Nearly 300 hear of proposals at Topeka District town hall

David Burke


Ken Edmonds left the Topeka District town hall meeting Nov. 11 feeling “a little bit optimistic” about the future of The United Methodist Church, but “It needs to be more than we’ve seen today.” 

The McLouth man, who identified himself as gay during a Q&A session with Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr., has been a member of The United Methodist Church and its predecessors for 60 years, and wants to know that he belongs. 

“In my mind, anything less than full acceptance is not acceptable,” Edmonds said. “If we can’t get to that point, ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors’ (the denomination’s Rethink Church movement slogan) has to go out the door. That’s not what we are.” 

The Rev. Kay Scarborough, left, and Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. lead a blessing of General Conference delegates -- the Rev. Nathan Stanton, left, Randall Hodgkinson, the Rev. Cheryl Jefferson Bell, Oliver Green and Wesley Gately -- at the conclusion of the Topeka District town hall. Photos by David Burke

Edmonds said his church and his Jefferson County town of 850 supports him. 

“I’m not worried about my congregation, but I’m worried about every other gay person in the conference or wherever who wants to come to church and aren’t familiar,” he said. “So many won’t even talk to you about religion, because religion has rejected them. My church hasn’t.” 

Edmonds was one of nearly 300 people who gathered at Topeka First UMC  on Veterans Day to hear Bishop Saenz give a synopsis of the three proposals – One Church, Connectional and Traditional – that will be discussed at a special session of the General Conference, Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis. The Topeka gathering was the 16th of 18 scheduled town halls prior to the special session.  

Bishop Saenz, who has taken a stance of impartiality about the plans during his presentations, reminded those at the Topeka District meeting that the decisions made will affect people. 

“At the end of the day, these are human beings,” he said. “These are not issues. These are people.” 

Asked by one of the attendees which of the plans would cause the least schism in the church, the bishop would not predict. 

“We don’t have the hindsight of future expertise,” he said. 

Among the attendees was the Rev. Beverly McCurdy, a retired elder serving Hoyt UMC. 

McCurdy said she had read some of the information but appreciated Bishop Saenz’s explanations of the plans. 

“I thought the bishop tried to take time and understand that the questions were important for everyone,” she said. “There were some questions I had never thought of.” 

McCurdy said she was concerned for clergy who would be impacted by any of the decisions. 

“People are still concerned that, if (they) are LGBTQ, will they be accepted?” she asked. “That’s really important.” 

Retired Bishop Richard Wilke is introduced at the Topeka town hall, with applause led by his son, the Rev. Paul Wilke.

Although not a United Methodist, the Rev. Tom Baker said he was watching the discussion with interest. An Episcopalian minister, Baker is director of spiritual care at Stormont Vail Health, and married to a United Methodist pastor, Cheryl, who serves Topeka Grace and Big Springs UMCs. 

In 2015, the Episcopal Church approved the weddings of same-sex couples, completing a process that began in the early part of the 2000s with full inclusion of LGBTQ members. 

“We’re definitely stronger because we went through it,” Baker said. “We worked things out.” 

Some dioceses left the church to align with the Anglican Church, Baker said, but he believes the denomination has become stronger. 

“More and large, we’ve been fine,” he said. “It’s allowed us to welcome a lot more people into our congregation.” 

As he has said at nearly every all of the town halls, Bishop Saenz said it is a goal for his cabinet to have zero decline in churches and members after the issues are settled. 

“Without any body here, we’re less,” he said. “We’re diminished without your presence.” 

The final two town hall sessions are Saturday, Nov. 17. At 10 a.m., Parsons Wesley UMC hosts the Parsons District town hall, and at 3:30 p.m., the west campus of Lawrence First UMC will be the site of the Five Rivers town hall. 

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