Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about churches in the Great Plains Conference who have endured after votes to disaffiliate.
WAMEGO, Kansas – Some of the members of Wamego United Methodist Church say they could see dissension on the horizon for years.
To others, it came as a shock.
Church members voted March 26 by a 129-113 margin to stay United Methodist and not disaffiliate from the denomination. The 47% who voted to disaffiliate was short of the 67% needed.
“It was a surprise to me that the whole thing came about in the first place, honestly,” said Nathan Hawkins, chair of the board of trustees. “I had absolutely no idea there were fringe groups of people who felt so strongly, yet alone darned near half of us.”
“It was a surprise to me,” said John Pryor, chairman of the church’s administrative council. “I hadn’t heard anybody in the church talk about it. Any of the previous pastors I’d talked to said, ‘They’re such a small minority in the church, we’re not going to put the church through it.’”
The vote prompted several immediate changes. What was two worship services have combined into one, with a hybrid of contemporary and traditional Christian music. Three paid staff positions, filled by people who left the church after the vote, were replaced by volunteers.
Church members on both sides, leaders said, feared a split and didn’t make their pledges to the 2023 budget. Sixty families committed to their giving for the year this year, compared to 100 in previous years.
“The budget that we approved was taken on faith and a wait-and-see attitude,” Pryor said of the church.
“We know this budget is not possible, so we’re going to be really proactive and take a look at it every month, every quarter, to see what kind of changes we have to make and how it might affect staff,” said the Rev. Alex Rossow, pastor of the church since July.
“We’re going on faith, and we’re going on love, and the whole impact that we make as a community will start a groundswell of growth,” Hawkins said. “If we’re intentional about doing the right things as a church, the money will come.”
Jessica Noller, who has been attending Wamego UMC for nearly five years, said she was unaware of anyone intending to change the course of the church until she saw a two-page flyer, signed by 45 members of the congregation, distributed during a leadership conference at the church.
“For me it was like a bombshell,” Noller said. “My husband had been getting emails from them for a while, but he’s a click-delete guy.”
“I didn’t even understand what the page was about when they handed it to me,” said Heidi Hamic, who has been a member for about 15 years. “I just glanced at it and put it in the stack of papers we were working on.”
Noller, the self-proclaimed “social media warrior of the group,” attacked the 14 arguments by the group line by line, including that LGBTQ pastors and bishops would be forced upon the congregations.
“It was really designed to scare people into thinking, ‘Oh no, we need to do something immediately,’” she said. “It was written in such a way that it didn’t want people to dig any deeper than that.”
Church members were certain the letter was produced locally.
“It was written by somebody in the church,” Hamic said. “We could pretty much name names based on wording and styling.”
Those in the Wamego congregation who chose to remain felt offended by the letter.
“It was very much a slap in the face to me,” Hawkins said. “I know scripture teaches us to turn the other cheek and say, ‘Thank you, may I have another,’ but it was the first time I had ever felt so attacked and violated for my faith in my own church, for the things that I believe.”
Teresa Weixelman, lay leader for Wamego UMC, said she was approached by one of those leaving with an invitation to talk.
“I always thought we kind of thought alike, and I can’t understand why you think like this,” Weixelman said she was told. “I said right or wrong, this isn’t the time or place or way to be doing this. I’m just shocked that they wanted to take the church and everything.”
Having the church property was highly on the minds of those wanting to split, Wamego UMC members said.
“I think for a lot of people there was a spectrum of reasons why they left,” Pryor said. “For some people it was very much about homosexuality, and for others, they honestly said it was an investment in trying to attain the building and go independent. It’s not one simple formula or reason. Everyone had their own ideas.”
Hawkins and his wife, Sally, came from different denominations and have been members of six or seven United Methodist churches. They decided to make the 20-mile drive from Manhattan every week for services.
“We always felt it was a no-brainer that the reason United Methodism fits so well for us is that we don’t sweat the details, the little things,” he said. “We are about coming together and loving our Creator, the Father and our neighbors as Jesus commanded.
“We thought that’s where we were, and all of a sudden, we found out that nearly half of the people that we thought that of, we were wrong about. That’s what hurt the most,” Hawkins continued. “There’s going to be, of course, financial repercussions for that many people leaving, but first and foremost it’s a feeling of people that you thought were family and friends and ride-or-die companions — nope, sorry. We were wrong.”
The disaffiliation movement in the denomination is primarily over human sexuality issues, primarily whether LGBTQ individuals can be ordained, and whether pastors can perform same-sex weddings.
“I remember being worried when we were coming up to the vote,” Sally Hawkins said. “It was kind of like their jumping-off point with their platform being based on the human sexuality issue. So, what are they coming for next? Are they coming for my daughter, who’s dating a Black man? Are they going to judge us in public because we’re having a drink at the local barbecue restaurant? Are they going to come after us because we’re in a divorced relationship? It was like the tip of the iceberg. This is a really slippery slope, and we’re just at the precipice of it.”
The 53-47% vote to remain United Methodist was, some of the Wamego members say, like the lifting of a dark cloud.
“Everybody was like, it’s done, it’s over with,” Pryor said. “There was so much tension in the weeks going up to it and just quiet conversations in hallways and rooms. Once it was done, they left, and we stayed, and I knew everybody who was here was committed with a like mind.”
“There was kind of an elation and a ‘thank goodness,’ but it was like all these people we’ve been friends with for nine years are leaving our church,” Sally Hawkins said. “I really felt connected to a lot of them, deeply. Then all of a sudden, they’re gone. There’s no more contact. I don’t know how you could leave a relationship you’ve been in for so long, and some of them have been here for many, many years.”
