Connecting Council hears ideas for organizing for justice ministries

Todd Seifert


The Connecting Council heard proposals during its April meeting in Topeka from two organizations that could help provide a boost to justice ministries throughout Kansas and Nebraska. 

Direct Action & Research Training (DART) and the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) presented proposals of how they could partner with the more than 1,000 churches across the Great Plains to live out the call from Micah 6:8 to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly” with God. The presentations came with support from the conference’s Mercy and Justice Team as part of its Doing Justice Initiative, developed as part of a five-year focus for the team’s work, initiated in 2017. 

The Rev. Sarah Marsh, associate pastor of Manhattan First United Methodist Church and chair of the Mercy & Justice Team, said one issue may be a lack of differentiating between mercy and justice ministries. She noted that “mercy” involves serving individuals in times of crisis, such as the recent flooding in Nebraska or providing meals to the hungry. “Justice” involves addressing core reasons behind issues and holding leaders accountable for the fair treatment of all people, such as the orphan, widow, stranger or the poor. 

“While our heart is there to serve, when it comes to these complex issues, we often simply don’t know how to go about working for justice,” Marsh said. 

Together, the proposals from DART and WORC would include the Great Plains Conference using $2.1 million from its unrestricted reserves to provide seed money for launching community-organizing efforts. DART would set a goal of launching self-sustaining justice ministry organizations in Wyandotte, Johnson and Sedgwick counties in Kansas and in Lancaster County in Nebraska. DART already has launched successful organizations in Douglas County with Justice Matters, which recently secured sales-tax revenue to pay for improved mental health treatment, and in Shawnee County with the Topeka Justice Unity & Ministry Project (JUMP), which is pursuing systemic changes to help marginalized individuals on issues such as predatory lending, public transportation and affordable housing. 

The Rev. John Aeschbury, executive director of the Direct Action and Research Training Center, shares information about his organization with the Connecting Council on April 6 in Topeka. Photo by Todd Seifert

The Rev. John Aeschbury, a United Church of Christ pastor and executive director of DART, explained that urban areas face issues involving a lack of affordable housing, kids lagging behind in reading and mass incarceration. 

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Do these things that are happening represent your values? Or do they offend your values?’” Aeschbury said. “None of these problems have to exist. But they do, so we as Christians have to decide if our values are being reflected. If it’s not our values, whose are reflected?” 

While DART focuses on urban areas, WORC uses a statewide approach as a means of addressing largely rural issues. If approved, WORC would set up one organization in Nebraska first, followed in three years by an organization in Kansas, mostly due to relationships already in place in Nebraska. DART’s strategy involves bringing together 20 or more congregations as stakeholders to push for change, while WORC’s model involves chapters of individuals or families linked to a statewide coordinating organization. 

John Smillie, executive director of WORC, said his organization’s model reflects the emphasis on rural areas, where it is more difficult to pull together large numbers of people. 

“WORC’s core values are not explicitly faith-based,” Smillie told the Connecting Council. “But the core values that we have are comparable to the values underpinning faith-based institutions: fairness, respect, freedom, inclusiveness, equity, dignity and sustainability.” 

Funds from the conference would be used by both organizations to hire staff members, find office space and begin discussions on potential issues to be addressed with individuals in the targeted counties for DART and in potential locations for five local chapters per state for WORC. 

John Smillie, executive director of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, shares information about his organization with the Connecting Council on April 6 in Topeka. Photo by Todd Seifert

One Connecting Council member, reflecting on an earlier presentation that mission shares payments showed a decline, asked if use of reserve funds would be prudent given the church’s climate following the special session of General Conference in St. Louis. 

Scott Brewer, conference treasurer and director of administrative services, acknowledged that funding this proposal does represent a risk. 

“But by doing this, we would be making a choice to say we will not let our fear of the future prevent us from moving forward with these kinds of ministry,” Brewer said. “This would be an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy of living out our faith and values regardless of what happens as a result of the General Conference.” 

The Connecting Council will continue to study the proposal and will work with the Council on Finance and Administration to determine potential next steps involving the grant requests from DART and WORC leading up to the council’s meeting in October. 

Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. said working in justice ministries would reflect the mission given to us by Jesus Christ and emphasized by John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. 

“Our Wesleyan expression is personal piety and social holiness. It’s not one or the other, it’s both/and,” the bishop said. “We’re strong in our loving God, and we’re strong in our proclaiming of Jesus as our Savior. We’re very strong in our acts of mercy, but we need to reclaim our Wesleyan heritage of social justice.” 


