My Love Affair with Iowa

On the friendship pads that were passed through the pews every Sunday, Lenny often wrote these words, “The body of Christ has AIDS.” It was a poignant reminder to us every week that we are all connected to the vine of Jesus Christ, intertwined with one another and called to bear each other’s burdens (John 15:1-11).

When Lenny put his offering envelope in the plate on Sunday mornings, he would always write on the envelope, “Thank you, God.” He had a way of seeing through his pain and suffering and was able to thank rather than blame God. As I led Lenny’s funeral service, I finally realized what he had done for my life. Lenny taught me that simply loving and bearing fruit after the example of Jesus is more important than anything else in life or death.  

The words on my lips right now are, “Thank you, God. Thank you for the privilege of serving you through pastoral ministry in The United Methodist Church for forty-one years. Thank you for walking with me through the most joyful and challenging of times. Thank you for the opportunity to serve you by reflecting your light and love to a hurting world.”

This is my last blog for the Iowa Annual Conference. I am retiring at the end of 2022 after serving as a local church pastor for twenty-nine years, a district superintendent for six years, and Iowa’s episcopal leader for the past six years. I first started writing my blog in 2006, when I was appointed by Bishop Jonathan Keaton to be the District Superintendent of the Grand Rapids District in Michigan.     

On my very first day as a DS, while taking a walk and pondering what this new ministry would look like, I distinctly remember saying to myself, “I have to find a way to connect regularly with both clergy and laity in the district.” The result: a weekly blog called Leading from the Heart, which has been read by clergy and laity not only in Iowa but throughout the United Methodist Connection. The blog was intended to keep us connected by sharing thoughts that would be, at times, provocative, challenging, encouraging, engaging, and inspiring.  

I spent approximately six to eight hours a week writing my blog and would take several months off in the summer as my “recess” time. Unless I were deathly sick, an essay would be published every Monday to encourage and inspire laity and clergy alike. In my final Iowa blog, let me speak to three questions:

What did I cherish the most about living in Iowa for the last six years? Let me count the ways! 

  • The wonders of the prairie, which was always accessible right outside the episcopal residence in Clive.       
  • Connecting with wild animals as I walked the nearby trails.        
  • Cornfields: Corn on the cob is my very favorite food, and whenever anyone even mentions the “CC” words, I salivate.           
  • The sky: The most amazing and incredible cloud formations in the world can be found in Iowa.        
  • Sitting in my office, which faces west, so that every night I experience amazing sunsets.           
  • Iowa Nice is not just a catch phrase. It’s really true! “Iowa’s natural scenic views, friendly people, low crime rates, affordable homes, and small-town atmosphere make it one of the most coveted places to live in the United States.”            
  • Riding in RAGBRAI my first summer in 2017. RAGBRAI is an acronym and registered trademark for the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, which is a non-competitive bicycle ride organized by The Des Moines Register. The course is the oldest, largest, and longest week-long bicycle touring event in the world, averaging 478 miles. It runs across the state of Iowa from west to east and draws recreational riders from across the globe.         
  • The Iowa State Fair – “The internationally acclaimed Iowa State Fair is the single largest event in the state of Iowa and one of the oldest and largest agricultural and industrial expositions in the country. Annually attracting more than a million people from all over the world, the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines is Iowa’s great celebration, a salute to the state’s best in agriculture, industry, entertainment, and achievement.”            
  • Spending a year leading both Iowa and the Dakotas Annual Conferences. This included a ten-day road trip in North and South Dakota in the summer of 2021 in order to meet with various groups of clergy and laity throughout the Dakotas Annual Conference.                 
  • Competing in the Des Moines Triathlon (swimming, cycling, and running) in the summer of 2017.              
  • My son, Garth, surprised me two days before the 2018 Des Moines Marathon by flying in from New York City to run with me in his very first marathon. He beat me by 7 minutes and 34 seconds.                  
  • Running the Boston Marathon three times during my time in Iowa.              
  • The joy and collaborative work of leading 139,000 United Methodists in Iowa.               
  •  Frequently the Des Moines Symphony, my “Happy Place.”              
  •  Discovering fascinating places to hike around the state.            

 What has been most difficult/challenging in my ministry?

