and other subjects.
“There is a lot of anxiety about 2020, as you can imagine,” Bishop Saenz said. “It seems there will be a new form of Wesleyan witness out of this. But whatever the case, we are going to come out of General Conference and have our annual conference two weeks later. So, there will be a lot of raw emotion. It is likely that there will be a lot of tension, anxiety and anger on both sides.”
Bishop Saenz said he anticipates the regularly scheduled annual conference session would be shortened by a day, starting Thursday instead of Wednesday, and concluding by noon Saturday. That meeting will be in the Stormont Vail Events Center (formerly the Kansas Expocentre) in Topeka, as previously scheduled. It will contain worship, the episcopal and laity addresses, the clergy and laity sessions, a time to process what transpired in Minneapolis, resolutions not tied to the General Conference, the ordination service and the fixing of appointments.
The bishop said a second, special session likely would be in Nebraska at a to-be-determined date and location, with worship, reports from ministry areas, resolutions tied to General Conference and the adoption of the 2021 budget.
“We’ll know by then what our budget impact will be like,” the bishop said of a September conference. “Whatever comes out of General Conference may bleed over into the Jurisdictional Conference in July, such as the number of bishops and other matters. We just don’t know at this point. This special session would give us space to think about these important topics.”
Brewer shared the process the conference Board of Trustees has enacted for churches that want to disaffiliate from the denomination.
“You have a really good group of Trustees,” Brewer told the Connecting Council. “They come from very diverse backgrounds and affinities. But what is consistent among all of them is a desire to continue to do ministry on the other side of whatever is coming.”
The special session of General Conference had passed a disaffiliation process in February, but allegations of improper voting from some delegates left a key vote in that legislative process in doubt, prompting the United Methodist Commission on General Conference to declare the vote void. That means each conference must have its own process until a new one is put in place, likely during the upcoming 2020 General Conference.
The conference’s Trustees have determined the following payments must be made for a church to disaffiliate:
Brewer said that while it is purely speculation, he believed it was highly likely that churches that want to leave will benefit by waiting until after the 2020 General Conference. And churches that choose to affiliate with some form of a connection may find an even lower cost.
“I think there will be a difference between a church that wants to leave the United Methodist Church to be independent and a church that wants to leave the United Methodist Church to join another expression of Methodism,” he said. “My broad assumption is people who are going to go in a new form of connection, the price tag likely will be lower.”
The Connecting Council voted to recommend to CF&A that it use $2.1 million of its unrestricted reserves over a five-year period beginning in 2020 to fund the Doing Justice Initiative. This project — aimed at community organizing and teaching churches how to get more deeply involved in justice ministries in their mission fields — involves partnerships with the Direct Action and Research Training (DART) Center and the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC). Both organizations have extensive track records in recruiting and mobilizing faith-based communities to address serious problems in their cities, towns and counties. Money from the conference would be used as seed money to launch community-organizing groups in targeted parts of Kansas and Nebraska.
The Rev. John Aeschbury, executive director of DART, explained that his organization focuses largely on urban and suburban areas. Four lay people from Topeka and Lawrence shared with the Connecting Council about how DART-affiliated groups in their communities — Topeka Justice Unity & Ministry Project (JUMP) and Justice Matters in Lawrence — helped address issues ranging from affordable housing to gun violence to payday loans to the availability of mental health resources.
John Krehbiel, a member of Lawrence First United Methodist Church, credited Justice Matters’ efforts to improve mental health awareness and training with his son still being alive. Krehbiel explained that his son suffers from mental illness and has had several run-ins with police. One, in particular, drew some emotion as he described an incident in which he said his son tried to initiate a “suicide-by-cop” scenario. However, the police department there previously had required all officers to take part in training on how to interact with residents suffering from mental illness.
“There has never been a doubt in my mind that without that training, our son would not be alive today,” Krehbiel said. “As grateful as we are that our son did not die that night, believe me when I tell you that I’m even more happy there is a police officer in Lawrence who doesn’t have to live with knowing they killed a man with mental illness.”
Justice Matters has continued to lobby for better resources.
“Because of efforts generated solely by 20 faith-based organizations, we will see a mental health crisis facility open in fall 2021,” he said.
DART would start by setting up operations in Johnson, Wyandotte and Sedgwick counties in Kansas, and Lancaster County in Nebraska from 2020 to 2023.
Meanwhile, WORC focuses mostly on rural matters, said John Smillie, the organization’s executive director. WORC would start its first organizing group in Nebraska and eventually would launch one in Kansas over the five-year period.
In both cases, DART and WORC start with one-on-one interviews to determine interest and to identify potential subjects for their efforts. And they recruit ecumenically minded, faith-based organizations to assist in contributing additional funding. In both cases, the topics to be addressed are selected on a local basis and not dictated by DART or WORC.
CF&A now must decide whether to take the Connecting Council’s recommendation and provide the funding, or it could pass the matter along to a vote of the full annual conference session in 2020.
If approved, the Great Plains Conference’s seed money would pay for staff people who would begin the grassroots one-on-one discussions and recruitment of faith-based organizations to assist in this type of social-justice ministry.
The council addressed media coverage in south-central Nebraska involving Camp Comeca. The camp, which was the recipient of more than $800,000 earlier this decade after a conference-wide fund-raising effort, has been rumored to be up for sale.
“The past 18 months, the camping ministries board and Administrative Services have looked closely at how we can move forward with a measure of self-sufficiency for each camp with the annual conference coming along side with grant money,” Stanton said. As a result, all camps are being held accountable for their financial health, as well as for their programming and other matters.
Stanton confirmed that the Great Plains Camps Inc. board has a meeting scheduled for Nov. 26, during which it will consider selling the camp, closing the camp to avoid incurring more operating costs, or making significant changes to improve the camp’s financial outlook. Unlike what regional media has reported, no decision has been made yet on the future of the camp.
Despite the successful fundraising campaign that helped pay for needed repairs and upkeep, the camp still has accrued an operating deficit of about $280,000. Stanton said the deficit has been made up by using funds from the other five Great Plains camps. Continuing to do so eventually may harm the discipleship efforts of the other camps.
The Connecting Council took votes on several issues as directed by the annual conference or because of timing requirements that prevent waiting until the next scheduled annual conference session.
In other business, the Connecting Council:
Contact Todd Seifert, communications director, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via phone at 785-414-4224.