Keeping the Faith in Imperial

David Burke


Faith UMC, Imperial

IMPERIAL, Nebraska – The downpour started about 15 minutes before the beginning of worship services at Faith United Methodist Church of Chase County, as people grabbed umbrellas and rushed into the Upper Republican Valley Natural Resources District offices.

“I’m afraid the sign might blow over,” Melody Newman said as she watched the fiberglass sandwich board, signifying the location of the service, withstand the southwest Nebraska rainstorm. “That’s OK, we need the rain.”

But a record 50 people made their way to the 3½-month old church on Sept. 10, many of them children for backpack blessings as they started a new school year.

Faith UMC was born out of a 68% disaffiliation vote by the former Imperial First United Methodist Church on Jan. 29.

“It was one vote over what they needed,” Newman recalled.

“I would have thought that it would be closer to 50/50,” former member Carol Hess said.

“Blindsided,” added Erin Konecky.

They suspect their former congregation called in members who hadn’t attended church in years and rounded up members living in nursing homes to come to the January vote.

“The church was full that day,” Konecky said. “I had never seen it that full.”

The rest of the 135-year-old church remained business as usual, albeit replacing “United” with “Global” on the wooden signs in front of the church and at the city limits.

For others, it was a cue to leave.

“They thought that those of us who preferred to remain United Methodist would not leave,” said Newman, a Certified Lay Minister, former associate pastor of Imperial First and its choir director for nearly 40 years. “We sort of thought that people would come to the meetings, come to the vote, and it would be people who have always come to church, supported the church, been there. And that’s how the decision would be made. We kind of thought we would remain United Methodist.”

The church’s pastor, Deb Copple, accepted a midyear appointment in the Iowa Conference and left at the end of April.

“She was really attacked because she spoke up to remain United Methodist,” Newman said.

By the first of May, those who wanted to stay United Methodist said they felt lost.

“Erin spoke to us and said it,” Newman said. “We wanted to do something but none of us had stepped up wanting to be that leader.”

Kicking off

An eight-woman launch team formed to create a new congregation. One of the first priorities was scheduling a kickoff service.

“I needed a date. I needed something to look forward to,” Hess said. “I couldn’t go an entire month not knowing what I was going to do.”

They chose the first Sunday in June.
Erin Konecky gathers with the children of Faith United Methodist Church of Chase County for a backpack blessing. Photos by David Burke
“Starting a church in the summer?” Newman said with a laugh, realizing the traditional slump in any church’s attendance during the warmer months.

“I wasn’t ready,” Konecky said. “At this point we’re all still grieving and processing, and we were doing it different ways. I was fine just having small meetings in my house, but people wanted what they were lacking. They wanted a church environment.

“I had to learn to let go,” she added with a laugh.

The launch team – described by both Newman and Konecky as all Type-A personalities – decided what they did and didn’t want in a new church.

“We have discovered we all have different ideas of what worship entails, and what people really think is important versus what they don’t care about,” Newman said, including long discussions on whether to have candle lighting before the service, or whether to sing the Doxology after offering.

“Every person who walks through this door has a different idea of what they need out of worship,” she added.

Deciding what they wanted in a church led to heated discussions, Konecky said.

“We had meetings that were pretty tense, where you could feel the conflict,” she said. “Are we doing the right thing, when it would be easier to walk away and even easier to not go to church anymore, knowing that it’s always going to be difficult, but it’s worth it.

“It’s always gonna be thankless,” Newman added. “Anytime you’re trying to plant a new church anywhere, I think it’s going to be highly unlikely and maybe not a good thing to have everybody be of the same mind exactly. If you do that then you’re not going to reach all the people.”

The new congregation was advised by Rev. Jeff Clinger, director of congregational excellence for the Great Plains Conference, who gave the sermon at the opening service.

Clinger suggested the group meet once a month over the summer – a suggestion the launch team shot down.

“We wanted to be legit,” Konecky said. “Our fear was that if we weren’t regular every Sunday, people wouldn’t see us as a real church. At the time we went forward, the focus was sustainability, and how do we get people to see us as official.”

The first service drew 40 people, a record broken by the Sept. 10 fall kickoff.

Location, location

Once a date was set, Faith UMC had to find a location.

The consensus was that the best spot was the Natural Resources District office, which included a large meeting room, ample parking, a kitchen and suitable restroom facilities.

The church pays the NRD $100 a week, Newman said, with a “’buy three, get one free’ deal.”
Faith UMC gathers in the Natural Resources District offices in Imperial, about 75 yards away from its former church building.
“We had other ideas, but nothing was as perfect as this place,” Konecky said. “It was the cheapest option, the newest option, and it had the kitchen.”
It’s also about 75 yards away from their former church, separated by a small building.

