The Great Plains Conference Connecting Council heard reports about how the coronavirus pandemic continues to cause adjustments in how ministry is practiced in Kansas and Nebraska during the group’s Aug. 15 meeting, conducted via Zoom video-conferencing software.
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.
One such recommendation at the most recent meeting was to present the 2021 conference budget for review and feedback. The proposed budget anticipates income of $13,884,763 — about $1.5 million less than 2020, and a possibility that income will fall short of that number.
However, the proposed spending plan for 2021 totals $12,934,372 and represents a $332,547 reduction from 2020. It also represents what has been noted as the “80% plan.” This plan, enacted for 2020 and continuing into the next year, anticipated reductions in mission share payouts from local churches — first associated with disagreements over the actions of the 2019 special session of General Conference regarding human sexuality and then due at least in part to the coronavirus pandemic, among other factors. The 80% plan provides a more fiscally conservative approach to budgeting and weans the conference off the practice of drawing down about 5% of income from investments of reserves to augment spending plans for ministry budgets.
Scott Brewer, conference treasurer and director of administrative services, noted that attentiveness by Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr., the cabinet and ministry-area directors regarding spending leaves the budget as proposed with a surplus of about $287,000. That amount could become seed money for a series of grants to be developed to help local churches adapt to ministry in a fast-changing world. The Rev. Zach Anderson, president of the conference’s Council on Finance and Administration (CFA), said the process is just beginning, but the hope is to use the anticipated surplus from the 2021 budget along with current reserves to provide up to $2 million in grants for local churches for such larger expenses as technology upgrades, the launch of substantial new ministries and significant augmentation of current ministries that would expand to reach new people for Christ.
In yet another adaptation due to the pandemic, the budget process will take on a new look this year. Instead of debate in an arena, feedback will be gathered in a different way. The conference will host regional listening sessions in early to mid-September to take questions and gather feedback on the proposed budget, which will be available on the conference website at www.greatplainsumc.org/budget by Aug. 25.
During the sessions, participants will present and discuss the work of the conference over the past months, the current financial strength of the conference and its churches, the budget process, and the current 2021 budget proposal. Sessions will last approximately 90 minutes.
If you are unable to attend the session for your region, you are welcome to participate during one of the other sessions. To join the webinar presentations, go to this link at the scheduled time: https://zoom.us/j/92968937592
Session 1: Thursday, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. CDT for the Great West, Hays and Dodge City districts.
Session 2: Tuesday, Sept. 8 at 7 p.m. CDT for the Gateway, Prairie Rivers and Elkhorn Valley districts.
Session 3: Thursday, Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. CDT for the Blue River, Missouri River and Kansas City districts.
Session 4: Tuesday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. CDT for the Topeka, Flint Hills, Five Rivers and Parsons districts.
Session 5: Thursday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. CDT for the Salina, Hutchison, Wichita East and Wichita West districts.
Next, the conference’s Mission Alignment Team will meet to review the feedback, offer adjustments and ensure the revised budget proposal still addresses missional priorities. The Connecting Council then will review the latest proposal toward the end of September before CFA approves the recommendations for a ballot. The updated version of the proposed budget then will be presented to the conference for review in early October, likely after the commissioning and ordination services. Then, clergy and lay members of annual conference will vote via electronically or by mail — first on amendments and then the final budget — in a series of votes from mid-October to mid-November.
“I think we’re going to get a lot of really rich information from all of that feedback,” Brewer said.
While the special session of annual conference scheduled for October in Grand Island has been canceled, some life events in the annual conference will continue. The clergy session will take place online on Oct. 2. As is the usual practice, the clergy session will affirm the commissioned clergy and clergy approved for ordination. Pastors also will give thanks for the ministries of clergy who retired as of June 30.
Also Oct. 2, at 7 p.m., the conference will host a memorial service that will be open to all. The pre-recorded service will be available on the conference website home page at www.greatplainsumc.org and on its Facebook page at https://facebook.com/GreatPlainsUMC.
Two livestream worship services are scheduled for Oct. 3. The commissioning service and celebration for local licensed pastors concluding their first year of service will be broadcast on the conference website at www.greatplainsumc.org/livestream beginning at 10 a.m. from St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Omaha. The ordination service also will be livestreamed on that web page starting at 2 p.m. Both services also will be broadcast via Facebook Live on the conference’s Facebook page.
Laity also have events that weekend, all available via Zoom video-conferencing software.
“The big thing we as laity do at annual conference is resource ourselves and then take that back to our local churches,” said Lisa Maupin, conference lay leader. “We also wanted to provide a message of hope.”
The laity session will begin at 7 p.m. and will include a time for worship, a celebration of joys from ministry across Kansas and Nebraska, and a moderated panel with conference lay leaders.
An online family reunion potluck is scheduled for 5:30-6:45 p.m. Oct. 2, just prior to the memorial service. The potluck will be a social time designated for laity to chat, catch up with friends and meet new people. Settle in with your dinner as you attend breakout rooms established based on districts, ministry interests and affinities. There is no formal program planned beyond chatting with your Great Plains family.