General Conference & Regional Gatherings 

Bishop Saenz led a discussion on the special session of General Conference centered on how ministry has changed, if at all, for people serving on the Connecting Council. 

Answers ranged from people from Connecting Council members’ congregations questioning whether they will continue their membership in The United Methodist Church to whether people see their spiritual gifts being affirmed and put to use. 

Several Connecting Council members noted their congregations are in a season of waiting to see what transpires with the Judicial Council, which is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan and the disaffiliation legislation that passed during the special session. 

Some Connecting Council members expressed disappointment at the decisions by the General Conference. Others said the internal processing of the General Conference outcome helped them learn more about themselves. 

“I’ve discovered I’m more of a centrist than I thought I was,” said Michael Shockley, of the Pension and Health Benefits Team. “It can be a little lonely at times because I’ll never be conservative enough for my conservative friends and never progressive enough for my progressive friends.” 

Bishop Saenz said the regional gatherings have clarified for him the depth of the division between people with differing views on human sexuality. 

“What I am hearing is people for whom this wasn’t an issue are now more engaged and mobilized,” the bishop said.  

He gave the analogy of driving at night in a heavy rain, the kind in which windshield wipers can’t clear the water away fast enough. 

“We have to keep going, but we can’t go very fast, just like in the car you have to keep going, but you can’t go very fast because you don’t want to run off the road,” Bishop Saenz said. “I do think now that people are having the conversation in ways they may not have had it before.” 


Quarterly Update and Treasurer’s Report 

In his treasurer’s report, Brewer reported that income from mission shares was down about 1.4%, excluding United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. That church, the largest church in the denomination, has withheld the second of its traditional two payments early in the year to cover its annual mission shares. The congregation’s leadership is weighing options. With Resurrection included in the tally, mission shares remittance is down 8% compared to this time last year, a little more than $1 million less than at this time in 2018. 

Brewer told the Connecting Council that Resurrection leaders have been transparent in their discernment process and have made it clear that they have no intention of harming ministries, particularly within the Great Plains Conference. 

As part of Brewer’s report, he shared a request from the Mission Alignment Team, a group of people charged with ensuring the conference’s money is spent on its stated ministry priorities. The team proposed changing the amount of money paid for the General Conference delegation. In 2016 in Portland, the Great Plains delegation consisted of 30 people — six clergy and six laity with voting authority, along with six clergy and six laity Jurisdictional Conference delegates, who serve as alternates. The Great Plains Conference also sent the three clergy and three laity who served as jurisdictional alternates.  

The Great Plains was given an additional lay and additional clergy delegate — for a total of 14 people eligible to vote on the floor of the General Conference — for the 2020 event in Minneapolis. 

Under the proposal, which was approved by the Connecting Council, the annual conference will send the first seven elected clergy and first seven elected lay delegates, plus the first four clergy and first four lay Jurisdictional delegates, for a total of 22 people. Others may, of course, attend the General Conference at their own expense. 

Brewer also explained the disaffiliation legislation under review by the Judicial Council. He provided some speculative illustrations of the amount of money that would be required for a Great Plains congregation to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church. In essence, the exit cost would be the congregation’s unfunded pension liability for pastors and up to two years of mission shares. 

As part of his quarterly update, Brewer reported that average worship attendance had increased in the first quarter of 2019 over the final quarter of 2018 and, though lagging slightly behind first-quarter numbers from 2018, attendance was improved over the first quarter of 2017 by roughly 500 people. 

Brewer also shared that online worship attendance now is being tracked to reflect changing patterns of churchgoers’ behavior.  


Annual Conference Resolutions 

The Rev. Nancy Lambert, director of clergy excellence and assistant to the bishop, provided a brief explanation of the annual conference schedule, with the session opening with a service of Celebration and Table at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 29, at the Kansas Expocentre. The Memorial Service will begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 30, at First United Methodist Church of Topeka. And the ordination service will begin at 7 p.m. Friday, May 31, at the Kansas Expocentre. 

Resolutions submitted thus far for consideration include: 

  • Clergy Health Allowance — This resolution would require churches to pay only the actual cost of insurance and not the stipend of $15,850 currently paid to allow for clergy to purchase insurance on the open market. 

  • Creation Care — This resolution would urge churches to acknowledge the urgency of climate change and to support polices that promote renewable energy, reduced emissions and to provide adaptation assistance for those struggling to survive in a changing climate. It would add climate change mitigation to the responsibilities of the conference Disaster Response team. 

