The Connecting Council discussed the importance of strong leadership and new ways to reach new people for Christ during its fall meeting Oct. 19-20 at Susanna Wesley United Methodist Church in Topeka.
The council – comprised of about 60 people who make timely decisions between annual conference sessions – includes district superintendents; district lay leaders; directors of administration, congregational excellence, clergy excellence and communications; conference committee representatives and at-large members. The group spent its Friday afternoon session discussing traits important for solid leadership and how the conference can live into its vision statement of “Great Churches, Great Leaders, Great Disciples, Transformed World.”
“What is greatness?” Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. asked the group. “I hope we can gain clarity of what greatness means to churches of 25 people and what it means for churches with 250 and above. We’re not going to go through a whole other visioning process, but we want to live into our vision because that means Christ is working through us to make a difference in people’s lives.”
The bishop broke the group into smaller teams to discuss positive examples of leadership from the Bible and then from other aspects of world history. Biblical leaders selected included Moses (Exodus 2:1-Deuteronomy 34:12), Deborah (Judges 4:1-5:31), and Paul (Acts 8:1-28:30 and the Pauline letters of the New Testament). Secular choices included former South African President Nelson Mandela, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was martyred in 1980 for speaking out against military oppression, and civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As part of the exercise, leaders for each of the small groups gathered input and started crafting a covenant for leadership for the Connecting Council. Bishop Saenz explained the goal is to provide a framework from which the council will lead the conference heading into the 2019 special session of General Conference. The initial draft of that covenant was sent to the Connecting Council for review and further comments.
The bishop provided a short summary of his experiences in his town hall meetings regarding human sexuality and the upcoming special session of General Conference. The bishop reported more than 3,170 people had attended the first 13 of 18 town hall sessions at that point, an average of 244 per event. As of the Connecting Council’s meeting, town halls had yet to be conducted in the Flint Hills, Hays, Topeka, Parsons and Five Rivers districts.
Bishop Saenz encouraged attendees to direct people with questions to the Great Plains Conference’s website at www.greatplainsumc.org/cowf for a wide range of resources meant to educate people on the subject and to help facilitate discussion in the local church.
He concluded the segment on town halls and the Friday council session by urging people to join him at 2:23 p.m. each day to pray for the delegates who will be voting on the plans provided by the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops. He said he pauses each day at that time to pray the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm.
Bishop Saenz and Scott Brewer, conference treasurer and director of administrative services, provided a series of statistics to provide an indication of performance for the Great Plains Conference. Worship attendance met the bishop’s goal of “zero decline,” with third quarter numbers down by only 36 people, or .05 percent. Offerings were up by about 1 cent per person per week in the third quarter, and professions of faith soared by 47.6 percent to 794 in the third quarter. The number of small groups also soared – 24.2 percent – to 4,828 in the third quarter.
“The number of small groups is a driver for vitality,” Bishop Saenz said. “Worship does not build community. That’s a gathering of people to celebrate God’s love and mercy. Small groups are the caring places, where people say, ‘How are you doing?’ These are the loci of pastoral care.
Those relationships are the glue that holds our churches together.”
The bishop shared details about InZynch, a company the conference is working with to develop a collaborative management system so district superintendents, directors and ministry area coordinators can work more efficiently together.
The system – which features a matrix for tracking progress on projects – includes the crafting of fourth-quarter objectives. For the directors, the objectives include providing a definition of what it means to be a “great church,” “great leader,” and “great disciple,” as well as what a “transformed world” would really look like. For the cabinet, the objectives include 90 percent mission share payout from local congregations and developing a system for introducing proposals for improvements across the conference’s operation in 2019.
The Rev. Bill Ritter, Blue River District superintendent and dean of the cabinet, provided an update on networks by starting with a testimonial video provided by pastor Marc Riegel of Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Abilene, Kansas.
Ritter reported that networks were functioning in the Dodge City, Elkhorn Valley, Flint Hills, Gateway, Great West, Hays, Hutchinson, Parsons, Prairie Rivers, Salina and both Wichita districts. Networks are being formed in the Blue River, Five Rivers, Kansas City, Missouri River, and Topeka districts.
Ritter said each network is different and in a different point in its development.
That sentiment was echoed by the Rev. Craig Hauschild, lead pastor at East Heights UMC in Wichita and chair of the Personnel Committee.
“We’re still in process of creating a sense of trust so that we can openly share with each other,” he said. “We’re learning how to work together and how to learn from each other.”
Ritter concluded his presentation by sharing a progress report on district strategies. District superintendents met with ministry area directors and coordinators in August, and are working to revise their initial drafts. Once completed, each district’s strategy document will be placed on the conference website.
The Rev. Lance Clay, Prairie Rivers District superintendent, provided a short summary of changes under consideration for the weekly “Vital Signs” statistical report provided by each local church. Six metrics being considered are:
Average Worship Attendance – The actual number of participants in a regular worship service throughout the week, including Fresh Expressions participation
Online Worship Attendance – The number of online participants. More discussion is taking place to define active engagement so the measurement would not simply be the number of “likes” on a post and likely would have to include at least viewing of the full or majority of the sermon. “We realize online is a real missional tool,” Clay said.
Small Groups – The number of small groups that meet each week.