“It didn’t even occur to me that it was so close,” Konecky said. “We didn’t plan it.”

At the fall kickoff, two rows of chairs were at the front of the room, and the rest of the congregation sat at conference tables set up in a U-shape.

Children both participate in the service – including joining Newman to clap along with the song “Trees of the Field” and having their backpacks blessed – and spend time coloring or playing with toys during the service.

“Except for a couple of Sundays, we’ve had one-third kids,” Hess said. “I think that’s a sign of health. And we’re going the right way.”

On the other end of the age spectrum is a 95- and 97-year-old couple, recently celebrating their 75th anniversary, who have attended Faith UMC every Sunday.

The hymns vary from the classics to praise music such as “Now is the Time to Worship.”

It’s a very relaxed atmosphere, with a variety of church members responsible for different parts of the service. Since Clinger, the sermons have been given by a variety of speakers, including conference lay leader Lisa Maupin, and sermon videos by Rev. Curt Magelky, pastor of Ogallala UMC, 45 miles to the north.

The sermon at the fall kickoff was delivered by Doug Skiles, a lay speaker from McCook.

“You guys figured out how to get started, and that’s a good thing,” he said in his sermon. “But what’s the next big step?”

The next step

The fall kickoff included announcements of grade school and middle school youth groups, as well as the beginning of a confirmation class.

For the time being, the church will remain in the Natural Resources District office.
Carol Hess serves snacks before services.
“Unless the NRD decides they don’t want us, I think we’re OK where we are,” Newman said. “We realize that, looking around Imperial, there is really not a lot of places at the moment that would be open to us.”

A former Episcopalian church in town is available but is known for having bats and needs repairs. Another empty church has owners who only want to sell and not lease it.

“Eventually we’d love to have a building or a place,” Newman said. “We’ve even talked about a storefront. We’d love to have a place we didn’t have to set up and take down. Right now, we’re more interested in building our congregation and kids.”

Konecky said a physical building is not as important as community outreach.

“Right now, what we need to focus on is the outside of church,” she said. “Our original year goal was to have a pastor and to have a building. As we’ve gone on, I think we’ve figured out that we like having different speakers every week. It opens us up to a variety.”

Further discernment will come, Konecky said, when church members get comfortable with knowing what they want their new venture to be.

“Are we trying to recreate what we had, or are we trying to build something new? Most of the people wanted to rebuild what we had,” she said. “We had this traditional view of church, and over time I think we realize that we don’t need a fulltime pastor, and we don’t need a huge space like we used to have.”

Konecky said she isn’t as concerned about attendance numbers as much as discipleship.

“It’s OK to be small,” she said. “Every time somebody doesn’t come to church who I think should be here I get sad, but I think that’s not what it’s about. It’s about serving the people who are here and do come.”

The church is now looking at launching small groups, including Bible studies, women’s groups and coffee meetings.

The launch team hopes now to have a parttime pastor, or at least an ordained clergy on call to bless communion and perform baptisms, weddings and funerals.

“For me, to be truthful, I’m waiting to see what happens to the rest of the conference,” Hess said. “Things are going to be shifting. We realize that.”

The conference did provide grants for a community-wide pool party hosted by the church and for 700 water bottles, distributed at the Chase County Fair and at youth baseball games, with labels that announced the fall kickoff.

Most of those attending the church were former members of Imperial First, but a few others came from elsewhere in the community. One told Newman they were “finally comfortable” in church.

“That to me was the greatest compliment that they could have given. Everybody wants to reach the unchurched. That’s not a new thing. We’re trying to make it some place where people can come, and they can feel like they can relax,” she said. “They’re not new to the community. This is what I feel is exciting. The people who have come have lived in this area for years, but they have not been part of a church till they came here.”

Adding another

Imperial, a town of 2,000, already has eight churches in place, and some residents questioned the need for another.

“I was told when we started this, by a lot of people I really respected, that we don’t need another church,” Konecky said.

“You’re gonna pull both churches down,” Newman said she was told. “You’re being selfish. We heard a lot of the ‘selfish.’”

Newman said she was told by her former church, “We would certainly welcome you back any time you wanted to return.”
Melody Newman leads children in actions during the hymn "Trees of the Field."

“It sounds really nice but what it was was ‘Any time you want to recant your position and come back …’”

“It’s almost like ‘You’re welcome to come back to our church,’” Hess added.

The launch team determined early that while they might disagree behind closed doors, they would “not hang up our dirty laundry in public.”

