What began last year as a short-term Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity Task Force could become a permanent committee next June, based on a vote by the Connecting Council during an online meeting Oct. 22.
The council brings together conference staff, district superintendents, and clergy and lay committee leaders at least twice a year to make recommendations to the annual conference session and to handle business that cannot be delayed for various reasons until the next annual conference gathering.
The original DEI task force, comprised mostly of clergy from the Great Plains Conference, was called by Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. in 2021 to provide the cabinet and conference leaders with findings and recommendations that counteract unconscious bias, and reduce and eliminate discriminatory practices at all levels of the conference so the Great Plains can leverage the full potential of its diverse clergy, laity and congregations.
It was to have disbanded following a report at the 2023 annual conference.
The Rev. Kathy Williams, clergy leadership development coordinator and facilitator of the task force, told the Connecting Council said the group is making progress by acclimating the 123 clergy in the conference who are in cross-racial or cross-cultural appointments.
“Help us to do no harm and to be our better selves,” Williams said.
The original plan for the permanent committee was to have 12-15 representatives, each on three-year terms, including one representative of the LGBTQ+ community. An amendment changed the minimum to at least two representatives of the LGBTQ+ community. The annual conference now will have the opportunity to affirm the Connecting Council’s recommendation.
Bishop Saenz opened the meeting with an evaluation of this year’s disaffiliations – 55 this year and 77 since 2020.
Among the bishop’s permanent goals — ensure the future by optimizing performance, setting strategies for success, continuously improving and adapting, and zero decline — was to have 50% of the churches who are discerning disaffiliation continue with The United Methodist Church.
“Just because 50 churches raise their hand for disaffiliation doesn’t mean we’re going to accept it,” the bishop said.
Bishop Saenz praised the work done by the conference staff to educate churches in the Great Plains on the ramifications of disaffiliation.
“This conference sets a standard for all other conferences to follow,” he said. “Other conferences are watching you.”
Bishop Saenz said educating the members of the conference churches needs to continue.
“I don’t think the people in the pews understand what they’re voting for,” he said.
Rev. Dr. Mitch Reece, Wichita districts superintendent and dean of the cabinet, said churches discerning disaffiliation are being asked to postpone a decision until the new year and not to hold discussions during the Advent season.
The Connecting Council approved a proposal from the Board of Trustees with the parameters for matching grants for capital improvements in local churches, approved by the annual conference session in June.
The grants would have a $25,000 limit, and $50,000 limit every five years. For the fourth quarter of 2022, $115,000 will be allocated, with more than $451,000 available in 2023.
The Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, chair of the trustees, said the grants were not to be designated for deferred maintenance alone, but for improved access to buildings and restrooms, increased uses for church buildings, and entryway and signage improvements.
The deadline to apply for the fourth quarter grants is Nov. 15.
The Rev. Sarah Marsh, mercy and justice coordinator, introduced Rachel Zatterstrom from the Western Organization of Research Councils, or WORC.
Zatterstrom said that Mo Bailey has been hired as the new coordinator in Norfolk, Nebraska, and that fundraising for efforts in Nebraska should be stable for 2023, with 90% of the budget already raised.
She said plans for statewide efforts in Kansas would be “paused indefinitely,” and said it was a difficult decision.
“We need to pivot,” Zatterstrom said.
Following the meeting, Marsh said the decision was made because of staffing changes across the WORC network and the challenges of hiring experienced organizers, and that WORC is at capacity for supporting expansion work right now.
Marsh also announced that an immersive trip to the U.S./Mexico border, similar to one that the cabinets of the Great Plains and Central Texas conferences took in August, would be available next year. Participants learned about immigration issues and life on the border.
The Rev. Anne Gahn, mercy and justice committee chair, said in a recorded message that the trip would include a diverse group of 40 people. The cost would be $1,200 to $1,500 per person, with a $700 stipend available from the conference.
A trip is also planned for 2024, Gahn said, focusing on Native American issues.
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