  • COVID changed everything, and the ripple effects will be felt for years to come. It felt like a “donut hole” in the middle of my tenure.               
  • After the first two years of significant travel around the state and overseas, I learned how to access technology to conduct meetings from a distance.              
  • Physical isolation from one another and the inability to worship in person. Face-to-face meetings pretty much came to a stop.                 
  • There was no choice but to reinvent ourselves and be creative in how to do ministry, whether clergy or laity.          
  • Leading became very challenging during a time when various factions with different theological understandings resulted in divisions within The United Methodist Church.                
  • The pain among congregations, with some members choosing to remain United Methodist and others choosing to leave, was disheartening.                  
  • My February 16, 2022, fall on black ice resulted in a serious concussion and fractured wrist. The isolation of six months of medical leave was mitigated by constant cards and emails, which were instrumental in my healing.                
  • At the same time, one “angel” has sent me an encouraging card once a month for the past six years. Can you imagine how much that meant to me?             

What, then, are my concluding reflections? 

  • During my medical leave, I realized that I had overloaded myself for many years with more than my mind and body could handle. This gave me the insight to help other clergy create a good balance between ministry and their personal life.             
  • While I loved the year that I spent with the Dakotas Annual Conference, this additional responsibility was not sustainable. We were all aware of the additional stress a number of bishops experienced by “doubling up.”             
  • By choosing to retire at the end of 2022, an additional bishop was able to be elected at the North Central Jurisdictional Conference in November. I am delighted that Kennetha Bigham-Tsai from Michigan was elected and assigned to the Iowa area and that our own Lanette Plambeck from Iowa was elected and assigned to the Minnesota-Dakotas area.                   
  • Your support, encouragement, and notes have been life-giving, especially when we spent lots of time at home during COVID and could not see each other face to face.            

Beginnings and endings are so important. As Gary and I prepare to move back to Michigan, we are deeply grateful for your love and care – and for being Iowa nice, of course! Just as I felt your prayers and support during these past six years, so I sense them now as I prepare to retire. God is not done with me yet, but I do know that I am a better person and a more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ because of each one of you. Thank you, God! 

Do You Have Room?

For my next to the last blog, I am sharing my remarks from the retirement service that was held yesterday at First United Methodist Church, Des Moines. I am deeply grateful to each one of you who has prayed for and supported me during these last six years. Thank you for being difference makers.   

Thank you so much to each one of you for making time to be here this afternoon. I can’t believe I have had the privilege of being in active ministry for 41 years. Where did all that time go? I want to sing a song for you. 

Do You Have Room (Shawna Edwards)

They journeyed far, A weary pair, They sought for shelter From the cold night air. 

Some place where she could lay her head, 

Where she could give Her Babe a quiet bed. 

Was there no room? No corner there? In all the town a spot someone could spare? 

Was there no soul Come to their aid? A stable bare was where the family stayed. 

[Chorus] Do you have room For the Savior? And do you seek Him anew? 

Have you a place for the One who lived and died for you? 

Are you as humble as a Shepherd Boy, Or as Wise as Men of Old? 

Would you have come that night? Would you have sought the light? 

Do you have room? 

[Verse] A star arose, a wondrous light; A sign from God this was the Holy Night 

And yet so few would go to see, The babe who came to rescue you and me. 

This child divine is now a King, The gift of life to all the world He brings 

And humankind He saves from doom, But on that night for Him there was no room.  

[Chorus] Do you have room For the Savior? And do you seek Him anew? 

Have you a place for the One who lived and died for you? 

Are you as humble as a Shepherd Boy, Or as Wise as Men of Old? 

Would you have come that night? Would you have sought the light? Do you have room? 

Tag: Will you come tonight? Will you Seek the Light? Do you have room?

I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to share a few reflections about my spiritual journey over the last six years here in Iowa. As many of you know, I grew up as a Mennonite and was steeped in the church since I was a baby. My mother and father taught me about Jesus, and I had wonderful Sunday school teachers and many adults who encouraged me in my faith. They formed me, and I loved it all. At the same time, I also loved sports, including field hockey, basketball, volleyball, hiking, cycling, running, and simply being outside in nature. 

I received degrees in organ performance from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and then went on to Yale University to study organ at the Institute for Sacred Music and also work on a seminary degree at Yale Divinity School. My most formative teacher was Henri Nouwen. Even while I focused on organ performance, it was Nouwen’s deep influence as a wounded healer that convicted and steered me toward ministry.   

Henri Nouwen was a very authentic and transparent person. By his willingness to share his vulnerability, insecurities, doubts, and brokenness, Henri created a safe place where his students could wrestle with their demons as well. He placed great value on listening and connecting intimately with others. At the same time, he recognized the importance of solitude, retreats, and time apart spent with God in silence.  

