Today was a long and complicated day at Annual Conference. It was a legislation Day, which is tedious and sometimes difficult. Lots of information was presented and significant decisions had to be made. I’ll try to explain as best I can what went on.
We started the morning with Bishop Saenz speaking. He urged us to meet the challenges facing our conference and our denomination with “unity and purpose” and reminded us that “We are more together than we are alone”. He talked about the brutal realities facing United Methodists, including declining membership, declining worship attendance, and fewer people joining the church. He also brought up all the ways churches give back to communities by feeding the hungry, partnering with schools, finding ways to help the poor, and supporting campus ministries. This “missional compassion” is the hope of the church.
The bishop has outlined 5 areas that we, as local churches and as a conference, need to focus our attention. These are: 1. Small Groups 2. Children’s Ministry 3. Local Ministry 4. Prayer 5. Culture of Movement. He reminded us to “conduct the business of the Conference with our eyes on the future” and assured us that “Together we’re going to keep on taking the right next steps.”
The bishop also recognized members who had attended Annual Conference for 10,20, etc. years. There is a pastor here who is attending for the 77th year! We gave him a standing ovation!
Our conference is in an arena far larger than we need. In order to keep track of everyone, there are certain boundaries within the arena where all voting members must sit. So we do, shoulder to shoulder on uncomfortable seats for hours at a time. The bishop and anyone reporting information sit on the stage. Everything is videoed live and projected onto giant screens so that we can see, which is helpful. Around the floor of the arena are six microphones, where anyone with questions or comments can address the speaker. This was my view for the day.
After the bishop’s address, we were split into clergy (pastors) and laity (lay members). The clergy moved to another area and the laity stayed in the arena. We heard speeches from the Conference Lay Leader and the bishop’s wife, Maya. There were explanations of the legislation we would be voting on later, awards to various lay members, and reminders of Conference workers and programs that are resources for lay people.
During the lunch periods there are special dinners for people interested in specific topics. I signed up for the Mission Partnership lunch, not really having any idea of what it would be about. It turned out to be excellent! The focus was on social justice, including climate justice, maternal health, and accessible and affordable healthcare. This year’s Micah Corps interns were introduced and each told their areas of research. (Micah Corps is a summer intern program, where teens and college students do in depth research of social topics like healthcare or environmental concerns and see how the church’s stance on issues applies. Navya Hopkins and Wendee Harris have been Micah Corps interns.) A woman named Susan Burton, who works for the Conference, gave an impassioned speech about our responsibility as Christians to fight for climate justice and healthcare rights. She spoke about these issues being a part of the United Methodist Social Principles and how we cannot ignore them. Then postcards addressed to our Kansas and Nebraska senators were passed out and we all had the opportunity to write our own messages about the importance of those principles. It was an interesting and productive lunch!
After lunch, candidates for ministry at various levels were introduced. One of the women being ordained this week is Kim (Schwartz) Shank, who was a student pastor at Grace from 2005 to 2008. She is now serving the Lyons United Methodist Church. I chatted with her during a break and she talked about how grateful she was for Grace and what a good experience she had at our church.
Next, was commissioning of the summer interns, including the Micah Corps and several other groups. Navya Hopkins was commissioned as a VBS intern, helping churches with VBS. She spoke movingly of her experiences with the church and what she has learned. I looked up at her picture on the big screen and remembered when she first arrived in Winfield and all of the obstacles she has overcome. Listening to her speak so beautifully and with such passion I broke out in tears of happiness. All of us at Grace should be proud of Navya!
Ben Hanne gave updates on Southwestern College. He also gave a shout out to Daniel and Greg Reffner and let the Conference know what terrific future pastors they will be.
The rest of the afternoon was spent arguing about consolidating Conference offices. There were multiple heated arguments, much parliamentary confusion, and numerous motions to vote on. Bishop Saenz struggled with parliamentary procedure details (I can relate to that!), so it was quite useful to have an official Conference Parliamentarian to keep things straight. He was great about restating comments and explaining when motions became confusing, which happened frequently.
When the Kansas East, Kansas West, and Nebraska Conferences joined together to create the Great Plains Conference in 2014, all three former conference offices remained open, one each in Topeka, Wichita, and Lincoln. All three sites have administrative staff and other Conference employees are located at one city or another. This is not the most efficient way to run things and people calling the Conference office with questions never know which office has the answer. The bishop lives primarily in Wichita, but also has a residence in Lincoln. It’s all rather confusing.
Realizing that consolidation was necessary, the Conference hired an outside firm to look into the best solution. That recommendation was, for numerous reasons, that the Conference offices be reduced from 3 to 1 and that it be located in Topeka, which is the city of size closet to the center of the Conference’s population distribution. These were the motions that were addressed today.
There was much discussion on both the consolidation and the location of the offices. Many people are emotionally tied to the sites of the former Conference offices, clergy and laity from the western areas were concerned about the distance required to travel to offices in Topeka, members were worried about the cost and time frame of consolidation, and everyone was aware that consolidating would result in the loss of some positions and the relocation of others.
Ulimately, it was voted on and approved 904 to 182 to consolidate and to move all offices to Topeka. The episcopal residence (bishop’s house) will also move to Topeka. I voted in favor of this change because it seemed the best solution for the Conference. We are the Great Plains Conference now, and we need to stop clinging to our separate pasts. Change is hard, but this decision best fits our calling to work with unity and purpose. Please continue to pray for the pastors and lay members who will be personally affected by this decision. This is a difficult time for them.
The bishop ended the day by recognizing all of the pastors who are retiring this year. I knew a few of them and am grateful for their many years of service to the church. There was a retirement banquet and reception for the retirees this evening.
I am exhausted by the day’s events, but excited about all that is scheduled for tomorrow.