The word from Rossow to the congregation was that any emotions they were feeling were natural.
“That allowed me to get to hope pretty quickly and Pastor Alex acknowledged we are in a mourning period, and we have to help one another,” Noller said. “We have to keep reaching out to another, forgive and move forward. Finding that footing pretty quick has been good for me.”
Church members praised Rossow for his leadership.
“What he bore was incredible,” Hamic said.
“He was definitely targeted,” Nathan Hawkins said. “I almost feel like it was because of how young he was in his position and his experience. (Rossow, 41, was ordained last June at annual conference.) They had started talking about it when Pastor Michael (Rev. Michael Tomson-DeGreeff) was here and when Pastor Mitch (Rev. Mitch Todd) was here. They were kind of shot down, and it wasn’t brought to light. I don’t know if they were circling the herd long enough, or they figured with Alex being brand new and the first post in (a church) this size and all, he might be a channel to get it out in the open, and they were successful in getting it out in the open.
“He didn’t stand in the middle of it,” he continued. “He very quickly made a wise decision that at this point anything we do to keep this down is censorship. If these people want to get the word out, we let them. We just have to let them understand that it’s not coming from the pulpit and not coming from the church council. This is not an authorized church conversation or train of thought or activity.”
Hamic said Rossow “immediately broke down” after emails came out from those wanting to leave.
“He was so upset, because he’d been berated and verbally attacked by some of these people and was hurt,” she said. “That was ridiculous and uncalled for.”
Rossow said he had instructions for those staying UMC.
“I stressed being calm and non-reactionary as a way to model not only to each other but to the community,” he said. “We’re going to be a calm presence. We’re not going to let our emotions reflect negatively. There were emotions from the other side that were trying to elicit responses. If we could remain calm and non-reactionary, it would speak volumes to the type of Christianity we were trying to embody.”
Rossow said he got strength from his Transitions into Ministry program that he is a part of, for pastors in their first five years of ministry. The former mutual fund trader said he especially received guidance from the Rev. Dr. Ashlee Alley Crawford, then-interim director of clergy excellence, and the Rev. Fritz Clark, a retired elder who attends the church.
“There were many times I called her, and I was just in tears,” he said. “The program created a safe space for me to express what I was feeling and the rawness that it was, but it also helped just to get it out and release it.”
Rossow said he tried to model the calmness he wanted others to show.
“If I want people to embody what I think it looks like to be a Christian, especially when things are difficult and challenging, I have to acknowledge the pain we were going through,” he said. “If I’m telling people they have to be calm and non-reactionary, I have to do so even when I’m getting yelled at. The stress came from the way I wanted to absorb as much of the criticism, critique, so it didn’t permeate all around.”
Prior to the vote, Rossow said, church attendance was about 75 in each service, and now numbers about 100 in one service. Church leaders will gauge attendance over the summer to see if the one-service concept, designed for more interaction among those in the Wamego church, will continue.
“I feel like, if anything, attendance is strong for how many people we have lost. Some of the folks who had been watching online have been coming into the building,” Nathan Hawkins said.
“There were people who started attending again, (saying) ‘This is the time I need to come back,’” Sally Hawkins added. “They had dropped away from the church, which was really hard on everybody. They were there to support our church. It was good to see them back in our church group.”
“People just started showing up,” said Rossow, who greets every member entering the building with a bulletin and calling them by name. “It’s a beautiful thing, people just show up to say ‘I’m here. I haven’t been here since 2018, but I’m willing to serve or whatever.’ The next Sunday at worship there were people I’d never met who said they hadn’t felt comfortable here since 2003 and came back.”
A few attendees, he said, started coming just as the disaffiliation debate was hitting a high point.
“With all the disaffiliation talk, people were still coming to church for the first time, which was incredibly odd,” he said. “You walk into a church and the first thing that’s communicated is deep conflict, but they still kept coming back.”
Some came to church for the first time on Feb. 19, when the Rev. Jenny Collins, Flint Hills District superintendent, was hosting a question-and-answer session about disaffiliation.
“We’re doing something right when someone will come to a Q&A and keep coming back,” Rossow said.
Weixelman said she is noting a new attitude during church services.
“A lot of the energy is coming from people who view the world differently,” she said. “Many of those who left or don’t want to change come from a tradition of ‘This is the way we did it.’ … I think we can be more open now.”
That includes the church hosting community conversations about mental health, including being the subject of Rossow’s May 21 sermon, and finding new ways to reach out to Wamego, a city of 4,800.
“That group was very building-orientated. They wanted everything to be in the church, in fellowship hall, that’s where all their programs were,” Pryor said of those who left. “I’m excited about getting out of the church, engaging the community on their ground, and then inviting them in on Sundays. We were waiting for people to come to us, and that worked up until COVID.”
Most of those who voted for disaffiliation have formed the Flint Hills Global Methodist Church, meeting at Wamego’s middle school, Rossow said.
Rossow said he’s excited about the possibilities for Wamego UMC post-vote.
“I think we’re going to be able to do things we haven’t been able to. I think the environment has changed. It’s more interactive,” he said. “In a way the vote allowed both groups to flourish and to be open to how the spirit might be moving both groups in different directions and doing different things. The DNA has been invite, grow, serve, and we weren’t inviting. We were growing and serving but people were hesitant to invite because of what was going on.
“I’m excited about what’s going to emerge as we put all of our hopes and dreams and ideas together,” Rossow continued. “To me that’s exciting. I know something is going to emerge, I just don’t know what it is exactly, but something will. To see what it is will be exciting.
“It’s like a new church start, but with a core group of 100, 150 people that are there to do it. That’s what the energy feels like.”
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