Then, the morning of Oct. 3, from 8:30-9:45 a.m., the lay leadership team will host Breakfast at the Festival of Booths. This event will provide a time for laity to learn about resources available for ministry and to discover new information and connections around initiatives, mission and ministries. This virtual expo hall will feature a variety of conference groups.
Registration for all of the annual conference-related events is expected to open within the next week.
Plans are well under way for a second Laity Summit. The 2020 event quickly converted to an online event because of the pandemic. Maupin said the planning team hopes to conduct the event in person March 20 at First United Methodist Church in Kearney, Nebraska.
“But we are very conscious of the fact that you have to have plans A through Z,” Maupin said.
The team is considering options for an in-person event, an event that is available in person or online and a completely virtual event.
The council referred to CFA a proposal to create an endowment for scholarships for laity to attend training opportunities such as United Methodist Church of the Resurrection’s Leadership Summit. The proposal asked for $100,000 to be used from the conference’s Missional Opportunities Fund. Anderson said CFA will study the proposal and discuss ways to fund the scholarships for laity, and it will report back to the Connecting Council.
The Connecting Council approved without objection a plan to launch a pilot project regarding renewal leave for clergy. On Saturday, June 1, 2019, the annual conference session referred a resolution to the Clergy Excellence team to develop a recommendation for structuring a renewal leave policy that expands on the provisions already set forth in the Book of Discipline.
The Rev. Nancy Lambert, director of clergy excellence and assistant to the bishop, shared some provisions of the renewal leave policy, including:
Applications must be made to the director of clergy excellence at least 120 days prior to the date of the requested leave.
Pastoral supply must be obtained by the pastor and the church, with as much as $3,000 of the interim pastor’s compensation coming from the approved grant.
The policy states, “Depending upon the amount of money available and allocated to such purposes, annual conference funds shall be made available on an equitable basis among the approved applicants. Each application shall be considered carefully and prayerfully by representatives of the Board of Ordained Ministry Covenant Team and the Director of Clergy Excellence. Their decision will be reported to the clergy person, the SPRC, and to the district superintendent of the pastoral charge.
Lambert asked for approval of the pilot project because she did not want to delay enaction of such a policy until next May, when the annual conference is next scheduled to meet.
Despite obstacles raised by the pandemic, two justice-based initiatives are firmly underway in the Great Plains Conference.
The Rev. Nathan Stanton, director of congregational excellence, reported that the effort administered by the Direct Action and Research Training (DART) Center in the Kansas City area is off to a positive start.
“We’re excited about the continued energy and participation, and also meeting the challenge of getting everybody possible to the table,” Stanton said. “One area we’re continuing to work on is to get historically African-American denominations and churches to the table with a group that is mostly Methodist for the time being.”
The Doing Justice Initiative started with discussions in 2019. CFA agreed to use $2.1 million of its unrestricted reserves over a five-year period beginning in 2020 to fund the 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 DART 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 is being used as seed money to launch community-organizing groups in targeted parts of Kansas and Nebraska.
Stanton noted that DART started with a staff person already in the field, while WORC has had to recruit amid the pandemic.
“They, like everyone else is making the pivot to interact in a much broader area of western and north-central Nebraska, so I want to thank those of you who have provided names for them to be in continued conversation across Nebraska,” Stanton said of WORC. “They will have their staff person hired in the next two weeks, and that will continue the process. They will also begin to have regional gatherings moving from individual to groups.”
The bishop started the meeting with some reflections on the state of the Great Plains Conference. He said he was particularly mindful in a time of such upheaval of pastors entering into new appointments this summer.
“I was thinking of how difficult it must be for them and for the congregations because they can’t have that personal relationship and face-to-face connections,” the bishop said. “It’s difficult enough when you have a relationship. At least then you can use the capital you’ve built up prior to a season such as this.”
He said that as he reflected on changes over his first four years in the Great Plains Conference, he was grateful for the United Methodists of Kansas and Nebraska. He said his goal is to give clergy the resources and tools to have dialogue so they can respond to the ongoing challenges of our country and world in ways that are pleasing to God.
“We’re all in the same boat,” the bishop said. “We’re all going through this simultaneously. So there’s no buffer between any of us. But we will respond not with fear and dismay, but with faith, hope and love. It’s who we are.”
He said he has been working with ecumenical partners from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church and the Catholic Church in both states.
“I have been and will continue to be working with ecumenical partners and state representatives to seek the common good for others, especially the vulnerable, the abused, the neglected, the oppressed — all those who are not as privileged as we are.”
The bishop said people are searching for signs of hope, and he was proud that a lot of our churches are finding ways to engage people in discipleship, even if it has to be online.
“We cannot be blind or insensitive to what is going on around us,” the bishop said.
Contact Todd Seifert, communications director, at firstname.lastname@example.org.