May 29-June 1, in Topeka, Kansas
With a theme of “Therefore Go: Serve Others” for the 2019 Great Plains Annual Conference, messages throughout the event, May 29-June 1 at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka, focused on fresh starts — from setting priorities for ministry to starting off in ministry for newly ordained clergy to coping with unrest in The United Methodist Church amid the ongoing debate over human sexuality.
Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. set the tone with his episcopal address by acknowledging the church’s struggles.
“There are several moments in Scripture where God creates chaos before something new can happen,” Bishop Saenz said. “Just think about it. And so, we’re in this chaotic moment. But what is God doing? That’s my question.
“Lord, what are you up to?” the bishop asked. “And how do I fit into all these things? How do you fit into this? I don’t understand it all. That’s OK. I only see a little part, but God sees the bigger picture. And we have to trust in the slow work.”
The session’s special guest was the Rev. Michael Mather, pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. He spoke about prioritizing people in ministry and emphasized the importance of reaching out to the community to better understand how to serve others.
Mather told stories about how his congregation became more vital to its community by truly getting to know the people around it and harnessing their gifts to reach even more people. In each case, Mather said, it was critical to view situations from a standpoint of abundance of what God was providing to the church and to the people around it.
“In John 10:10, Jesus says, ‘I come that you may have life abundant.’ It doesn’t mean life abundant when everything is all right,” Mather said. “It doesn’t mean life abundant when your pocket is full. It means life abundant right here, right now, in this moment. God’s spirit has fallen upon all people — young and old, women and men. We began to talk around our place and asked, ‘What if we lived as if the gospel was true?’”
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, provided the ordination sermon and challenged the new elders and deacons, as well as the new commissioned clergy and newly licensed local pastors, to be good shepherds of the Good Shepherd’s sheep.
Hamilton, pastor of the denomination’s largest U.S. congregation in attendance, started his sermon by noting challenges facing The United Methodist Church and local churches in general before jokingly addressing the 2019 class of 10 new elders, one new deacon, and one transfer from the Korean Methodist Church.
“I have this question for you: What is wrong with you? Or maybe I could ask it this way: Have you lost your minds? Why are you doing this?” he asked. “Now, I have a hunch that you are doing this not because you have lost your minds and not because you couldn’t do anything else. I think you are doing this because you feel inside a call and you could not, not do this.”
Hamilton gave the ordinands, the nine people commissioned and the 35 newly licensed local pastors five tips to succeeding in ministry:
• You can’t lead people where you aren’t going.
• Successful people do what unsuccessful people won’t do.
• Pay attention.
• Preach the Word. Love the people.
• Don’t give up in the face of criticism.
The ordinands averaged 36 years of age, while the commissioned class averaged 42 years of age in a year when 55 pastors retired from Great Plains churches and the appointive cabinet.
In conference business, the clergy and lay members passed three resolutions linked to the outcome of the special session of General Conference earlier in 2019.
In response to the General Conference adoption of the Traditional Plan, annual conference members voted 607-396 to affirm a resolution that states: “The Great Plains Annual Conference (GPAC) condemns the decision of the 2019 General Conference to pass the Traditional Plan and apologizes for the harm that it has caused LGBTQ+ persons, their families, their friends, and the body of Christ. We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God, but we also assert and affirm that no human being is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Another resolution, which passed on a 548-385 vote, uses some of the conference’s Missional Opportunities fund to provide $20,000 total in grants available to local congregations for ministries that raise up LGBTQIA+ persons as missional leaders in the annual conference.
A third resolution, introduced after the annual conference session opened, passed 586-396 and affirms the commitments set out at a meeting known as UMC Next from May 20-22 at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. Those commitments are:
• "We long to be passionate followers of Jesus Christ, committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity, anchored in scripture and informed by tradition, experience and reason as we live a life of personal piety and social holiness.”
• “We commit to resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms and toward all people and build a church which affirms the full participation of all nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, and abilities.”
• “We reject the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference as inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ and will resist its implementation.”
• “We will work to eliminate discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties in the Discipline regarding LGBTQ persons. We affirm the sacred worth of LGBTQ persons, celebrate their gifts, and commit to being in ministry together.”
It further encourages local churches to have an open dialogue about the 2019 General Conference actions.
