UMC Bishop to pay rare visit to Alexandria

Amid denomination fractures, the church can heal as it did after Civil War, bishop says

Bishop Lanette.jpg
United Methodist Bishop Lanette Plambeck after being elected bishop in November 2022. (Contributed / United Methodist Church)

ALEXANDRIA — United Methodist Bishop Lanette Plambeck doesn't know exactly what she'll hear when she visits Alexandria on Saturday, Feb. 11.
The newly elected bishop is starting out by visiting Methodist churches in her territory of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota — an unusual step, as generally parishioners travel to meet the newly installed bishop, not the other way around.
While uncommon, it is needed, she said.
“We have subcultures in our conference," she said. "Where people are in the Alexandria area, just the way life is being lived, it might look very different than the Twin Cities.”
There are fractures in the United Methodist church, as there are in many denominations and throughout the country. The denomination has been losing member churches over whether to ordain or marry LGBTQ people — about 6% of its American congregations so far, according to one study, and they are also dealing with the pandemic's interruption of worship routines.
“It’s hard when we live in a nation that is so divisive right now, everything we are is red, or everything we are is blue. It shouldn’t be surprising that that division or polarization has infected the church,” she said.
Whereas divisions in American society have increasingly spurred violence, however, Plambeck speaks of the division in the United Methodist Church with love, and even hope. She pointed out that it's not the first time the Methodist Church split. The Civil War divided it, but in 1968, the halves reunited. She believes that reunification will happen again, in time.
“I know it’s a hard time in our denomination but I don’t think it’s a hardship long-term," she said. "God’s clarion call is not to separate but to collaborate and cooperate."
She said the pandemic and politics have prompted amnesia, leading people to almost forget their identities.
“We are seeing more and more folks returning to church because they’re remembering who they are,” she said. “It is a longing to be back in communion with one another. They see the pain that the world is in and that our state is in. ... People say to me, 'We need to get beyond this so we can be engaged in the ministries that God is calling us to.'”
The United Methodist Church is unique in that it was never intended to be a separate church, but a movement inside the Church of England as a way of helping marginalized groups of people like miners and prisoners. The American Revolution caused church members in the U.S. to separate from the Church of England, however, and they ended up creating a new denomination. They saw education and health care as important needs, and established colleges and hospitals.
Even now, its local pastors are tasked with helping not only their parishioners but other churches as well as the community. One example of that is the outdoor pizza oven at the Methodist Church in Alexandria. Nonprofits can reserve it to host pizza night fundraisers, and they get to keep most of the proceeds. Last year, nonprofits received $40,000, said Pastor Amy VanValkenburg.

The wood-fired was used during Butterfly Hill Nature Preschool’s celebration of International Mud Day. At 900 degrees, a pizza can be cooked in about 90 seconds. (Beth Leipholtz | Echo Press)
Wood-fired pizza was served at United Methodist Church during a community event in 2017. At 900 degrees, a pizza can be cooked in about 90 seconds.
Alexandria Echo Press file photo

VanValkenburg, a seminary student who has served in Alexandria since July, said churches — and communities — face unique challenges in the digital age. It used to be that families had one telephone in their home and watched the same television set. Technology lets us now listen to our own music, watch our own shows, and decide who we want to spend time with. Her parents, who were farmers, went to farm meetings hanging out with people who were very different from them politically and in beliefs.
"You learned how to get along with people who are very different because you had no choice," she said.
She said she would like guidance from Plambeck on how churches can stay relevant amid technological change and bring people together.
“What’s really most relevant to me is love, and how do I love people that I’m never going to agree with? ... The important thing is not to lose sight of loving one another and creating community.”
People are excited for the bishop's visit, and she expects visitors from northern Minnesota.
“It’s kind of a rarity," she said. "It’s kind of a unicorn, to get to host the bishop.”
At 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11, they'll start with fellowship, with a worship service at 2 p.m. followed by a question-and-answer session with the bishop.
She senses a cautious hope that the church's general conference will be positive.
“I think people are itching to be together and I think division sometimes is felt so deeply just because of the divisions in the country on all the issues,” she said.

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994. Driven by curiosity and a desire to learn about the United States, Karen Tolkkinen has covered local news from Idaho to New Hampshire to Alabama and landing at the Echo Press in Alexandria in 2017.
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