Henri Nouwen never judged others and always called his students to the spiritual disciplines of prayer, relationship, and solidarity with the poor. He continually wrestled with what “success” means in ministry, and his celebrity status never changed him. In truth, it embarrassed him. 

Henri lived a simple life, spending years at L’Arche Daybreak Community in Ontario, Canada. There, he took care of a severely handicapped young man named Adam, who became a source of healing for Henri after an emotional breakdown. Most important, Henri made room for all. Nouwen came to not only understand but embrace his own brokenness so that he could become a wounded healer for others.

My own journey toward ordained ministry entailed struggle, for the Mennonite Church did not ordain women at the time. But my home church in Souderton, PA, knew me and affirmed me. I became one of the first women in the General Conference Mennonite Church to be ordained. 

The most important themes in my spiritual life have been brokenness and healing; disappointment and gratitude; death and resurrection. You can’t survive forty-one years in ministry without being broken once in a while. So many people in my life mentored, encouraged, and made room for me. Now my strong call is to make room for others to become all that God created them to be.  

Of course, there are many different ways to think about brokenness. I could talk all day about my broken body: like falling on ice and breaking my left elbow while out for an early morning run in Michigan during a winter cabinet meeting. I was a district superintendent at the time. There have also been a couple of broken wrists, a few broken fingers, and a broken toe, which happened in our hotel room right before my daughter Talitha and I left the room to run from the top of the Grand Canyon in Arizona down to the bottom. There we stayed overnight and ran, walked, and crawled back up the next day! That was definitely not all fun, and it was only by the grace of God and massive doses of Advil and determination that I made it.

Stuff happens, right, especially when you love being outdoors, as I do. I have always been a risk-taker. Yes, I’ve had my share of broken bones, and it all came together on February 16 of this year when I slipped on black ice while running near the episcopal residence in Clive and ended up with a serious concussion. My brain was literally scrambled. I still experience side effects, especially when the workdays are very long.

Spending six months on medical leave this year and pretty much living in isolation was not only devastating, but it was also depressing at times. I was convinced that I had let down the 158,000 United Methodists in 708 congregations in 99 counties across Iowa. Each one of you has been critical to my recovery. Each one of you. Do you have any idea of the hundreds of cards and expressions of love that I received?  

What I learned over the course of my ministry is that I embrace all of the various caucus groups in our conference and denomination. I understand that we don’t all see eye to eye around various theological issues. And I’m not bothered by the variety of beliefs held by United Methodists because that’s the glory of the big tent that is United Methodism. 

John Wesley himself reminds us of our call to be of one heart with each other in the midst of our differences when he wrote in his sermon Catholic Spirit, “Is your heart right as my heart is with yours? If so, give me your hand.”   

What I have cared most deeply about as an episcopal leader is reaching out with the good news of Jesus Christ to every corner of our beloved state. What compels me greatly is identifying needs and acting on them. And what keeps me up at night is a worry that I am not doing enough.  

I can’t tell you how many times over the past months I have asked myself, “Am I ever going to heal? Can I still do this?” Thank you for your patience and your grace. In the midst of tragedy, sorrow, and lament, God is not done with me or you and continues to invite us to make room for all of our brothers and sisters in this one world we share.

To be a wounded healer is:

  • To embrace the pain of the world
  • To admit our own human weakness
  • To joyfully acknowledge that every human being is worthy and precious
  • To ask how God can possibly use us despite the challenges we encounter 
  • And to use our wounds to bring glory to God and healing to our world

Can you make room for others to hear the gospel story and respond with joy and hope and love? Can you do it? Can you make room for the least, the last, and the lost? Will you seek to find a place for those you do not like or who are not like you? Will you dare to fling wide the doors of The United Methodist Church so that everyone can enter and be transformed? 

Will you risk giving up your misconceptions about others? Will you make room to humble yourself? Will you risk giving your heart to Jesus? Will you seek and find the light and then share it with all? Will you make room to apologize to those you have hurt or even demonized? Will you acknowledge the times that you fail and accept the healing that God offers? Do you have room in your heart this afternoon to live for Christ?  

I suspect some of you have seen the movie Schindler’s List, which was first released in 1994. Businessman Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) arrives in Krakow, Poland, in 1939, ready to make his fortune from World War II, which has just started. After joining the Nazi party, primarily for political expediency, Schindler staffs his factory with Jewish workers for similarly pragmatic reasons. When the SS, the elite guard of the Nazi Reich, begins exterminating Jews in the Krakow ghetto, Schindler arranges to have his workers protected to keep his factory in operation. He soon realizes, however, that in so doing, he is also saving innocent lives.

