Connecting Council endorses changes to standing rules, clergy renewal leave policy

Todd Seifert

4/21/2020

The Great Plains Conference’s Connecting Council used Zoom video conferencing to conduct its spring meeting April 18 and endorsed a revision to the standing rules for the annual conference session to allow for a meeting during this time of sheltering in place.

The council, which has authority to make decisions and forward recommendations between annual conference sessions, also listened to reports from Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr., considered a recommendation regarding renewal leave for clergy and heard an update on a conference-wide social justice initiative.
 
 

Standing Rules

Because of concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic, the annual conference session slated for May 27-30 in Topeka had to be cancelled out of an abundance of caution for attendees. In its place, a single-day teleconference has been scheduled for May 30 to allow for voting members of annual conference to address essential business matters.

Such a different meeting has required much thought and reflection, Bishop Saenz said, to ensure the session meets the requirements of the Book of Discipline, the book of church law and polity for The United Methodist Church.

“There are lots of provisions in the Book of Discipline that never anticipated a pandemic,” said Scott Brewer, conference treasurer and director of administrative services.

Jesi Lipp, a lay member to annual conference and a member of the Connecting Council, said the Book of Discipline would allow for such a meeting.

“The Book of Discipline does make reference to the existence of electronic meetings and doesn’t explicitly disallow them,” Lipp said. “I think that makes a strong case for the Book of Discipline to allow electronic meetings.”

A lack of internet connectivity in parts of Kansas and Nebraska, made a teleconference a better choice to ensure key requirements were met, namely that participants can hear one another, can vote if they are so entitled and can have their attendance recorded.

The Rev. Nancy Lambert, director of clergy excellence and assistant to the bishop, shared the proposed changes to the standing rules. Some provisions include the bishop, Cabinet and Connecting Council agreeing that circumstances prevent the members from meeting in person; that the Book of Discipline requirements are met; and the sessions planning team will recommend a method of voting to the bishop and conference secretary.

Members to annual conference will be asked to approve this change and, therefore, allow for the May 30 teleconference via a mail and email ballot.

“We already have approval for a mail and email ballot within our standing rules, so we would follow that policy to take this vote,” Lambert said.

The Connecting Council voted without dissent to endorse changing the standing rules. The vote to approve the standing rules change should be available for annual conference members to cast their vote by in the next few days.
 

Renewal Leave

The Connecting Council passed to the annual conference session without dissent a proposal regarding renewal leave for clergy. A resolution regarding leave was referred to the Clergy Excellence team for review and for a recommendation during the 2019 annual conference session.

Renewal leave “fits the guidelines of the early church as reflected in the Gospel of Mark where after returning from their missionary journey, Jesus invited the disciples to ‘come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while,’” the proposal prepared by the Covenant Team of the Board of Ordained Ministry and the Clergy Excellence department said. “We believe that the respite or renewal time was not intended to be task oriented.”

Under the proposal, applications for renewal leave grant would be sent to the director of clergy excellence at least 120 days prior to the requested date to start the renewal leave. If the grant application is approved by the director and the BOOM covenant team, the pastor and church would be responsible for finding an appropriate substitute pastor, with help available from the district superintendent. The local church would continue to pay the salary and benefits for the pastor while he or she is on renewal leave. The conference would provide a grant for a maximum amount of $3,000 for the substitute pastor’s compensation or other needs.

The proposal notes that funding would be made on an equitable basis among approved applicants. And applicants must be full members, associate members or full-time local pastors who have completed Course of Study. In any case, the pastor must have served a minimum of five consecutive years under appointment prior to the application, at which time he or she is eligible to request as much as 90 days of renewal leave, and renewal leave may be granted one time every eight years of ministry, with priority given to first-time applicants.
 

Doing Justice Initiative

The Rev. Nathan Stanton, director of congregational excellence, provided an update on rollout of the Doing Justice Initiative approved by the Connecting Council during a special meeting in December. The initiative involves partnerships with the Direct Action and Research Training (DART) Center and the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC). Both organizations have extensive track records in recruiting and mobilizing faith-based communities to address serious problems in their cities, towns and counties.