“It’s not to lie, we just need to be positive in the community. It’s easy to grouse, and people overhear you,” Newman said. “In a town like Imperial, and I think this is sometimes true in cities and neighborhoods, somebody’s listening to what you say at the coffeeshop or at the restaurant. It might be the three of us talking (and eavesdroppers hear) problems at that new church. Who wants to go to a church that already has a problem?”

Hess said that after the vote she returned to a group of retired teacher friends who were all in the Global Methodist Church.

She told them, “If I can be friends with people from the Catholic Church, I can be friends with you. We have worked at it.”
Newman said she’s withstood complaints.

“It’s a work in progress a little bit,” she said. “I’ve been attacked by a couple of them verbally here and there. I just have to remind myself that this is just the way it is.”

Konecky and her family joined the former Imperial First two years ago.

“It was really easy for me to say it’s just a building and the people that were the church community have joined us. I’m not losing a 40-year-old friendship,” she said. “The people we knew and were closest to in church felt the same way we did.”

For Hess and Newman, who separately joined the church in 1981, the losses were also physical.

Hess footed the bill for a stained-glass cross that now sits in the Global sanctuary. “It was sort of mine,” she said.

The sanctuary’s grand piano was purchased with memorial funds for Newman’s grandmother, and the pew Bibles were from the memorial for Newman’s parents.

Newman and Konecky said they contacted the church to try and get half of the Bibles and hymnals, but never heard a response.

“We had to make the decision not only to remain United Methodist with the theology and all the things that went with that, but we had to make the decision as to what was important to us,” Newman said. “Was the building and the cross and the Bibles and the piano – were those the things that were going to make us stay there? Or were the way we believe and the things we find important, were those the things that would make us leave?”

Not only was Newman involved in the church, but her husband, Don, was also a pianist for many years.

“We had a history with that church. Leaving it, for any of us …, was not an easy decision or a decision that was quickly made,” she said. “There was a feeling for a while that maybe we could rent space from them and have a second service. We said no. For me, it would be like picking a scab off.”

The Faith UMC leaders say they don’t have concrete information but believe the attendance at the Global church down the street is about 100.

“Their parking lot looks pretty full,” Don Newman said.

“I think they are thriving right now,” Konecky said. “I think that’s great; they’re reaching people. It’s a very positive thing.”

“We don’t want them to fail,” Melody Newman said. “We’ve never wanted them to fail.”

Family focus

Two weeks into the formation of Faith UMC, Konecky was invited by Clinger to talk about the progress of the newest congregation at the Great Plains Annual Conference session in La Vista, Nebraska.

The daughter of Rev. Warren Cico, a retired United Methodist pastor, Konecky said she always felt torn by the church, particularly since her mother and stepfather were rigid Lutherans and her stepsiblings were Catholic, while her father’s churches encouraged her and other females to participate.
Konecky, a high school English teacher, talks with fellow Faith members before church.
“I drifted away from church for a while and hadn’t been involved with a church until we joined this church and moved to Imperial,” said Konecky, 41. “I wanted it to be a church my kids wanted to go to — the type of church I wish I had grown up in.”

Konecky and her family moved to Imperial and became and English and journalism teacher at Chase County High School, moving from Waverly in eastern Nebraska.

“I’ve seen students struggling to fit in, and their parents don’t support them,” she said. “All I want is for people to be happy with who they are and not hide who they are.”

The day of the disaffiliation vote, Konecky wore a T-shirt depicting a rainbow inside a heart and the phrase “Be You.” She said her oldest son was bullied in school the next day because of it.

“I think now more than ever we need a community where you can be who you are,” she said. “To me it’s all about being a supporter and a friend and an ally.”

Konecky said from the beginning she wanted to listen to the opinions of the youngest population.

“We dismiss them because they are young, and they are kids, and they are stupid. But they are not,” she said. “I want them to tell us where they want to go.”

In coming up with plans for a new church, Konecky said she had a top priority.

“I wanted to build a place where my kids could be whoever they wanted,” said the mother of 12-, 7- and 6-year-olds. “All I want is for my kids to like it. And I think the God piece comes with that.”

Konecky – who said her house and car are usually blaring top-40 radio — has already found evidence of a change in her family.

“After the first couple of Sundays, I walked in (to my kitchen), my kids are doing the dishes, and they’re singing ‘Come, Now is the Time to Worship.’ They asked Alexa to play that song,” she said. “That’s when I was like, ‘Wow, my kids are getting something out of this.’ They’re not whining about going. It’s not a battle.

“To me it was a no-brainer to stay with United Methodists.”

Contact David Burke, content specialist, at

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