Rev. Gene McIntosh asks a question during the transition team discussion.
Rev. C. Kent Rogers votes on the transition team motion.
Before taking a vote June 7, members of the Kansas East Conference spent nearly two hours discussing the motion from the Nebraska-Kansas Episcopal Area Transition Team to form one new annual conference Jan. 1, 2014.
Following a brief history of the team and the process from Nancy Brown, a lay person from United Methodist Church of the Resurrection serving on the team, Rev. David Livingston got down to the nuts and bolts of the team’s plan.
Livingston outlined the principles and guidelines the team has adopted to guide its work together moving toward one new conference. Those principles and guidelines address retirees’ health benefits in Nebraska, surviving-spouse benefits in Kansas West, staffing issues, endowment funds and other designated funds given to annual conferences. The principles and guidelines may be found in the Voting Document linked at www.kansaseast.org/transition.
How becoming one new annual conference would strengthen the conference’s mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world was the biggest missional question asked.
Rev. Gene McIntosh, Iola Calvary and Salem United Methodist churches, asked how the plan would help local congregations keep the main thing the main thing.
“One of the things about deep change is that the people who are leading have to model,” said Rev. Jan Todd, team member and pastor at Bonner Springs UMC. “We came in prayerfully, with communion, learning to get to know each other, trusting in a process we wanted to put toward you. Whether we’re together, or whether we’re apart, the main thing is that we’re making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Todd said team members recognized they could put a lot of proposals before the conferences for a vote, but instead, members decided to invite the conferences into the process of shaping the new area and possibly the new annual conference.
“This is not something you get done in a year or two or three,” Todd said. “We’re people of the great plains. We’re used to long-time journeys. We’re being called out to serve in a long-term journey together.”
Other questions from the floor focused on health insurance, pension and staffing.
“The pension programs from all three conferences are not identical but very similar,” said Rev. Gary Beach, conference treasurer and assistant to the bishop. Beach also serves on the team and resources the Joint Distributing Committee that is reviewing benefits plans.
Since 1982, the various United Methodist pension plans have been uniform across conference boundaries. Only the pre-82 pension plan allowed differences between conferences. In the old Book of Discipline, conferences that joined together were required to standardize the pre-82 pension plans to whichever plan had a higher benefit.
“The Book of Discipline has been rewritten, and now the programs can come together without making changes to the original plan,” Beach said. “If we create a new conference, we’ll vote on pre-82 rates for each of the individual plans at the same time.”
All three conferences’ pre-82 plans are fully funded.
A major difference between the three conferences is not around pension. It is around health insurance for retired clergy, he said.
“Nebraska is doing a subsidy for retiree health,” Beach said.
If Nebraska does nothing to reduce the amount of subsidy it is providing to retired clergy for health insurance, it faces an obligation of $19 million. That figure includes all active clergy serving the conference today. However, that obligation is reduced by $11 million if a new conference is formed that does not offer that kind of subsidy. Of that $8 million, Nebraska already has $5 million on hand, and Nebraskans would have to raise the additional $3 million needed to pay the difference, Beach said.
Rev. Russell Brown asked if there was an incentive for pastors to retire now to protect their pensions. Beach said no. All pension funds earned carry forward. Once the pension plan voted in at General Conference becomes effective Jan. 1, 2014, all clergy will earn 15 percent less toward their pension each month, but previous earnings will not be affected.
Riley McDougal, a young adult member from Beagle UMC, asked exactly what kind of job losses or job changes the conferences would be looking at if the proposal to become one was approved.
Livingston said one of the realities is that staff reductions may happen even without becoming one conference.
“We’re not trying to focus on the idea that we’ll save money,” Livingston said. “We don’t intend for that to happen by a reduction of staff. We want to focus on our purpose as a conference.”
Beach said a number of changes have already been made that have created cost-savings in the area of staffing. In addition, all three conference buildings have a number of people who are within two to three years of retiring. There are currently 13 employees who are shared between Kansas East and Kansas West, two more employees shared by all three conferences and another two employees who will be shared between the Kansas conferences beginning July 1.
Rev. Kenneth Baker, Eureka UMC, asked how combining the three conferences into one would affect representation at General and Jurisdictional conferences.
Jones said the General Conference can have between 600 – 1,000 delegates. The secretary of the General Conference decides how many delegates there will be and then uses a formula in the Book of Discipline to determine how many delegates each conference will receive. The number of delegates is determined based on the number of people in full connection and the number of lay members.
“In 2015 when the numbers are assigned, it’s our relative size in comparison to other conferences that will determine the number of delegates we get.”
Conferences receive twice as many delegates at Jurisdictional Conference as at General Conference. The Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee is where representation will be most affected. Every annual conference has one clergy and one lay representative on that committee. Currently, there are six people from the three conferences serving on this committee.
The new conference will be the third largest in the jurisdiction, behind Oklahoma.
The motion was approved by at least 70 percent in all three conferences—Kansas West was 74.4 percent in favor, Kansas East was 86.8 percent in favor and Nebraska was 70 percent in favor.
The Kansas West Conference cast 550 votes, with 409 yes votes, 140 no votes and 1 abstention.
The Kansas East Conference cast 478 votes, with 415 yes votes, 62 no votes and 1 abstention.
The Nebraska Conference cast 528 votes, with 370 yes votes and 158 no votes.
In the next few weeks, the extended cabinets of all three conferences along with the Kansas East Leadership Team, Kansas West Focus Team and Nebraska Common Table will meet to plan the next steps to bring a plan for the new conference to the three annual conference sessions in May and June 2013 for feedback. A final vote on the plan will come at the uniting conference Aug. 24 and 25, 2013, at the Bicentennial Center in Salina.