Justice ministries, especially in Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas, have grown greatly and are expected to flourish even further before the year is over, the Great Plains Conference Connecting Council learned at its April 24 meeting.
The council brings together conference staff, district superintendents, and clergy and lay committee leaders, as well as a few at-large members, 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 meeting was conducted via Zoom video technology.
The Rev. Sarah Marsh, associate pastor at Manhattan First UMC and chair of the conference’s Mercy and Justice team, said the counties have been working with the Direct Action & Research Training, or DART, to establish nonprofit ministries in each of those counties on the Kansas side of the Kansas City suburbs.
Marsh told the council that DART has not only been working with 14 United Methodist congregations in the counties, but with Episcopal, Lutheran, Jewish, Catholic, African Methodist Episcopal and Lutheran houses of worship and nondenominational ministries as well.
“It is a diverse group of folks, which is really the strength of this kind of ministry,” Marsh told the council. “It brings together churches who normally would have disagreements and brings them to the same table to reach common goals for their communities.”
DART is in the process of hiring lead community organizers for each of the counties and will begin a listening process continuing into the fall, Marsh said. A series of house meetings will take place over the next few months, she said, with a large fall assembly happening to provide support for solutions to community concerns.
“Folks in the church are invited to be a part of the ministry, so they formally make commitments to become part of what is called a justice ministry network,” she said. “They show up in the course of the year to do the work that is needed, because once the problems are selected, then you move into the next cycle in the work for justice.”
The national organization, which serves 23 affiliated organizations in nine states, is impressed with the work being done in Johnson and Wyandotte counties.
“This has never happened before in any other nonprofit startup that DART has done,” Marsh said. “It’s incredible.”
Marsh said she and other organizers are eager to see what is going to be done in the area in the name of justice.
“It’s going to be exciting to see this come to life before our eyes,” she said.
A “Rethinking Justice” scripture study will take place via Zoom from 6 to 7:45 p.m. CT Tuesday, May 11, with speakers including Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr.
Bishop Saenz said he appreciated the churches and individuals who were taking the lead in justice ministries.
“Our compassion and mercy muscles are very strong, but our justice muscle is a little atrophied,” he said.
We need to continue, he said, taking the next steps as a conference in the campaign for justice.
“We have to move beyond reading books, beyond our own edification and grow into what it means to do justice,” Bishop Saenz said, sharing as an example legislation in Kansas aimed at payday loan reform.
The next urban center in the Great Plains that will be served by DART likely will be Lincoln, Marsh added.
A policy for clergy renewal leave has been put into place, said the Rev. Dee Williamston, who will begin July 1 as the director of clergy excellence and assistant to the bishop.
So far, five clergy have applied for the renewal leave grant, she said, receiving $14,000 to $25,000. Most applicants, she said, are taking a three-month renewal leave.
“A lot of them are taking renewal leave to renew their spirits, their physical and emotional health,” Williamston said.
Those who have used the renewal leave have reconnected with their families, stepped away from leading worship while visiting other churches and engaged in private retreats, Williamston said.
“It seems so far to be going well,” she added.
The deadline for requesting the leave will be Dec. 1 of each year, Williamston said.
Williamston gave the report on behalf of the Rev. Nancy Lambert, who is retiring at the end of June and was on vacation during the Connecting Council meeting.
“Nancy has done a phenomenal job for our conference,” Bishop Saenz said.
The Connecting Council affirmed the proposed budget for 2022 — a $13.86 million budget that is a 2.3% decrease from 2021.
The budget begins the implementation of a new strategy to reduce the conference’s dependence upon its reserves to fund ongoing operations so that those funds can be used to invest in churches and leaders. Historically, budgets included a 5% draw upon reserves to augment giving from local churches through the Mission Shares. The draw from reserves for ongoing operations is reduced to 4% for 2022 with 1% of the reserves – a total of $412,589 – set aside for grants to local churches,
The proposed budget also shifts some one-time grants out of the expense budget and into use of restricted-use reserve funds. A total of $412,589 has been set aside as grants to local churches, clergy renewal leave, children and youth, multi-ethnic emerging ministries, combatting racism, and Zoom license fees for local churches.
