After eight years on the Great Plains Conference’s Mercy & Justice team, five as its chair, the Rev. Sarah Marsh will lead the conference’s ministry beginning July 1.
Marsh will become the Great Plains’ Mercy & Justice coordinator, succeeding the Rev. Dr. Kalaba Chali, who has been appointed to Wichita Pleasant Valley UMC.
“Sarah Marsh will be an excellent addition to the conference Congregational Excellence staff,” Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. said in a statement. “She has a passion for justice work and experience as a community organizer with DART-affiliated organizations. Part of her portfolio will include oversight for the implementation of our two justice initiatives, Direct Action Research and Training (DART) and The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) in Kansas and Nebraska.”
The Rev. Nathan Stanton, director of Congregational Excellence, said Marsh was instrumental in creating, organizing and bringing forth the conference’s “Do Justice” campaign beginning in 2019.
“She is the right person for this role right now as we look at the opportunity we have to do justice in more places across the Great Plains,” Stanton wrote in an email. “She will be a great teammate and is a gifted problem solver who will add to the conversation around other conference church development initiatives.”
Marsh, 43, said she was excited about the opportunity to lead Mercy & Justice ministries in the conference.
“I had no idea this would be the direction the spirit would lead, but it really does flow naturally from the work with the Mercy & Justice team,” said Marsh, currently pastor of mission and community outreach and Manhattan First UMC. “I feel like the role is bringing together a lot of things that I love.”
A native of Halstead in south-central Kansas, Marsh said her heart for mercy and justice began developing in high school, after a mission trip to a Mexican orphanage.
“The kids I got to know and the situation that I lived in really exposed me to a different world,” she said. “I’ve been in contact with those kids, who are now adults and having babies of their own over the last couple of decades, and just feel passionately concerned about the needs of the world and those who struggle.”
Marsh even lived for a year in Mexico after spending a year as a middle school reading teacher and confirming that her calling was in the ministry and has returned every year or two.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.
“Seminary transformed me and exposed me to the possibilities of ministries that was an obvious fit when I was able to see it,” Marsh said.
She served as associate pastor at Wichita College Hill UMC in 2007 and was appointed senior pastor at Tecumseh UMC, near Topeka, in 2011.
Marsh was at Tecumseh when Topeka JUMP (Justice and Urban Ministry Project), a group of 28 churches in and near the capital city, was formed.
“I felt like I had discovered the ministry that would really be at the heart of my calling — grassroots, faith-based community organizing,” she said.
While active in JUMP, she was asked by its founder to become a community organizer for a sister organization, Justice Matters in Lawrence.
“It was perfect, in terms of teaching me what community organization really takes,” said Marsh, who worked with about 10 congregations in the Lawrence area from 2015 to 2017. “It deepened my ability to lead. It gave me a community view of what is possible working across both congregations and into the public sector and government, to get out in the community and bridge what the church is doing in respect to a relationship with local leaders.”
She returned to ordained ministry in 2017, founding a 12-member team in Manhattan called the Lydia Ministry, working with those who come to the church in crisis or seeking emergency assistance and walking alongside them as they receive aid.
“That’s been my biggest joy,” she said.
Marsh said she was gratified to be asked to be part of the conference’s first Mercy & Justice committee as the Great Plains was forming in 2014.
“That’s been pretty cool that I’ve been a part of the beginning, learning who we were going to be in the Great Plains and all the different aspects of history and mission and outreach throughout the conference,” she said. “I’ve loved being a part of that team.”
The Rev. Anne Gahn, pastor of Lexington UMC in Nebraska, will succeed Marsh as chair of the Mercy & Justice committee.
Funded by $2.1 million approved by the Connecting Council in 2019, DART is currently assessing justice ministry needs in Johnson and Wyandotte counties in the Kansas City area. An online “Rethinking Justice” scripture study from 6-7:45 p.m. CT Tuesday, May 11, with speakers including Bishop Saenz, will invite lay leadership to become part of the ministry. This summer leadership teams will form within each of the congregations. Teams trained over the summer by DART will host house meetings in the fall, which will ask about individuals’ concerns for themselves, their families and their communities. A larger meeting will select issues at the forefront.
“That’s the moment that it gets very exciting,” Marsh said. “When all of these congregations who may have never worked together find common cause and really identify their focus and get started.”
Marsh said she was excited about the future of Mercy & Justice ministries in the Great Plains.
“I just have this prayer — and this is something we’ve consistently talked about with the Mercy & Justice team over the last five years … — that we would be moving our churches toward effective justice ministries,” she said.
“We have a long history as United Methodists of being involved in our communities, and that is something central to our identity. But we have not always known how. I feel like working in partnership with national experts, as this spreads in our conference, will give more and more United Methodists opportunities to be effective in this work,” Marsh added. “My prayer is that it changes our culture as a conference, that we become equally mercy and justice oriented and live more fully into God’s mission for the church and be a richer witness to Christ in our communities.”
Marsh said her new position matches with what she believes is her calling.
“My journey has taken some different twists and turns,” she said, “but it’s always been connected to a sense of God calling me to love those who are vulnerable and work on their behalf.”
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