  • Disavowal of the Traditional Plan — This resolution would create a statement of condemnation regarding passage of the Traditional Plan and would require that no conference funds be spent on the complaint process involving any prosecutions associated with LGBTQ ordination and marriage.  

  • Safe Gatherings — This resolution would give churches the option to craft their own policies. 

  • Renewal Leave for Clergy — This resolution would adopt a policy of allowing clergy serving at least six years to take a sabbatical leave for up to three months, with the church paying the compensation for the clergy and the conference paying for an interim pastor at the minimum salary level. 

  • Climate Change — This resolution would ask churches to calculate their building’s carbon footprint and set goals for reduction over three years, with a report of progress each year. 

  • Holy Conferencing — This resolution would prompt the annual conference’s General Conference delegation not to use parliamentary procedures as a delay tactic. 


Clergy Excellence 

Lambert also provided an update on a leadership initiative for clergy. The initiative has three portions. 

The first is a learning plan, with retreats scheduled to help clergy get organized and intentional about their skills development. A second portion is covenant groups, with five groups having applied so far for grants to pay for resources such as books, honorariums for presenters, as well as mileage and overnight stays at retreats. 

The third portion is Excellence in Ministry, comprised of various retreats focused on wellness, preaching and worship planning. Another retreat, to be conducted in late summer or early fall, will be for clergy who have dealt with trauma from the flooding in Nebraska or other natural disasters. Upcoming options include courses to help clergy deal with conflict and other significant ministries not covered in seminary, and a retreat in May for clergy making significant jumps in appointments from smaller to larger churches. 

Congregational Excellence 

Reporting for the team, the Rev. Nicole Conard, coordinator of young-adult leadership, provided a broad overview of ministry activities under way in the department. Topics included: 

  • District Strategies — Each Congregational Excellence team member has been partnered with areas of the conference to serve as regional liaisons and to help implement district ministry action plans and initiatives. 

  • Readiness 360 — More than 60 churches are involved in this assessment of fruitfulness in ministry, with more coaching training scheduled for June. 

  • Disaster Response — More than 50 people have been trained as early response team members since the flooding in Nebraska started in mid-March. About $220,000 has been raised so far for the conference’s disaster relief fund. And a Kids Cleanup Fund challenge has been created to involve younger people in the relief effort. A page on the conference website has been set up as a portal for donations and updated information. 

  • Fresh Expressions — This innovation in ministry started in the Great Plains with vision days that included 257 churches from all 17 districts and more than 880 individuals via a livestream broadcast. Roundtables took place in the conference April 5-9, with 13 districts represented. Grants of up to $500 are available to help create new learning communities starting in the fall. 

  • The OneEvent — This annual youth rally is being re-envisioned and likely now will take place as a multi-day mission event in the summer starting in 2020. 

  • New Church Development — High-capacity pastors are needed for the planter incubator, a five-session group process that resources clergy to push themselves to learn church-planting strategies that will help them reach new people for Christ where the pastor currently serves. 

  • Camps — Directors of the six Great Plains camps are working to update their employment manual. 

  • Campus Ministries — Committee members are on site visits to Great Plains campus ministries. 


Todd Seifert, communications director, shared how the team had covered events in the life of the conference — from General Conference to the Nebraska flooding to Fresh Expressions. He shared that the team won 11 awards at the United Methodist Association of Communicators annual gala in February. One prize included the best-in-class honor for special presentation for the development of the bishop’s town hall meeting PowerPoint presentation and the accompanying summary handout of the three plans submitted to the special session of General Conference. 

Seifert also shared that the team will provide a series of trainings this summer and fall regarding social media best practices and must-have information on church websites. The team also is exploring the possibility of providing a how-to workshop for use of WordPress environment websites, a popular platform among smaller- to mid-size churches in the Great Plains Conference. 


Book Study 

The Rev. Claudia Bakely, Flint Hills District superintendent, leads a discussion of the book "Community: The Structure of Belonging" April 5 at Connecting Council in Topeka. Photo by David Burke

The Connecting Council also took part in a book study from author Peter Block, “Community: The Structure of Belonging.” The Rev. Chad Anglemyer, Missouri River District superintendent, shared Block’s philosophy of how communities become “stuck” and unable to work through issues together. The Rev. Claudia Bakely, Flint Hills District superintendent, shared Block’s philosophy of how to become restorative communities. 

In short, it takes time to address problems that evolved over time. 

“Block says this all takes time. There isn’t a quick fix,” Bakely said. “The purpose is to restore and heal community relationships, whatever that community may be.” 


Contact Todd Seifert, communications director, at 

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