Within 18 miles of Dodge City, the Rev. Jerre Nolte says, are six churches that have announced their intention to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.
But Dodge City First UMC, where Nolte is entering its eighth year as pastor, is bucking the trend in southwest Kansas by declaring it will stay with the UMC. At a special called charge conference in June, church members voted nearly unanimously to stay with the denomination.
“We want to be proactive in becoming a beacon of hope and a cause of light for people,” he said.
A number of churches in the denomination have begun to disaffiliate, some to join the Global Methodist Church, which officially launched on May 1.
Dave Carter, chair of the Dodge City First UMC’s church council, said the vote was a sign of faith in the denomination after its neighbors decided to change direction.
“We sat there and shook our heads and said, ‘What is this that’s going on?,’” he said. “We talked about it for a long time and decided we’d better have a special council to address this.”
Several informational meetings were conducted before the vote, some attended by more than 50 people.
About 100 people voted at the meeting, chaired by the Rev. Zach Anderson, superintendent of the Dodge City and Hays districts. The church has about 800 members, Nolte said, and about 260 people are the “base” of the church.
“We were just ready to take care of business,” said Beth Love, staff-parish relations committee chair. “We heard all the surrounding communities and had become concerned and thought, let’s nip this in the bud.
“I don’t think we had anyone that was really leading the charge,” she added. “We thought that time was of the essence and that we had better vote.”
Church leaders were gratified at the results.
“I was surprised it was such a majority. I’ve had a couple of people express concerns” and that they wouldn’t attend because their “no” vote wouldn’t make a difference, said Mike Morrison, lay member to annual conference.
“I was very pleased we were as affirming as we were,” he added.
Most of the divide in the denomination comes over disagreements on human sexuality, including whether openly gay individuals can serve as pastors, and whether clergy can perform same-sex marriages.
Morrison said that at this year’s Great Plains Annual Conference, days after Dodge City’s vote was taken, fellow lay members from southwest Kansas were concerned about more than the gender issues.
“They talked more about not having a say in the appointment of the clergy. They wanted more freedom to pick their own,” he said. “There were some concerns about insurance mandated by the conference, and they were not going to be able to pay what the conference was requiring.”
They also expressed concern that apportionment payments to the conference had “gotten out of hand,” Morrison added. The Great Plains Conference’s mission shares operate on a tithe basis, meaning 10% of the church’s revenue. The conference has the lowest apportionment rate of any in the continental United States.
“They had a gender issue they’re trying to pick as a reason to leave, but it was more of the underlying factors leading to that,” he said.
Morrison said he also was surprised that he heard no negative feedback after the vote.
“That’s kind of unusual,” he said. “Usually, I don’t care what the issue is, there’s negative feedback.”
Dodge City First has had a longtime Hispanic ministry with its Casa de Oracion worship service. The Rev. Juan Espinoza, who has led the ministry since 2018, said his congregation hasn’t expressed any concern about the issue.
“Most of them don’t know the system of how we operate as Methodists,” he said. “They want to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Melyssa White, children’s ministry director, said she keeps in contact with the church youth, and they are pleased with the outcome of the vote.
“They just want to know that they are welcomed enough and a part of the church,” she said. “It’s always been a place that families come, and no matter their circumstances, they’re always welcome.”
Although not a part of the Reconciling Ministries Network, which seeks inclusion of all sexual orientations and gender identities, Dodge City First has begun a Mosaic Bible study group for LGBTQIA individuals — the only protestant church in the city of 27,000 with material from the network. As many as seven people have attended the weekly Bible study.
Nolte said the church felt energized after United Methodist Communications began the #BeUMC campaign, which highlights the positive aspects of the denomination.
“When the #BeUMC came out, it was like ‘That’s who we are,’” he said.
Church members say they want to concentrate on building up attendance, which was more than 300 before COVID and is now around 260.
“We want to move on and get back to normal and encourage more families to come back to church. A lot of the people that didn’t want to be Methodists have already left,” Love said. “They left years ago, months ago. There’s other options for them in the community.”
Another mission, Nolte said, is for a twist on the phrase “get the heck out of Dodge,” and reaching out to members of the churches in the nearby communities that want to remain with The United Methodist Church.
“It provides some opportunities to get out of Dodge,” he said. “There are groups that are hurting. We’re going to provide some pastoral care.”
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