Fresh Expressions – These are church ministries that reflect the changing culture and will be primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of the church. These expressions are intended to take place away from church buildings and may be counted in the weekly worship attendance.
Professions of Faith – The number of persons received into membership measured by “profession of faith” and “reaffirmation of faith.”
Giving – Total offerings received each week to support the ministries of the church.
The Rev. Nancy Lambert, director of clergy excellence and assistant to the bishop, introduced a comprehensive program titled “Called to Flourish.” She explained that this effort is developed in conjunction with a new requirement for clergy in the Book of Discipline known as the “eight-year assessment.”
“Called to flourish is the intent – developing a process, or program, that helps clergy reflect on their ministry and determine where they want to go to be healthier, more fruitful and flourishing in their ministry,” Lambert said.
Components of the “Called to Flourish” program include a 360-degree evaluation, a review of statistics for the past eight years, spiritual reflection and coaching.
She also provided an update on the Leadership Development Plan, which was approved by the Connecting Council last year. A pilot retreat is planned for November, with more to be scheduled after the initial session concludes. She explained that the retreat will focus on health – primarily spiritual – with a focus on renewing the call to ministry, reflecting on the participant’s call to ministry and providing intentional quiet space for reflection.
Lambert celebrated the fact that almost 350 clergy in the Great Plains Conference reported they were part of a covenant group of some kind, meaning they are actively seeking a group for support, nurturing and accountability.
The Rev. Amy Lippoldt, lead pastor at Basehor UMC and chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry, told the Connecting Council that she was encouraged by a recent meeting conducted by the board that included the district committees on ministry. Lippoldt described the recent gathering as a “different kind of meeting” in which about 110 people gathered to talk about the mission of the church and the responsibility that comes with credentialing new clergy, especially with the possible ramifications for boards of ordained ministry within two of the three plans being considered for the denomination at the upcoming special session of General Conference.
“There was a lot of positive energy in the room,” Lippoldt said. “And we heard from a lot of district committee members who thought it was very helpful to see how we work as a board.”
She said she was encouraged despite the challenges faced by the denomination regarding human sexuality.
“God is still raising up leaders, and I am grateful for that,” she said.
Camps and Campus Ministries
Stuart Mack, chair of the camping board, shared uplifting statistics from the 2018 camping season. He noted all six Great Plains Conference camps showed increased numbers of overnight campers this past summer. Approximate attendance was:
Chippewa – 816 (up 8 percent)
Fontanelle – 765 (up 6.5 percent)
Horizon – 1,264 (up 7 percent)
Lakeside – 416 (up 2 percent)
Norwesca – 105 (up 21 percent)
Comeca – 257 (up 74 percent)
Mack said of children third grade and older, almost 3,000 children rededicated their lives to Christ, and more than 1,260 said they thought they would be more involved in their local church after their time at camp.
The Rev. Lora Andrews, pastor at Grace UMC in Winfield, Kansas, represented the campus ministry board and reported that more than 280 churches have sent young adults to college and an average of more than 600 students attended worship each week, with more than 360 involved in small groups.
The Rev. Nathan Stanton, director of congregational excellence, emphasized the need for local churches to reach out to people beyond their church buildings and introduced two objectives the conference has invested in to help churches succeed in that effort.
“We have to have a sense of urgency,” Stanton said. “We don’t have what we need right now for networks, so we have to develop an outward or external mindset. Everything we develop and cultivate has to be for people who do not yet have a commitment to faith and who are not yet connected to the body of Christ.”
One tool to help in that effort is Readiness 360, a program that provides tools to improve sustainability and success rates of new churches, campuses and faith communities.
The objective involves a comprehensive survey to help congregations determine where they stand in their discipleship, and then training and purposeful coaching help the congregation shift its focus to take their faith community to a higher level of engagement with its mission field. More information will be shared in coming months.
Another tool is Fresh Expressions, a movement that started in Britain aimed at meeting the unchurched where they are in a community – restaurants, parks and even bars. The concept is to meet them on turf that is comfortable to them so they can feel free to explore the role Jesus can play in their lives.
Two vision days are scheduled for Feb. 2 at the Water’s Edge in Omaha and Feb. 9 at First United Methodist Church in Topeka. These days will include five to six hours of presentations, with each church then encouraged to start considering a Fresh Expression it can launch in 2019 as a means of starting to build or strengthen a mission-shaped culture within their congregations. The sessions will be presented free of charge, with registration for the vision days opening soon (watch the Great Plains Conference website for details as they become available).
“Fresh Expressions are smaller communities of faith led by laity and, at times, clergy with the purpose of focusing on discipleship,” Stanton said. “We are seeking to equip and unleash as many people as possible to begin Fresh Expressions across the Great Plains Conference.”
Brewer noted that mission share giving remains slightly ahead of the pace set for 2017, which at 90.1 percent was the highest payout in the short history of the Great Plains Conference. He said he was cautiously optimistic about the trend, but noted that tariffs and poor weather, particularly in the western portions of Kansas and Nebraska, may have hurt farmers’ incomes.
Loyd Hamrick, chair of the conference board of trustees, reported that the sale of the former conference office building in Lincoln had fallen through because the potential buyer learned it would receive less funding from the state of Nebraska than it had anticipated. However, the property is still on the market, and the conference’s realtor has urged patience in maintaining the asking price of $1.65 million.