By Lisa Elliott Diehl*
SALINA, Kan.—More than 1,700 United Methodists from the Kansas East, Kansas West and Nebraska annual (regional) conferences met in simultaneous sessions Aug. 22 and 23 in Salina, Kan., to consider the Plan of Organization for the new Great Plains United Methodist Conference.
The final section of the plan was adopted just before noon Aug. 23, a full half-day ahead of schedule. A final resolution summarizing the three separate conferences’ actions was adopted unanimously.
“Friends, we’ve done it!” said Bishop Scott Jones, as applause broke out on the conference floor. “This process has been a long journey. I get, in this case, much more credit than I deserve. Really, it belongs to an incredible team of people. It’s the work of hundreds of people. It has been a great thing that we’ve done.”
The Uniting Conference brings together more than 1,000 congregations and nearly 220,000 United Methodists in Kansas and Nebraska into one annual conference Jan. 1, 2014.
Jones said the Uniting Conference is like a huddle at a football game, and the real play starts after the conference ends.
“What we’ve done is to rethink our priorities and our vision, to reorganize ourselves for greater effectiveness,” Jones said. “The real play starts tomorrow and Sunday and Monday and every day thereafter.”
Each section of the Plan of Organization was moved individually, with time provided for discussion and amendments. Conference members were then invited to vote separately on each proposed amendment and the final version of each section.
Vigorous discussion took place related to the method of educating and certifying Certified Lay Ministers, standardized clergy emails, apportionment formula and parsonage standards related to electrical outlets.
A handful of amendments were adopted. In the Lay Equalization Plan, which every conference must adopt, a provision for including young adults as conference members was moved up one line, moving it above a provision for including youth members. Another amendment specified the groups that would be responsible for selecting both the youth and young adult members.
Editorial changes were made to the new Great Plains Personnel Policy, ensuring future changes will be approved by the Connecting Council (the Connecting Council is the body that acts on behalf of the annual conference between sessions). Another change in the Personnel Policy revised the use of the Internet to prohibit transfer confidential or sensitive information without appropriate security measures.
Finally, two Nebraskans were named to key positions with the Mercy and Justice Team. Rev. Alan Gager, associate pastor at Nebraska’s Kearney First United Methodist church, was elected secretary of Global Ministries, and Andrea Paret, a lay woman from Nebraska’s Norfolk First UMC, was elected peace with justice coordinator for the new conference.
As part of the Uniting Conference, more than 900 United Methodists participated in an Afternoon of Service in the Salina community. Projects were done at more than 60 locations, including nursing homes, childcare centers, schools, individual homes and service agencies.
“I can’t imagine anything better we could have done to set the DNA for the Great Plains Conference,” said Rev. Evelyn Fisher, director of congregational excellence for the Great Plains. “Everyone who volunteered was flexible and enthusiastic, and we really made a difference for many people in the city of Salina. It was a very tangible way to show Christ’s love.”
Jones, who preached both the opening and closing worship sessions, called upon United Methodists in Kansas and Nebraska to look to a new beginning.
With an emphasis on what transpired at Pentecost, Jones acknowledged the likelihood of obstacles and difficulties in the process of becoming one new annual conference but encouraged people to persevere and be guided by the Holy Spirit.
Jones talked about changes in his childhood, moving to Indiana and not excelling at basketball. He recalled the awkwardness of being a “preacher’s kid,” being a “geeky kid who wore white socks with black shoes” and having few social skills.
But in 1969, he had the opportunity to spend a summer as a camp counselor for inner-city youth. It changed him. He had a new vision of what he might be and what the church might do and accomplish.
When the family moved to Denver, he said he was given the opportunity to put that new vision into practice. He views the coming together of the three conferences as the chance to “re-invent ourselves,” to do things newly and differently, if the Holy Spirit so leads.
“A new shape and form of United Methodism is beginning in Nebraska and Kansas. What’s it’s going to be like to serve Christ in these states?” Jones asked.
“What would it be like if all 1,000 churches in Nebraska and Kansas were communities of love, sharing God’s love effectively?” he asked.
Jones also talked about replacing “drift with focus.”
Too many United Methodist churches have activities that are not focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ, according to Jones.
If activities don’t have a direct connection to making disciples, Jones said United Methodist churches should quit doing them.
“Faithfulness to your past requires change for your future,” Jones said.
Drawing on Acts 15:22-29, the bishop noted that the early church, as it was faced with Gentiles wanting to join the community of Jesus Christ, had “a full-blown problem” on its hands, as it had to leave much of its civil and ceremonial law behind and look at the situation morally. Jones compared this with what Jesus did during his earthly ministry. As Jesus broke laws — healing on the Sabbath, speaking to a Samaritan woman, etc. — he showed his followers that the moral law was what mattered.
“Jesus had a boundary-crossing ministry that reached out to new people,” Jones said. “This is what we need to be about as the Great Plains United Methodist Church, and we do it by being faithful to our past while we look to necessary change for our future.”
* Lisa Elliot Diehl is the Kansas Communications Director for the new Great Plains Annual Conference.
Susan Cooper, associate communications director for Kansas, and Stuart Davis, pastor of the HOPE Parish in the Nebraska Conference, contributed to this story.