Three years after hearing the first proposals regarding justice ministry improvements in the Great Plains Conference, the Connecting Council received progress reports on them during its May 6-7 meetings in Topeka.
The council is comprised of about 50 people who make timely decisions between annual conference sessions and includes district superintendents; district lay leaders; directors of administration, congregational excellence, clergy excellence and communications; conference committee representatives and at-large members. It met in person for the first time since the fall of 2019, with Zoom meetings taking their place in 2020 and ’21.
Ben MacConnell, Plains State coordinator for the Direction Action & Research Training Center, or DART, reported:
The Wyandotte County, Kansas-based Churches United for Justice had its first Voices of Faith Assembly, determining the major issues that face the county, earlier that week, with its first Nehemiah Action Assembly next month;
The Johnson County, Kansas Good Faith Network had its first Nehemiah Assembly, to ask county leaders for a commitment to stop homeless and increase mental health availability, earlier that week;
The Lancaster County, Nebraska, group was ready to hire its first organizers.
“We’re right on par with meeting (our) timetable despite beginning two weeks before the pandemic,” MacConnell said. “All ships are sailing with gale-force winds at our back.”
Alina Lopez, Nebraska lead organizer for the Western Organization of Resource Councils, or WORC, reported on progress in a video, as the first community meeting in Norfolk was to take place on May 7.
Lopez praised the diverse team in place in Norfolk.
“One thing binds us together,” she said. “We all want to create a Norfolk that our kids can come home to.”
The council approved $100,000 in supplemental funding to the Immigrant Legal Center, formerly Justice For Our Neighbors-Nebraska, to provide legal services for unaccompanied minors who arrive at the southern border and make their way to the state.
The Rev. Sarah Marsh, conference mercy and justice coordinator, said Nebraska had averaged accepting 385 unaccompanied minors a year, but the number increased to 890 from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021. The money would provide funding for one attorney and one social worker for a year, she said.
By unanimous votes in all cases, the council approved more than $368,000 in mission opportunities funds, derived from mission shares paid by churches in the conference. The total in the fund usually is smaller, but dollar amounts accumulated over the past few years, allowing for more funds to be distributed in this spring Connecting Council meeting.
Those include $100,000 for a lawyer and social worker to help with the influx of unaccompanied children crossing the border into the United States and living in Nebraska; $82,400 to further the mission of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity Task Force; $63,440 for tools and resources to help pastors and congregations in cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments; $52,000 for churches in the Salina and Hutchinson districts to increase hope in local churches; $45,000 to further advance the reflective supervision program for clergy; and $26,000 to provide resources for churches facing potential closure to discern how best to continue ministering to their communities.
Scott Brewer, treasurer and director of administrative services, told the council that 12 churches in the conference — 11 in Kansas, one in Nebraska — had voted so far in 2022 to disaffiliate from the denomination, with another 31 “seriously considering” disaffiliation. The initial 12 will be voted upon at the annual conference session June 8-11, and any additional disaffiliations would be considered at a called Sept. 10 special session.
Churches have until the end of 2023 to disaffiliate under provisions passed during the 2019 special session of General Conference, Brewer said.
"Whether a church leaves to join the Global Methodist Church, another denomination or become independent is not material," he said. "The process is the same for all."
The first 12 churches disaffiliating, Brewer said, account for slightly more than 3% of the conference’s overall income projection.
Brewer expressed gratitude for the leadership of the Rev. Rick Just, pastor at Wichita Asbury UMC and a leader in the Wesleyan Covenant Association — a forerunner of the Global Methodist Church — for his cooperation, integrity and leadership during the transition.
“He has been a tremendous gift to this annual conference,” Brewer said.
Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. praised the work with churches that are in discernment.
“We want to do as much as we can to help churches who wish to disaffiliate move on,” Bishop Saenz said earlier in the council meeting.
Brewer also received approval and $26,000 in Missional Opportunities funds for “For Everything There is a Season: A Guide for Congregations Discerning Possible Closure,” two curricula that would help churches in the process for determining their future and walking through the possible process of church closure. They would be written by the Rev. Neil Gately, pastor of Norfolk First-Stanton-Winside, who is a former member of the conference board of trustees who has presided over two churches which have closed.
There has been an “uptick” in church closures over the past 10 years, Brewer said.
“These are churches for which the pandemic was pretty devastating,” he said.
Many of the churches, Brewer said, are in a “hospice situation.”
“It seemed like there was a time and a need for some resources,” he said.
