In May of 1974, I attended my first annual conference. Plenary sessions and worship services were held in Sam’s Chapel at Kansas Wesleyan University. I was fifteen years old. During the ordination service of the one of the district youth coordinators I heard my call to ministry. Even though there were not many clergy women, the clergy men who were district youth coordinators honored my call and encouraged it. Those years on the Conference Commission on Youth Ministries (CCYM) were formative for my call and commitment to the church.
Spring forward to 1982 and I was appointed to my first church Alden United Methodist Church. I had not attended seminary, I had not attended License to Preach School. The first Sunday of June I am thrust in being a pastor with no training. The two week licensing school would not be until August. In United Methodism, no one is alone. Alden had been served by a retired clergy by the name “High” O’Kelly for the year before I was appointed. Portteus “Preach” Latimer had served Alden for 19 years before she retired and then became mayor of the community. I walked into the church and had no idea what I was to do. Preach showed up in the office. Sunday was coming, it was the first Sunday of June and of course I could not preside at the table. Pastor O’Kelly would be there to take care of the sacrament and Portteus was there to help me settle in. The first task was to create the bulletin. I had no clue what to do, let alone how to “run” the bulletin on an old fashioned mimeograph machine! Cut a stencil? What? Portteus, was kind and patient and from my first day treated me as a pastor even though I had not training and was green as grass.
That first Sunday I preached a 3 minute sermon. In practice, speaking very slowly, it took seven minutes, but alas, nerves sped that sermon up considerably. Pastor O’Kelly, stood up at the pot luck luncheon that followed and challenged the people at Alden to help me become the pastor I longed to be.
The term “connectionalism” is tossed around a great deal by United Methodists. It is the concept that we are a community connected by common values, common ministry, common love of God. For “preachers”, the correct terminology being elders or deacons we are connected through the annual conference, and are members there, not in the local church. Three annual conferences become one last year. Nebraska, Kansas East and Kansas West united to become the Great Plains Conference.
The last annual conference for Kansas West was bittersweet for me. I voted for the one conference and really didn’t think anything about it until the last worship service fixing the appointments. I cried. I surprised myself, but then I remembered I have over 30 years of history being part of the Kansas West Conference. Some tears for that identity was appropriate.
Fast Forward to the first Great Plains Conference. Three times as many people attended. I found my friends from all three conferences. There was plenty of time for meals together, for worship and a little business thrown in. It was good. There were glitches of course, at times the Bishop struggled to be able to see people in the balcony at the microphone, but that has been true in other venues as well. The “family” feel of a smaller conference was harder to re-create, but the ministries of all the conferences were highlighted and celebrated.
As United Methodists we are connected not just because we “know” someone. We are connected by a relatively common mission and ministry and history. I found myself delighted and surprised by conversations held, decisions made and in our differences people were heard, even if the decision did not go the way they wanted. As I ponder the new conference, I am so grateful for those like “Preach” and “High” O’Kelly who mentored and went before me. I am thankful for my years of service in the former Kansas West Conference. And as I begin year 33 in ministry, I am graced to serve in the new days of the Great Plains Conference.