Ogallala feels new spirit after vote to stay UMC

David Burke


Editor's note: This is the second in our series about churches in the Great Plains that survived disaffiliation votes.

OGALLALA, Nebraska — Continuing a longtime tradition, just before the benediction at Ogallala First United Methodist Church, everyone in the sanctuary grasps hands and sings “God Be with You till We Meet Again.”

It’s a show of unity for the church in the Nebraska panhandle that survived a disaffiliation vote 6½ months earlier, with two-thirds of those voting electing to stay with The United Methodist Church.

“I didn’t know honestly what it would be,” said the Rev. Curt Magelky, pastor of the church since July 2022, said of the vote. “I had a pretty good idea, I felt good that we were going to stay UMC, but we had 200 people show up for the vote. We average about 100 in worship. If it was going to go one way or another, we wanted it to be by a large group of people.”

The congregation at Ogallala First UMC joins hands to sing "God Be with You till We Meet Again.” Photos by David Burke

Others didn’t share their pastor’s confidence.

“The outcome, I thought, would be close,” said Richard Johnson, the church’s lay leader. “It was close enough that I was concerned.”

Dawn Haney, the church secretary, added, “I was disappointed it was even happening. The vote was nerve-wracking, but I felt confident that it would go well, and it did.”

“Ultimately it was a good thing,” said Jonnie Peterson, a longtime lay member. “I was anxious, but I was glad it was 67%.”

The call for a vote came not long after Magelky arrived in Ogallala, and church leaders were determined to have the vote before the Advent season.

“I didn’t have any idea it was going to explode like that,” said Lisa Albee, a member of the worship committee. “It came on so quick. I had no clue this was brewing, and all of a sudden, boom, there it was.”

“It had been discussed a few years ago, and I thought it was a dead subject,” Johnson said. “We could not go without having a vote.”

About 40 former members of Ogallala First have formed a Global Methodist Church, meeting in a leased space in downtown Ogallala, a community of 4,800.

Ogallala First UMC members say those wanting to disaffiliate were strongly campaigning for others to join them.

“They were constantly stirring the pot,” said Nikki Erwin, family ministries director.

The new church formed quickly after the election.

“It was like they knew they were going to do it before the vote,” Haney said.

Church members say they’ve had some contact with those who left.

“I’ve had a couple of them tell me repeatedly how great their attendance is. I just say, ‘Good for you,’” Johnson said. “What else can you say?”

“I decided to kill them with kindness,” Peterson added.

Erwin, new in the role of family ministries director, said she was pleasantly surprised to see that junior high and high schoolers of families who left the church returned to help with Vacation Bible School.

Rev. Curt Magelky delivers the sermon, surrounded by the decorations of the just-completed Vacation Bible School.

About 82 children attended the VBS at Ogallala First, the most of any church in town. Churches schedule their VBS in consecutive weeks and most of the children attending aren’t attending The United Methodist Church.

In previous years, the church had asked for donations for children attending VBS, but this year the cost was covered by an endowment in the church.

The sizeable endowments at the church at least temporarily cushioned the blow of losing about 20% of its giving.

“We are fortunate in that we have a lot of endowments. They’re all restricted, for the most part,” Johnson said. “We’re going to focus on how we can use those endowments to bridge the gap. We don’t want that to be the only option, but I think there are things we’re going to have to look at.

“We’ve been fortunate we’ve had a surplus ever since I’ve been here,” he added. “It’ll take us some time to exhaust that if we did nothing else, but we’ve got to start looking at it.”

“It’s wonderful we’ve got our endowments,” Peterson added. “I don’t think we should get in the attitude of thinking we’re going to use our endowments in place of giving.”

Magelky said the offerings for April and May were near the amounts for those months last year.

“We’re close, but we’re definitely not over,” he said.

Magelky said he and the finance committee will have to keep a greater eye on spending and the budget.

“We’ve just got to be a little more creative than what we might normally have been,” he said. “We’re not hurting, but we’re having to pay a lot more attention now.”

The church has not had a stewardship drive for several years but will this fall with Magelky preparing a sermon series and study.

Church members say they can notice differences before and after the vote.

“We’re lighter,” Erwin said. “We’re much more joyful, happier.”

“Pastor Curtis has involved younger people in leadership, and they have gladly stepped up. That’s a huge one,” Peterson said. “He integrates his sermon, his daily podcast, his book study and Bible study. It boosts your faith because you’re hearing it four times. For people who have taken part in that, it’s a faith-growing experience.”

“It’s way more optimistic, and I think we’ve got a closer relationship with God,” Haney said. “The people we’re surrounded by are so faithful. It comes up in every conversation, and I cherish that. We’re surrounded by great people.”

Attendance for church in person has rebounded back to the 100 people that it was before the vote. That number is nearly doubled by the number of people who worship online.

“Our online presence is very important, because we’ve got 100 views, and we don’t have any idea how many people there are per view,” Johnson said. “For a lot of people, that is their worship source.”

In replacing the church’s longtime pastor, the Rev. Chuck Rager, who retired last year, serving that audience was a priority.

“We had to have someone who could do an online ministry, and Pastor Curt’s done a wonderful job,” Johnson said.

Ginny Steinke gives the children's time message.

Ogallala church leaders say they’re ready to look to the future.

“For years and years and years it was preached to us, we’ve got to be different, we’ve got to reinvent. We can’t harken back to the past,” Haney said. “But because this has happened, it’s freed us from the past. We’re experimenting, and everybody’s really open to trying new things.”

“Rather than individuals trying to make something fit — and Pastor Curt has been really important in this process — allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to us,” Erwin said. “I know personally, that has been such a guide for taking on this role and being able to fulfill what we talk about wanting to do with families and individual development of our spirituality and our relationship with God.”

Among the changes are beginning a one-night, monthly edition of VBS; and buying an abandoned house next door to the church, which will be used for parking.

The church also will participate in the Adaptive Church Leadership Cohort, a collaboration of the Great Plains and Missouri conferences; Resurrection, a United Methodist Church; and Fresh Expressions North America.

“We’re really hoping to get thinking about what God has in store for us in the future,” Magelky said. “We’re going to try a bunch of new things. A lot of the attitude I’ve felt in this congregation is that people are just open to trying. The next year is really going to be about discernment and really listening for where God is calling us to be.”

Ogallala’s vote to remain UMC came at a time when many in the area and the Great West District of the conference voted to disaffiliate — Magelky said half of the churches that shared a network with Ogallala have departed.

The Ogallala church has seen attendance from some of the United Methodists whose churches have disaffiliated and is reaching out to lend support to the churches who remain.

“We’re just letting them know we’ll be able to assist in any way we can,” Johnson said.

“They want to be supportive of the connection and the churches around us,” Magelky said.

“My worst nightmare was what if the vote had gone the other way? Where would we go, what would we do? I cannot fathom what they’re going through,” Erwin said. “We bend over backwards to do whatever little thing we can.”

Leaders said they have been confident about the future, even before the vote.

“Even when things were as ugly as they could be,” Johnson said. “Pastor kept telling me, ‘God’s got a plan.’”

Contact David Burke, content specialist, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.

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