Connecting Council members were encouraged several times to contribute videos for the conference’s #BeUMC campaign. The campaign is designed to promote the benefits of The United Methodist Church, particularly in light of the launch of the Global Methodist Church.
Lisa Maupin, conference lay leader, asked participants to place on sticky notes statements about the UMC beginning with “I love …,” “I wish …” and “I wonder.” Maupin said those could be the beginnings of videos that members of the council could make.
“Our stories matter,” she said, “and people need to hear our stories.”
As the Saturday morning session opened, Bishop Saenz asked council members to break into groups for discussion about what they were hearing about the changes in the denomination, the effects it could have on our conference, and the response the transitions might require.
Todd Seifert, communications director, encouraged those in the council to make their own #BeUMC videos, with instructions on the Great Plains website at www.greatplainsumc.org/beumc.
The Rev. Nicole Conard, young adults and campus ministry coordinator, presented the findings of Church 2050 listening impact sessions, a survey of young people about what they want to see in their church currently and in the future.
The most common words used were safe, affirming, open, connection, community, service, diversity and inclusion, she said.
The issues the church of the future should address, Conard said, were environment, social justice, inclusion and children.
Bishop Saenz said the study may help current churches to revise their strategy for the future.
“We might be passing forward a church that they’re not asking for,” he said.
The council unanimously approved $82,400 in Missional Opportunities funds for consultation in its Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity Task Force, to train members to develop skillsets necessary to create a conference-wide culture of embracing diversity.
Also approved was $63,440 in Missional Opportunities funds for tools and resources for cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments. Bishop Saenz said the Rev. Kathy Williams, who was appointed as clergy leadership coordinator in January 2021, was not given a budget when she began her new duties.
Williams said the money would be used for consultation services and to grant opportunities for international pastors, including meeting further with their church leadership and staff-parish relations committees.
Bishop Saenz said the conference had 140 internationally born clergy, the most of any conference in the denomination that he is aware of.
“These pastors do a phenomenal job,” the bishop said. “Without them, we would not be able to support our local churches.”
The council also approved $41,000 in Missional Opportunities funds to continue the reflective supervision pilot program for clergy. The Great Plains was one of three conferences that initiated the program, first developed by the British Methodist Church, in the United States.
The Rev. Dee Williamston, clergy excellence director and assistant to the bishop, said that 27 clergy were part of the program last year, and funding would go to train more supervisors in the program.
Williamston also showed the updates to the clergy renewal leave policy, which would change to “rolling submissions” rather than one annual deadline.
Williamston said that 971 people, as of the council meeting, had registered for the annual conference session. The conference will include mission opportunities at Habitat for Humanity, Food Bank for the Heartland, Big Garden, and sending cards to thank first-responders throughout the conference.
Maupin said the laity session during the conference would include a “mini-micro ideas lab,” an interactive session that could be attended by all of the laity in the conference because of an online option for the laity session.
The council also:
Approved $52,500 for “Hope Together: Adventures in the Spirit,” a pilot program of the Hutchinson and Salina districts, with the congregational excellence team, to increase hope in local churches by focusing on relationships and abundance, provide asset-based strategies for networks, and churches participating with their local communities. “We are encouraging congregations to focus on what they have in order to discern how the Holy Spirit is calling them into the future, and to embrace their 'mission field' as a 'relationship field,'” said the Rev. Karen Rice Ratzlaff, superintendent of the Hutch and Salina districts, about the program, a collaborating with the Wichita-based Neighboring Movement.
Heard about action to be voted on at the conference session from Great Plains Camps Inc. to introduce a new governance model for the conference camps, which would include a new director of camping services to directly supervise the camp directors, while site councils would move from administrative responsibilities to fundraising, program support and volunteer coordination. The Rev. Bill Ritter, GP Camps chair, said a new 35-page operational manual would give camps “the accountability and the authority to get things done.”
Heard Bishop Saenz inform the council that a petition awaits the Judicial Council, the denomination’s high court, to allow jurisdictional conferences to take place Nov. 2-5. Bishop Saenz said the jurisdictional conferences would mainly be to elect new bishops, as 17 have announced their retirements since the 2020 General Conference. Bishop Saenz is covering for the Central Texas Conference after the retirement of its bishop at the beginning of 2022.
Seifert provided an overview of the conference’s livestream platform for local churches — www.greatplainsumc.church — and shared details of the communications team’s activities both during the height of the pandemic and as the #BeUMC campaign begins in earnest.
Contact David Burke, content specialist, at email@example.com.