Both organizations start their efforts by rallying support among churches and community members to determine needs and assets with which to address those needs.

DART is working in the Kansas City, Kansas, area and is in the first phase of its plan to conduct one-on-one conversations.

“DART is prepared to have a meeting that previously would have been face-to-face of potential stakeholders with people of United Methodist churches and others on April 30,” Stanton reported. “They are not slowed in any way but are having to pivot to do this work online.”

Stanton said WORC has begun its efforts in Nebraska. Its process is slightly different, with the creation of a council for advocacy. WORC has started to reach out to district superintendents and pastors in United Methodist churches throughout Nebraska.
 

Finance and Administration

The Rev. Zach Anderson, chair of the Council on Finance and Administration, reported that CF&A had voted to endorse the bishop’s proposal for a two-month moratorium on mission shares. Mission shares statements on the conference website have been updated to reflect this change.

Anderson also reported that Great Plains Camps and the conference’s campus ministries had received $1.6 million in Small Business Administration loans through the Paycheck Protection Program. He noted that CF&A focused only on expenses that it believes will be fully forgiven under provisions of the federal program and any money not needed would be repaid to save on any interest accrued should any part of the loan not be forgiven.
 

Bishop’s Report

Bishop Saenz started the meeting with a report on a number of subjects, especially the conference’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the economic disparities in our nation related to decades-long policies,” Bishop Saenz said. “It is unmasking inequities across our society.”

The bishop said the most important people in the annual conference are United Methodists in the local church because they are on the front lines.
“Many of them are embracing people who are isolated,” he said.

As examples of churches serving their communities, the bishop noted Grand Island Trinity UMC, which normally serves usually serves food for about 500 people, prepared for 750 during a recent drive-up food distribution. But 1,000 cars show up. He also noted another church that started a pen-pal kind of program with a nursing home facility.

“We are showing that the church is not a building,” the bishop said. “It’s about relationships.”

The bishop reminded the Connecting Council that the General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference have been postponed until 2021. He said during this interim time that he will honor agreements made as part of the introduction of the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation. The protocol, if passed in its legislative form by the General Conference, would allow churches who don’t agree with the inclusion of LGBTQ clergy nor the new allowance to perform same-gender weddings to leave the United Methodist Church and form new denominations. Read more about the protocol.

“The agreements entered into are still in place, so we will move forward with that in mind,” Bishop Saenz said. “The question is will the change in dates re-open the opportunity to submit legislation. I imagine there may be some new issues, but it’s too early to tell if there will be an opening to offer new legislation.”
 

Clergy Survey

Brewer shared results of the first of a planned regular series of surveys of clergy in the Great Plains Conference. With a remarkable 71% response rate of nearly 400 surveys sent out, the council heard information meant to provide a snapshot of ministry efforts of churches across our two states and morale of spiritual leaders across the conference.

Highlights from the survey include:
  • Nearly 90% of responding pastors reported their churches were worshipping online.
  • More than 51% reported their churches were meeting in small groups via video or phone.
  • More than 71% said they thought their congregation has stayed about as close with each other, grown somewhat closer or grown much closer during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • More than 81% said they thought their congregation stayed as close with God, had grown somewhat closer to God or had grown much closer to God since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
  • In a question rating levels of stress, the highest stress-inducing subject for pastors was the health and safety of their congregations, with the pastors’ own health and financial well-being ranking in the bottom two slots of nine presented on the survey.
The survey will be repeated to allow for the study of changes and, if possible, to identify trends.
In other business, the Connecting Council unanimously approved bylaw changes presented by EmberHope dealing with the composition of its board of directors and eligibility for potential board members, among other operational details.
 

Contact Todd Seifert, conference communications director, at tseifert@greatplainsumc.org.
 


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