On the very day Schindler runs out of money, Germany surrenders to the allies. He assembles his workers and guards on the factory floor to announce the good news. Schindler tells the Jews that they should not thank him but instead thank themselves for surviving. He then counsels the German guards not to carry out their orders to kill the workers so that they may go home honorably as men, and not murderers. The guards prepare to leave as their hesitant Commander finally joins them. Oskar Schindler knows that he is viewed as a Nazi war criminal by the approaching Russians and must flee. 

Before they depart, Schindler is stopped by the workers and is presented with a letter of thanks, which they all signed, and a gold ring in which is inscribed a saying from the Jewish Talmud; “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” Oskar Schindler then confides that he could have done more and begins to weep uncontrollably.


Like Oskar Schindler, I, too, lament that I could have done more as a pastor, a district superintendent, and a bishop. I lament that I didn’t do enough. That’s my nature. I am not perfect, but I did the best I knew how. I have had the great honor of working with many District Superintendents, conference staff, laity, and clergy to fulfill our mission to Be#UMC. Our mission is not yet fulfilled, but we keep on keeping on, and my heart is filled with gratitude because of each one of you.   

And so, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, do you have room this day?

  • Do you have room to reach out to others with the good news of Jesus Christ?
  • Do you have room to be gracious to all of God’s precious ones, whether you are like them or not, or whether you like them or not?
  • Do you have room to honor these words from Hebrews? “Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)
  • Do you have room to share your lunch?
  • Do you have room to truly listen and embrace those who may not think like you?
  • Do you have room to imagine what it is like to be broken?
  • Do you have room to let go of your misconceptions about others?
  • Do you have room to welcome a stranger into your household?

All I ever wanted to do with my life was to love Jesus and try the best I could to embody that love, encourage others to claim their call, and devote their life to service, whatever that might look like. Do you have any idea how beautiful you are? Do you have any idea how much you give of yourself to bring in God’s reign on this earth, all because you love Jesus? Do you have any idea how much you are changing the world for the good? If you are feeling God’s call on your life, talk to someone: a pastor, a friend, a Sunday school teacher. Take the initiative because the church needs you, our world needs you, and Jesus needs you.   

Serving as the episcopal leader of Iowa has been the greatest privilege of my life. The way others have shown love to me over these past six years has been overwhelming. Thank you for making room for me in Iowa. Thank you for praying for me, encouraging me, lifting me up, accepting me, challenging me, and loving me, even when I failed. Thank you for being difference-makers. 

Finally, a few thank you’s

  • Thank you to Rev. Martha Ward, chair of the Iowa Episcopacy Committee, for her faithful support and counsel over these last six years.
  • Thank you to those who served as Assistant to the Bishop and made sure I stayed on the straight and narrow during my time in Iowa – Bob Burkhart, Bill Poland, Harlan Gillespie, and, most recently, Bishop Lanette Plambeck.
  • Thank you to the clergy and laity of the Dakotas Annual Conference for welcoming me into their midst during 2021 and the first several months of 2022.
  • Thank you to Bishop Deb Kiesey for covering for me after my fall and concussion on February 16 of this year.
  • Thank you to Waukee United Methodist Church and Pastor John Louk for welcoming Gary and me and Aabiskar Sharma, the young woman we are sponsoring at Morningside University. This is the congregation where Aabiskar was baptized and became a Christian. Waukee UMC is where we have called home, even when haven’t been able to be active. 
  • Most of all, thank you to my husband Gary, who is my best supporter, most careful proofreader, and finest critic, and without whom, I would be so much less than I am today.          
  • And a huge welcome to Bishop Kennetha Bigham-Tsai and her family. I have known and been a colleague and friend of Bishop Kennetha for many years in Michigan. It is a great joy to have her become the new episcopal leader of Iowa.
  • As I move into retirement, my simple prayer is that we will commit ourselves to make room for all, so that every single one of God’s precious children can become who they were created to be. May you always have room for our Savior, room for one another, and room for all people in this one precious world of ours. God bless you. I love you all, each and every one. 


Do you have room For the Savior? And do you seek Him anew? 

Have you a place for the One who lived and died for you? 

Are you as humble as a Shepherd Boy, Or as Wise as Those of Old? 

Would you have come that night? Would you have sought the light? Do you have room?

