Salina town hall draws record 375 people to discuss special session

David Burke


Despite unseasonable weather that caused some attendees to return home while en route, 375 people packed into Salina Trinity United Methodist Church on Oct. 14 to hear information about proposals that will come before a special session of the General Conference in February.

The crowd was not only the largest of the 13 town hall meetings with Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. so far, it may also have been the most vocal. Statements supporting the church’s traditional stand received applause, even though Bishop Saenz discouraged such reaction at the onset of the Salina District session.

Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. and the Rev. Dee Williamston, Salina District superintendent, right, lead the blessing of Great Plains Conference delegates -- the Rev. Nathan Stanton and Dixie Brewster -- Oct. 14 at Salina Trinity UMC. Photos by David Burke

Some pastors and laity said the issues regarding LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage were dividing their churches.

“The split is right down the congregation,” Sarah Gill, pastor of Morganville and Green UMCs, said during the town hall. “We have views on both sides.”

Bishop Saenz compared the crossroads the church is facing to previous conflicts over slavery and the ordination of women.

“There are some people who believe this is a prophetic moment,” the bishop said. “People on both sides are deeply committed to Jesus Christ.”

As he has done in the other sessions, Bishop Saenz introduced the three plans that will come before the special session: the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference plan and the Traditional Plan.

The bishop urged the church to remain strong no matter the decision at the special session, Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis.

“Is there room for diversity of thought?” he asked. “Is this a doctrine that will cause our faith to crumble or not?”

In explaining the Connectional Plan – one of three proposals that will be brought into the special session – Bishop Saenz said the proposal illustrates how the church reflects society.

“Different Christians come with different understandings of the issue,” he said. “There’s a crucial re-segregation going on in our country.

“Can we really be together, or do we create space so we’re not colliding with each other?”

Daniel Vandenburg, pastor at Enterprise UMC, said the town hall solidified his backing of the Traditional Plan, and left him worried about the “incohesiveness” of the One Church Plan.

“We know the direction we want to go as a partnership, as clergy of the church, and what we want to take back to our church,” said Vandenburg, attending with his wife, Jennifer.

Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. leads the 13th of 18 town hall meetings, Oct. 14 at Salina Trinity UMC.

Margaret Presley, a member of Salina Trinity, said she has a daughter who is a lesbian.

“Basically, this kind of thing has driven her away from the church,” Presley said.

Presley said she was discouraged by the number of people vocally opposed to the One Church Plan.

“I thought it was very rude of people to clap, and it was an unfair viewpoint of where people stand,” she said, adding “I find it hard to be a member of a denomination that is not fully inclusive.”

Kirsty Hartley, a member of Salina Church of the Cross UMC, said she appreciated the information the bishop provided.

“I already had it in my mind what my views were, but I still feel there’s a lot of research I need to do personally,” she said. “It kind of helped provide information on the One Church Plan, because I had some questions about it. I saw what other peoples’ views are.”

Hartley said she doesn’t envy the decisions to be made by the delegates to the special session.

“It will be a tough one, no matter what,” she said.

The Flint Hills District will host the next town hall, at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21, at Council Grove UMC.

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