Calling it an unprecedented move for “unprecedented times,” Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. opened an abbreviated, condensed Great Plains Annual Conference session the morning of May 30.
The three-plus hour session was conducted via a phone conference call that had early technical glitches but eventually allowed clergy and laity representatives to vote on key business items. Worship videos were published on the conference Facebook page and website the evening of May 29 and the afternoon of May 30.
“This is exciting, because we’re the early adapters here,” Bishop Saenz said of conducting a conference via telephone because of the coronavirus.
Time-sensitive matters were voted on in the conference, with other items to take place in a special, in-person session scheduled for Oct. 1-4 in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Approved during the special session:
• The sale of Camp Comeca near Cozad, Nebraska, for $20,000 to Cozad Camping Ministry. The United Methodist camp, which opened in 1955, had been operating at a $300,000 deficit, the Rev. Bill Ritter, chair of Great Plains United Methodist Camps Inc., said during the call. The sale was approved 879-33, with 23 abstaining.
• The ratification of disaffiliation agreements for six churches, all in Kansas: Abilene Emmanuel, Aulne, Bartlett, Benton, Esbon and Norcatur. “As we part, we do so with mercy,” the bishop said in his prayer for the churches. The disaffiliation passed 770-69, with 55 abstentions.
• The closing of 14 churches: Beemer and Long Pine in Nebraska, and Burns, Carneiro, Cassoday, Greeley, Iola Calvary, Kansas City Metropolitan Avenue, McGraw (Hoxie), Pomona, Topeka St. Peter, Walnut, Wichita Brookside and Wichita Dawson in Kansas. The closings passed 908-14, with 28 abstaining. All closings were planned prior to the pandemic.
• A recommendation from the personnel committee that minimum pastoral salaries at all levels remain the same as 2019-20. The Rev. Craig Hauschild, chair of the personnel committee, said the pay was recommended because of the pandemic precautions that have hit local churches. Minimum compensation will remain $44,921 for full elders and deacons; $42,486 for provisional elders and deacons; $40,051 for associate members; and $37,617 for full-time local pastors. It was approved 814-20, with seven abstentions.
In addition, a resolution from the 2019 conference for a pastoral renewal leave policy was withdrawn with possible consideration during the October special session.
Opening the conference call, Bishop Saenz recognized that May 30 would have been the final day of the annual conference session scheduled for Stormont-Vail Event Center in Topeka.
“We will miss not seeing each other, we will miss fellowship, we will miss worshipping together,” the bishop said.
Saenz also acknowledged two recent racial incidents: the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man jogging in Georgia, and George Floyd, an African American who died in police custody in Minneapolis.
“We are broken over what we see in our nation even today,” he said.
Read a transcript of the bishop’s prayer here.
The bishop also spoke to the disaffiliation of six churches.
“Friends, this is tough. I was writing a prayer for this time this morning, and it hit me in a way that I hadn’t really thought of it before, that we come to this time when we decided to part ways in our mission, in our ministry. And I wish we could look into each other’s eyes and express our best to each other in the days ahead. But we can’t. But nevertheless, I hope this prayer conveys what was in my heart this morning as I was thinking about this moment and the life of our conference,” Saenz said.
The Rev. Doug Gahn said he and the rest of the Camp Comeca site council were heartbroken when they first learned of the potential selling of the camp.
“But this was not the end of Comeca’s story. Great Plains Conference leadership expressed their strong desire to find a local board who would keep camping ministry going out at Comeca. From that vulnerable moment on, the power of the Holy Spirit began to work in the heart of some very committed followers of Christ who love camping ministry. New relationships are forming, as they have worked hard over the last five months to prepare for this moment, the new beginning of Camp Comeca shaped during the fire of the pandemic, to take its ministry into the future,” he said.
In his opening worship sermon, provided on video, Bishop Saenz spoke to how God’s story of the Kingdom compels the church to keep moving forward.
“We keep walking forward because it's the story of God's new world that gives us the courage to continue with faith, hope and love. It is the story of what God is doing in our world and wants to do through Christ followers that inspires our imagination for what is possible. The story of God's coming reign gently invites us to think about a new future. Now is the time to make decisions that will liberate us to reimagine and reconstruct a new world that is more connected and more humane for all people, especially the most vulnerable.”
The clergy session was postponed for now.
The following people, elected in 2019, will remain the Great Plains delegation for General Conference 2021:
• General Conference
o Rev. Adam Hamilton
o Rev. Amy Lippoldt
o Rev. Junius Dotson
o Rev. Kalaba Chali
o Rev. Dee Williamston
o Rev. David Livingston
o Rev. Cheryl Jefferson Bell
o Oliver Green
o Lisa Maupin
o Scott Brewer
o Randall Hodgkinson
o Steve Baccus
o Dixie Brewster
o Lisa Buffum
• Jurisdictional Conference
o Rev. Dr. Anne Gatobu
o Rev. Mark Holland
o Rev. Eduardo Bousson
o Rev. Ashley Prescott Barlow-Thompson
o Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede
o Rev. Zach Anderson
o Rev. Andrew Conard
o Abigail Koech
o Dan Entwistle
o Jesi Lipp
o Shayla Jordan
o Ally Drummond
o Esther Hay
o Joyce Jones
o Rev. Ashlee Alley Crawford
o Rev. Kurt Cooper
o Rev. Nathan Stanton
o Ally Drummond
o Esther Hay
o Joyce Jones
Some keys statistics from 2019:
• Number of people to be ordained, commissioned or received into associate membership at some point later in 2020, and average age:
o To be ordained — 1 deacon, 12 elders (average age of 41)
o To be commissioned — 2 deacons, 12 elders, 2 former OEs (average age of 36)
o Overall age average for all categories: 40
• Number of clergy retired: 42
• Membership stands at 199,079, down 3.2% from the previous year.
• Worship attendance stands at 70,339, down 5.3% from the previous year.
• Church school attendance for 2019 stands at 27,470 up 0.4% from the previous year.
• Professions or reaffirmations of faith for 2019 stands at 3,494, down 9.4% from the previous year.
• Adults and young adults in small groups for 2019 stands at 4,269, up 1% from the previous year.
• Worshippers engaged in mission for 2019 63,763, up 1% from the previous year.
Contact David Burke, communications content specialist, at [email protected].