Bishop Saenz said that not having in-person worship for Easter and Christmas 2020 caused some difficulty, especially when other denominations had their doors open.
Churches that did open faced difficult, at times controversial, decisions on whether to enforce a mask rule for those worshipping, the bishop added.
“Nevertheless, our congregations expanded their ministries and outreach in hundreds of new ways by providing online worship services, online bible studies, and creative outdoor worship services and activities,” he said.
The bishop said all of the churches in the conference had returned to fulltime, in-person worship with limited attendance by this Easter and that most of the churches were going to retain their digital church format of livestreaming or broadcasting on Facebook Live.
“Online church is here to stay. COVID has accelerated the way we do church by a decade,” the bishop said. “We knew this was coming.”
Even though the annual conference session, scheduled online for May 27-29, will be virtual, there will still be an online giving component to raise money for three organizations.
The memorial service, at 7 p.m. CT Thursday, May 27, will have an offering that will split funds for the Kansas and Nebraska chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Offering at the opening worship, at 10:30 a.m. CT Friday, May 28, will be for the Youth Service Fund. And the offering at the ordination service, at 10 a.m. CT Saturday, June 12, will be for the Crounse Endowment Fund Grant Program, an emergency and hardship fund for clergy.
The second-annual Laity Summit, online on March 20, drew about 240 laity from across the two states, conference Lay Leader Lisa Maupin said, including representatives from each of the conference’s 17 districts.
Maupin said comments from those attending included having the “feeling like what I do is appreciated.”
In an evaluation provided by Laity Summit participants, 41% said they enjoyed the virtual format over in-person, and another 29% didn’t care whether it was online or in-person.
“That says we did something effective in a virtual setting,” Maupin said.
Maupin said she was proud of the “Festival of Booths,” where participants could click on a link and interact with representatives from one of dozens of organizations in the Great Plains and United Methodists worldwide to learn more about their groups.
“We figured out to take that interaction in the booth and figured out how to put it online,” she said, adding that a similar format would be in place for the annual conference session.
This year’s annual conference also will include an introductory session for first-time laity participants at 7 p.m. CT Wednesday, May 26.
The format of the laity session, 8:30-10:30 a.m. CT Friday, May 28, would include time for sharing ministry success stories as well as what Maupin called a “lay ministry slam,” with TED Talks-type presentations where participants may receive prizes to support their new ministries.
Maupin said the COVID-19 pandemic has expanded the creativity and initiative of laity throughout the conference and the world.
“I’ve been telling people, we finally get to say who we are, and that’s a church without walls,” she said.
The Rev. Bill Ritter, chair of Great Plains Camps Inc., said the conference has contracted with Luke Austenfeld, a camps management expert, for a consulting agreement through July 27.
Austenfeld, Ritter said, would be touring the conference’s five camps and be available for consultation.
Camps in the Great Plains, Ritter said, would be open this summer after COVID-altered schedules last year. Camp leaders in 2020, he said, were surprised at the number of youth reached through their online alternatives.
“We’ve found some great outlets for ministry that are amazing,” Ritter said. “One camp had 1,600 camps in online camping. They never had 1,600 kids show up at camp. We may have learned things from this pandemic that will give us dividends in the future.”
The conference has 200 additional Zoom licenses available for churches who would like a second account, and just fewer than half of them have been checked out, communications director Todd Seifert said.
Elements of online worship services — an option of complete services or individual elements, depending on the needs of the local churches — for the Sundays after Christmas and Easter were a success, Seifert said.
In that spirit, the communications department will begin offering an online catalog of music (public domain hymns only) and sermons that churches can use in their online services.
Contact David Burke, content specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.