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! 

20 thoughts on “My Love Affair with Iowa

  1. Laurie,

    Thank you SO much for everything you have done for the church, my family, and for me. My mother was SO inspired by you and she is smiling now when she thinks about you. Enjoy your retirement and know that you have positively influenced thousands of us. I’m grateful for you.

    • Thank you very much for your kind words, Scott. I dearly loved your parents, and they were a great influence in my life. God bless you richly.

  2. Born and raised in Allegan, Michigan and graduating from Alma College, I am a bit envious of your choice of moving back to Michigan! But I have learned to accept and appreciate Iowa as my “home state.”
    Have prayed for you every night and will continue to do so! Blessings to you and your family as you start yet another chapter in your life!

  3. Have so appreciated your blogs for over the years and know that you will find a place for you wherever you go and happy to have you back in Michigan by the way so maybe we can make more connections. Many blessings as you take another path

  4. Lori,

    I pray that Gary and you will find sanctuary in Michigan. I hope that our paths will cross from time to time. For myself and all that have been informed, inspired, and challenged by your sharings over these years you have blessed us. Thanks for your witness and commitment!

  5. I enjoy your stories.

    Last weeks comment about doing more. You have done a lot more that anyone could ever expect. I am sure that you will miss Iowa, but we will be happy to have you back in Michigan.

    May God continual to bless the work you do in the years ahead, and please run on the inside track on snowy days in Michigan.

  6. Thank you, Bishop Laurie, for demonstrating how leadership CAN be done! May you find many blessings during your retirement, and continue to be a blessing to others.

  7. I’ve enjoyed your blogs and appreciated them being sent to lay people as well as clergy. They’ve given us much to think (and do). Also appreciated your years as D.S. on the Grand Rapids District. When you come back to Michigan beware of black ice! It’s still winter.
    Nancy Spalenka

    • Thank you, Nancy. It’s very cold here in Iowa as well. We are looking forward to returning home to Michigan and being near to our grandchildren.

  8. Dear colleague friend Laurie…a beautiful, so like you, message as the closing of IA days approaches . Time after time and writing after writing you have enriched my life – you have pointed the way to seeing differently the gifts of God and the presence of opportunities to point the way. Thank you and Thank God that you ran and climbed and “recessed” for the times and the stumbles all showed how understanding and deepening life can and does happen. Be Blessed and be one who, on and on, offers blessing.

    Don Ott

    • You have blessed me in so many ways during the years, Don. Gary and I look forward to being back in Michigan, and the movers are already here in Iowa. A new adventure beckons!

  9. One more person of grace I call a friend in Michigan —Kalamazoo was my home for sixteen years, and where I returned to the faith in 1983— God has blessed you in so many ways; will dearly miss your blog posts. Hoo-Rah!!! Bishop Laurie.

  10. I will miss your blog. Thank you for reaching out in that way for so many years. Enjoy your well deserved retirement. Your leadership will be missed!

  11. Dear Bishop Laurie,
    Thank you for your diligence in writing your blog, I have enjoyed your imparted wisdom over the years but this, your last blog in an official capacity is especially poignant. I appreciate how you embraced and shared the trials and triumphs of your role as Bishop. God has blessed you and those of us who had the pleasure of being one of your congregants! Peace, grace and love to you in your next chapter!
    Mixie Hockman

  12. Congratulations on retirement Laurie! I retired almost 2 yrs ago, and so grateful to choose how I want to spend my time in these later yrs. Who would have thought that you, Pat and I all those friendship years ago, we would all be now retired. So grateful for all three of us.
    Christmas Blessings, Peace & Love – Mary Jean

    • So good to hear from you, Mary! Gary and I bought a home in Michigan, and we are in the process of moving from Iowa so we can be near to our grandchildren. I, too, am deeply grateful for the friendships we had as children at Zion Mennonite. I have only fond memories of our adventures, especially the time I ate 12 ears of corn at your family’s home one summer’s evening! Sending much love.

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