Connection is What Counts

Last week I wrote about our nephew’s wedding in Philadelphia. It was a wonderful celebration of reconnection with relatives whom we have rarely seen since living in Iowa for the past six years. After Jack and Danielle were whisked away on their honeymoon, many of our family took the Amtrak train from Philly to New York City on Sunday for another five days of delightful sightseeing and conversation. Walking through Central Park and window shopping on 5th Avenue reminded me of times spent as a child occasionally accompanying my father on business trips to the Big Apple.   

We started out on Monday walking the High Line Trail. This is a High Line-Elevated New York City Park Rail Trail that offers spectacular views of the city. Because our group included our 7-year-old grandson, River, as well as those in their 80’s, we took our time and looked out for each other. The street art and wall murals were most creative and delightful.     

Visiting One World Trade Center, with its spectacular 360 views, reminded me that I was, indeed, no longer in the cornfields of Iowa but rather in one of the grandest cities of our world. Our son, Garth, was kind enough to circle the building in which he works in Manhattan! I have always found it difficult to tolerate big cities because I easily become overwhelmed with the noise, traffic, smells, pollution, and sheer number of people. One of my favorite moments in NYC was walking with Garth and his fiancée Lillie through Prospect Park in Brooklyn with their dog Atari. Never have I seen hundreds of dogs in one park having the time of their life playing with each other! 

A highlight of the Big Apple for our extended family was the opportunity to see three Broadway shows. Monday was the Christmas Spectacular starring the Radio City Rockettes. What fun!  

Tuesday was Disney: The Lion King, which debuted on Broadway twenty-five years ago and has been seen by 110 million audience members across the world. Beginning with dancers costumed as birds and zebras twirling around a magical enchanting forest, the show is about a young lion cub named Simba, who idolizes his father, King Mufasa, and is eager for his own royal destiny.  

For many years, especially since a 1994 version of the movie and a recent remake, The Lion King has taught children lessons about the circle of life (the most popular song in the show), following your dreams, and learning from mistakes. Hakuna Matata! 

On Wednesday, we saw The Music Man, which originally opened in 1957.  It ran for 1,375 performances and won the 1958 Tony Award for Best Musical while Robert Preston won Best Lead Actor in a Musical as con man Harold Hill, who arrives in River City, Iowa, in the summer of 1912.  

The movie version was released in 1962, and I distinctly remember my enchantment with the movie when I saw it for the first time as a child. Of course, living in Pennsylvania at the time, I had no idea that sixty years later, I myself would be living in Iowa, the home of The Music Man’s “River City,” which was based upon Mason City, Iowa.  

After these fabulous experiences, our extended family took the train back to Philadelphia last Thursday and rented a 15-passenger van to take us to my home territory in Montgomery County in southeastern PA. I lived my early life on the outskirts of Souderton, a small town of 7,100 people. This is the home in which I grew up since the sixth grade, and relatives and family members still live in the area. 

I was thrilled with the opportunity to see my old haunts and know that, even with the Philadelphia suburbs creeping outward and Souderton only being 25 miles away from Philly, there is still a small-town Pennsylvania Dutch feel of connection. Here’s what I noticed: 

  • Many people drive in from “the country” to Philly for work.  
  • It’s still common to see “Old Mennonites” wearing their prayer caps and plain dresses. 
  • Much of the area still consists of hilly, narrow roads, but there are also new, widened roads to accommodate an increasing population. 
  • I couldn’t resist pulling into the driveway of our old house, built in 1965, when I was in 6th grade. 
  • As far as I could tell, the turkey farm is still across from our house, but there is also a new paved walking trail along the road. 
  • Whenever we return to PA, we visit Asher’s Chocolate Company in Souderton, which has been in existence since 1892.    
  • We also visited Landis Grocery Store in nearby Telford, which has all the Pennsylvania Dutch foods, baked goods, and candy that we crave. 

Most of all, I was delighted to be with my two brothers and my sister, Jenny, whose birthday is Nov. 26, one day after mine. I’m especially grateful to Jenny, who arranged for our four families and others to gather.    

The greatest gift of human life is connection with one another. On Thanksgiving Day, we remembered the legacy of our wonderful parents and vowed to remain connected with God and one another as disciples of Jesus Christ.      

Connection: a wedding; exploring New York City; enjoying musicals; buying chocolate; telling stories; reminiscing; romping with a dog; joyfully accepting our responsibility to live out our faith and make a difference in our world. That’s what counts. Thanks be to God!