LEWELLEN, Nebraska – The sound of several simultaneous conversations is broken up by Jean Jensen ringing an antique school bell.
“I know if you were in a formal church then you’d sit in the back row — and that’s OK,” she announced to the group of 20. “But this is a gathering, and we want to be up front and close.”
The group gathered in this Nebraska panhandle town consists of United Methodists from Lewellen and Oshkosh, 12 miles away, whose churches both voted Feb. 26 to disaffiliate from the denomination and are expected to join the Global Methodist Church in July, pending a vote from the Great Plains Annual Conference on May 31.
Their meeting spot is a combination art gallery and bistro opened by Jensen and her brothers Dennis and Rex Miller, artists all, in 2009 and named — The Most Unlikely Place.
They met for the first time March 5, just a week after the vote.
Jensen sat down with Rev. Cindy Karges, Great West District superintendent, to talk about her plans for the group the night of the Sunday vote.
“Before Monday was over I had three different people from the conference contact me to provide support,” she said. “It has been encouraging to have that conference support.”
Inspired by a nephew’s family gathering last year at The Most Unlikely Place, Jensen was encouraged to have that be the site for the gathering.
“The first Sunday was pretty, pretty simple,” she said. “We sang a few hymns; we did prayers out of our hymnal and went around and introduced ourselves. People talked about what they hoped to get from our group and what they wanted.”
About half of the group previously attended Lewellen UMC and the other half attended Oshkosh. Several people without a church home also have been guests in the first month.
“There were those of us who felt very strongly that church and Christianity equals being open and inclusive and welcoming to everyone,” Jensen said. “Those of us who had that base opinion started talking, and we still wanted our church community. We were trying to figure out how to do it.”
Churches in the Great Plains and throughout the denomination are primarily disaffiliating because of disagreements over LGBTQ+ rights, including whether pastors can be openly gay and whether clergy can perform same-sex weddings.
The issue has filtered down to Lewellen, a town of 200 in a conservative area of Nebraska, Jensen said. One woman at the gathering has a lesbian daughter, Jensen said, and her own brother, Dennis Miller, has a transgender grandchild.
Although Jensen has worked as the leader for the area’s Volunteers of America, which involved some ministry and organizing events, she has had no other training in Lay Servant Ministries.
At the beginning of the 10 a.m. service, she led a discussion of what puts those gathered with her in awe.
Responses were varied, including the beauty of the sandhill cranes, which arrive in the area in noisy clouds of hundreds of birds; the sight of a cat lying in a sunbeam; how quickly the human body heals after surgery; and the joy one woman felt when her 12-year-old grandson in Omaha was rededicating his life to Christ that morning.
Gathered in an array of styles of tables and chairs, they sang and prayed from The United Methodist Hymnal and its supplement, “The Faith We Sing.”
The 30-minute service adjourned to the kitchen, where brunch — quiche, blueberry muffins, coffee cake and mixed fruit — was served. Everyone returned to their tables, where Dennis Miller, a former lay minister at the Wesleyan Church in town, gave a mini-sermon on turning points.
“I have not been struck on the head by God,” Miller said, “but I had to think, ‘How did I get here?’”
His talk led to group discussions at three tables in the café.
Jensen said giving everyone the chance to speak was an important element of the gathering. It comes from a Lakota tradition where everyone gets their turn to speak, uninterrupted.
“I think the conversation — having conversation, having people talk and not just sit in rows — is a huge thing. I think what people really want is a sense of community. That’s a big deal,” she said. “Getting a chance to say what you want to say, and being heard, is important. What I was hearing from people was that a 20-, 30-minute sermon wasn’t doing it for them. They want to be part of a conversation.”
Rita Shimmin, a retired high school business teacher, was a part of the Lewellen UMC for 50 years, the last 25 driving from Ogallala, 30 miles away down U.S. Highway 26.
Shimmin said she and Jensen were adamant about not having the Lewellen church vote on disaffiliation, but knew they had an uphill battle.
“Before we even voted, those of us who knew what was going to happen — we were a small church to begin with. We were not going to have a long future because we were getting smaller,” she said. “I was pretty disappointed that the pastor was definitely pushing for Global, to disaffiliate. One of our members who has always been really supportive and has been the leader of our church was demanding that we were going to disaffiliate. That was pushed very seriously.”
Shimmin said she was upset that members of the church who hadn’t been in the building for years showed up for the vote.
“We think it was a little underhanded,” she said.
Until the disaffiliation is approved, Shimmin remains the financial secretary of the Lewellen UMC, entering the church long enough to pick up the offerings for that week’s bank deposit.
She said the gathering is “uplifting” and something she is already looking forward to each week.
