No matter the outcome of February’s special session of the General Conference to discuss human sexuality issues, Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. says the goal he has given the Cabinet for 2019 is “zero decline” in the Great Plains.
And yes, he understands the obstacles of achieving “zero decline,” which means losing no members nor churches.
“The best-case scenario,” Bishop Saenz said during the Oct. 6-7 town halls in Wichita and Hutchinson, “would be that nobody leaves.
“My objective is to keep everybody,” he added during the session at Wichita Chapel Hill UMC. “Everybody’s important. We will do our best to shepherd our churches forward.”
About 285 people attended the town hall at Chapel Hill UMC on Saturday morning, with another 150 at Wichita West Heights UMC that afternoon. More than 310 were in attendance at Hutchinson Trinity UMC Sunday afternoon. The town hall meetings provide a venue for people to hear about proposals known to be provided to the special session of General Conference in February in St. Louis.
Bishop Saenz said the large number at Trinity, where chairs had to be added in the narthex, showed the interest in the topic facing the denomination.
“When I drove by the church I thought, ‘Wow, we’ve got a revival going on at the Methodist Church on a Sunday afternoon,’” he said with a laugh.
Bishop Saenz outlined the structure of the United Methodist Church, from the local congregation level to the worldwide scope because of missionary outreach and the growing central conferences, before detailing the three plans – One Church, Connectional and Traditional – that will be debated Feb. 23-26 during the special session in St. Louis.
In several of the sessions, he acknowledged that perception of Scripture is the basis for much of the disagreement.
“Can two people with very different approaches to Scripture be united or not?” Bishop Saenz asked.
Those attending the Wichita and Hutchinson sessions had various responses to the presentation.
Ben Davis, a member of Chapel Hill UMC, said he wished each of the plans would have been more deeply rooted in Scripture.
“What they proposed is a very practical thing, which is understandable, absolutely,” Davis said. “But whether it’s for or against or in the middle, I do wish it would be a little more of a theological document, supported by what we see in Scripture and what we see by the church’s interpretation of Scripture.
“One of the things that’s obviously very evidenced here is that theology matters” he added. “Theology affects all of us. For the church to give us practical documents instead of theological-heavy documents, I think it lessens the debate and lessens the conversation a little more.”
Bishop Saenz noted in all three town hall events that because of the details in each of the plans, his presentation can only provide a surface-like introduction. He directed people in attendance to view the conference’s resources pages on the website at www.greatplainsumc.org/cowf. The resources pages include the Biblical and Theological foundations for each of the three plans as they were developed by the Commission on a Way Forward.
Karen Mettling, who nervously spoke during the Chapel Hill session, identified herself as a lesbian and said following the town hall that she supported the One Church Plan, but thought its language should be less tentative.
“What I would wish for is that the LGBTQ persons are just accepted, period. That’s it,” said Mettling, a member of Wichita College Hill UMC who attended with her partner. “It still isn’t just saying, ‘LGBTQ people are just fine the way they are.’ God loves them, I love them, the church loves them.”
Amy Fowles, a member of Wichita Aldersgate UMC, said the presentation helped her figure out the options for the church.
“I’m still trying to decide the way forward, both for me personally and how that plays out in my local congregation and for our church as a whole,” saying until there’s a decision she’ll “keep praying.”
Allison Hughes, who attends Winfield Grace UMC, said she was disappointed to be one of the younger people in attendance at West Heights.
“My thought process and questions have kind of shifted and kind of solidified” after the presentation, Hughes said. “I feel like I have a better understanding of why I was leaning that way anyway.”
Richard Neisinger, a member of Marion Eastmoor UMC, left the Hutchinson town hall wondering if enough Scripture had been taken into consideration.
“I understand we have a mission in the world to reach people for Jesus Christ, but we can’t lose the identity of who we are and what that call to accept Christ as savior involves,” Neisinger said. “We might gain numbers, but we don’t fulfill making disciples for Christ.
“We need to remember what our mission is, not just keep numbers coming in to our churches,” he added.
Anette Roberson, who attends Hutchinson Trinity UMC, said the town hall left her with more questions.
“I’m just worried, more worried,” she said. “I’m concerned for the church as a whole, I guess.”
The next stop in the town hall tour is at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, at Salina Trinity UMC.
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