The annual conference also passed one petition, via a show of hands, to the 2020 General Conference that would direct the United Methodist Board of Church and Society to assemble a study guide on the science behind human sexuality and to offer the guide to local churches as a means of providing information to parishioners. This is similar to studies on reproductive health previously provided by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.
Among other business, the annual conference members voted to allow clergy with six years of full-time appointment, or equivalent for less-than-full-time clergy, to be allowed up to three months of leave “for personal reflection and self-renewal.” The local church would pay for the pastor’s salary while on sabbatical, with the conference paying for the interim pastor. After review by the Council on Finance and Administration, the annual conference voted to refer the matter to the Clergy Excellence team with a directive to report at next year’s annual conference on what would be necessary to implement such a renewal-leave plan.
The annual conference also addressed climate change concerns by voting to have the Great Plains Creation Care Team and Disaster Response Ministries work together to incorporate climate-change mitigation into their responsibilities so that the church can become more proactive as well as reactive to increasing catastrophic climate events. It also urges Great Plains Conference churches to reduce their carbon footprints through specific measurable actions. Another resolution aimed at having churches and conference buildings assessed for their carbon footprints and then requiring reductions over a three-year period had considerable interest but was referred to the Connecting Council — a group of representatives from around Kansas and Nebraska that routinely handles business and study concerns between annual conference sessions — to determine how best to proceed.
The Great Plains Conference elected its full slate of delegates to the 2020 General Conference. The annual conference will have seven clergy and seven laity authorized to vote on actions in Minneapolis. Another 14 people — seven clergy and seven laity — as well as three alternates each will serve as South Central Jurisdictional Conference delegates in July 2020 in Houston.
Those elected, with the ballot on which they won more than 50 percent of votes in parentheses, are:
General Conference (7 seats)
• The Rev. Adam Hamilton (first ballot)
• The Rev. Amy Lippoldt (third ballot)
• The Rev. Junius Dotson (fourth ballot)
• The Rev. Kalaba Chali (fourth ballot)
• The Rev. Dee Williamston (fifth ballot)
• The Rev. David Livingston (fifth ballot)
• The Rev. Cheryl Jefferson Bell (10th ballot)
Jurisdictional Conference (7 seats)
• The Rev. Anne Gatobu (second ballot)
• The Rev. Mark Holland (second ballot)
• The Rev. Eduardo Bousson (second ballot)
• The Rev. Ashley Prescott Barlow-Thompson (third ballot)
• The Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede (fourth ballot)
• The Rev. Zach Anderson (fifth ballot)
• The Rev. Andrew Conard (seventh ballot)
Alternates (3 seats)
• The Rev. Ashlee Alley Crawford (first ballot)
• The Rev. Kurt Cooper
• The Rev. Nathan Stanton
General Conference (7 seats)
• Oliver Green (second ballot)
• Lisa Maupin (second ballot)
• Scott Brewer (second ballot)
• Randall Hodgkinson (third ballot)
• Steve Baccus (fifth ballot)
• Dixie Brewster (fifth ballot)
• Lisa Buffum (ninth ballot).
Jurisdictional Conference (7 seats)
• Abigail Koech (second ballot)
• Dan Entwistle (second ballot)
• Jesi Lipp (second ballot)
• Shayla Jordan (third ballot)
• Ally Drummond (fourth ballot)
• Esther Hay (fifth ballot)
• Joyce Jones (seventh ballot)
Alternates (3 seats)
• Roy Koech
• Abraham Ruffcorn
• Charles File
Of the 34 elected delegates and alternates, seven laity and 12 clergy served in some way in the 2016-19 delegation. Two clergy (Prescott Barlow-Thompson and Anderson) are 35 or younger. Five laity (Lipp, Roy Koech, Jordan, Drummond and Ruffcorn) are in their 20s, and Abigail Koech, a recent high-school graduate, is 17.
Statistical Fast Facts
Membership: 205,633 (down 1.8% from 2017)
Worship attendance: 74,272 (down 4.2% from 2017)
Church school attendance: 27,356 (up 5% from 2017)
Professions or reaffirmations of faith: 3,825 (down 15.3% from 2017)
Adults and young adults in small groups: 45,158 (down 2% from 2017)
Worshippers engaged in mission: 62,586 (up 4% from 2017)
Next year’s annual conference is scheduled for May 27-30 in Topeka. The theme will continue with the quadrennium emphasis on “Therefore Go,” with 2020’s focus on “Seek Justice.”
— Todd Seifert, conference communications director