The final weekend of Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr.’s 18 town-hall tour of the Great Plains Conference included the viewpoints of southeast Kansans and the assistance of the Wesley KU campus ministry.
Nine students from the University of Kansas ministry and one alumnus welcomed visitors to Lawrence First United Methodist Church’s west campus for the last of the town halls Nov. 17, as well as helping corral the microphones for audience questions and asking a few themselves.
“They represent the future of the church,” campus minister Susan Mercer said following the Five Rivers District town hall. “This impacts them more than any of us across the span of their life.”
Mercer said she wanted students to hear the information about the three proposals scheduled to come before a special session of the General Conference in February directly from Bishop Saenz and ask questions of him, as well as to “just be present as a reminder to everyone in the room that the church is here among us, too.”
Her core group of students, many of whom were among the 160 in attendance, have discussed the proposals frequently, Mercer said, but have a different perspective than some people in older generations regarding human sexuality and LGBTQ issues.
“What’s obvious to me is that this generation by and large – not 100 percent – had settled this question when they were about 5 (years old),” she said. “They’re having a hard time understanding why we’re still talking about it.”
The three plans discussed – One Church, Connectional and Traditional – could change the denomination’s stance on human sexuality issues, including whether LGBTQ persons can become ordained pastors and whether United Methodist clergy can perform same-sex weddings.
Bishop Saenz said that despite of the political differences that separate United Methodists, they should be able to agree on nonpolitical grounds.
“We are the church of (former U.S. Attorney General) Jeff Sessions and George (W.) Bush and Hillary Clinton,” he said in Lawrence.
One attendee in Lawrence asked if a bloc of members was going to make a motion to dissolve the denomination.
“I cannot tell you one way or another,” Bishop Saenz said. Since bishops can’t vote, he said, he will simply pray for the delegates, that they “leave space for the spirit to do the work.”
John McQuitty, a member of Lawrence First UMC, attended with his wife and said he was further convinced the One Church Plan is right for the future.
“It includes everybody,” said McQuitty, whose name tag included a rainbow indicating his church is part of the Reconciling Ministries Network. “Inclusion is basically the issue, and I think it’s God’s plan that everybody should be able to do church work, whether it’s at the level of clergy or as members.”
Marilyn Heiger, a member of Plum Creek UMC, near Paola, said she was still uncertain of the best route after the Five Rivers District meeting.
“It still seems like they’re up in the air,” she said.
Earlier in the day, about 130 people heard about the plans at the Parsons District town hall.
Bishop Saenz said he hoped the decision wouldn’t cause a permanent split in the denomination.
“We are better together,” he said, “even if we don’t agree.”
One attendee asked if churches who left the denomination after the decision could later return.
“The door will be open,” Bishop Saenz said. “If any church wants to come back in three, four, five years, yes, hey, we’ll be waiting for you.”
Bishop Saenz told the audience at Parsons Wesley UMC that he wouldn’t predict what the outcome might be in February.
“People want some kind of resolution,” he said. “But by the end of the day, we have work to do.”
Earlier, the bishop said, “We have a lot to do as we proclaim the light of God’s creation.”
Brennan Cummings, a lay member from Baxter Springs UMC, was previously in the audience for Bishop Saenz’s presentation before the annual conference session, and feels “more informed” with the updates in the Nov. 17 gathering.
“Since the Judicial Council has met, things are more concrete now, and we have more of an idea of what’s forthcoming,” he said. “I feel more hopeful about the future of the church.”
The Rev. Annie Ricker, pastor of Frontenac and Arma UMC, is writing her doctoral thesis for Saint Paul School of Theology on LGBTQ inclusion in local churches.
She said she appreciated the bishop’s “calming presence” in explaining the options.
“Hopefully he is allaying some of our fears and our anxiety,” Ricker said. “No matter what end of the spectrum you may fall on, obviously we’re passionate about our denomination, and we’re passionate about our communities of faith. Hearing him say we will continue to be the church is sincerely helpful.”
Ricker’s church members, she said, have been discussing the choices for several months. She will share the results of her dissertation with them in January and February.
“They seem to be pretty confident that whatever happens will be the right fit,” she said. “The local churches, for me at least, have an understanding that God is at work in our United Methodist process.
“They are confident that God’s will will be done.”