“I don’t know if it makes up for regular church, but I’ve learned more things from the guys who have been speaking better than the sermons we got at church,” she said.
Jesse Williams, her husband and their youngest child arrived at The Most Unlikely Place in a golf cart.
She has taken over playing the antique upright piano for the gathering, with 8-year-old Sophie leading the singing of the 1995 pop hit “One of Us,” about God appearing in human form. Williams also played “Amazing Grace” for the group, asking for feedback whether she was playing too fast or too slow.
Her family was part of the Oshkosh UMC but left after the vote.
“We just want to be part of this group. We love the openness, the acceptance,” she said. “Everyone is just about love and kindness, and that’s what we want our daughter to learn.”
Sophie, who shuffled her feet from table to table picking up Easter candy at the Palm Sunday service, was the lone child in the group, but was asked for her opinions with everyone else.
Jesse Williams said the group already had proven to be accepting. In her case, it was because of a fragrance allergy that made her unable to be around perfumes and cleaning products.
“I hope people will be more open-minded and kind, and this is the place to be to feel that way,” she said.
The Most Unlikely Place was built in 1908 as a playhouse and movie theater, and through the years the building has been a community center, storage for amorphous silica (the powder used in cosmetics), and a paint store.
The Miller brothers and Jensen bought the building in the mid-2000s, and after extensive remodeling opened it in June 2009.
Although Lewellen’s only bar and grill recently closed, it still has its post office, bank, and a motel converted from its former hospital and attached assisted living center.
Lewellen currently has three churches — Wesleyan, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and United, soon to be Global, Methodist.
Ogallala UMC, the Keith County seat church, and its pastor, the Rev. Curt Magelky, have been supportive of the group, Jensen said.
“He has consistently advised me personally,” she said. “The Ogallala church could not be more generous in reaching out to us to help in every possible way. Knowing we have that support is helpful.”
Magelky said he and the Rev. Jeff Clinger, congregational excellence director for the conference, have been in contact with Jensen throughout the transition.
“We just thought it was kind of a neat thing they were meeting at an art gallery called The Most Unlikely Place. That seemed like a fitting name,” Magelky said.
Clinger said that in situations like Lewellen-Oshkosh, support is available through the conference, either by contacting himself or district superintendents.
“There’s all sorts of connection and care and resourcing," he said. “If they want to be a member of the conference, fine. If not, I can provide them with support.”
Membership in the conference, Clinger said, is for those whose churches have disaffiliated but want to remain United Methodist. Clinger communicates with them through a weekly email and a monthly virtual gathering.
Grant resources are available for signage, communications and marketing, Clinger added.
There is also material available for churches who voted to remain United Methodist, but have seen impact done to their congregations.
The only thing Lewellen asked for in resources, Clinger said, was in getting signage.
“They’re very, very self-sufficient,” he said.
Disaffiliations have caused remaining United Methodist Churches to change and adjust, and Lewellen is a prime example, Magelky said.
“To do an innovative ministry and adapt to the situations is really an exciting thing,” Magelky said. “They’re kind of starting from scratch and doing some really interesting things that it’s hard to do in an established church.”
Magelky and Jensen have discussed the possibility of bringing sacraments for communion to the gathering.
He said if the group continues its momentum, it can be viable in the long run.
“It can keep going as long as there’s the passion and the leadership there,” he said. “As long as they’re willing to listen to the Spirit’s guidance and keep going along that route, I don’t see why they couldn’t.”
Jensen said she hopes the spirit of the fellowship group will continue, but doesn’t yet want to be considered a church.
“We could become an official United Methodist congregation,” she said. “But at this point it doesn’t seem like it would make sense. The offer from Ogallala and the conference is that we could become a fellowship group and that seems like it might work for us for now. I don’t want to burden people with too much ministry at this point.”
The response in just the first month has been beyond her expectations, Jensen said.
“I have seen real enthusiasm,” she said. “No one knows what we’re doing. We’re very much in flux. It’s very loose. We can make changes; let’s try out these ideas and see what works.”
She said the unity of those remaining United Methodist helped each of them through the vote.
“If people were off on their own, it would still be easy to be lost in the anger and resentment,” she said. “Finding a way forward — finding a way where we can do something that has more meaning, more connection for us — it would be easier to get stuck. We encourage each other to move on.”
The spirit of the new group fits in with the attitude that she and her brothers had in opening The Most Unlikely Place.
“Honestly, we’ve always worked to have this be where you come in it’s ‘Welcome to our family.’ We’ve worked to have that as who we are,” she said. “That fits with who we are.”
The gathering, Jensen says, fits the longtime United Methodist slogan of “open hearts, open minds, open doors.”
“They absolutely believe it,” she said. “That’s our group.”
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