The usual business took place at West Virginia Annual Conference 2021, but it was anything but business as usual.
As the business session churned its way through its agenda last Saturday morning and afternoon, a new budget, new clergy health plan, and new conference organizational structure were just several of the many pieces of legislation upon which action was taken. But it was the structure of the session itself that was totally brand new.
For the first time ever, the business session, along with the entire conference, was held in a hybrid format, meaning that attendees participated both in person at West Virginia Wesleyan College’s Wesley Chapel in Buckhannon and virtually throughout the rest of the connection. As the Conference Program Committee Chair, Rev. Krysta Rexrode Wolfe, pointed out during her remarks to the Saturday gathering, “this is really an historic Annual Conference.”
For those clergy and lay members who chose the virtual option, it was a particularly different experience – one that mirrors the ways in which the church has adjusted to being the church during a pandemic. Armed with a personal voting identification number and electronic ballot access, along with the ability to submit amendment proposals and speak in real time to motions brought to the floor, virtual members were immersed in a fully interactive session. And except for a few minor technical hiccups, it was a session that gave them the feel of almost being physically present.
“I found it to be a really practical model that I hope we can continue to adapt in the future,” said Joe Webb, an ordained Deacon appointed to extension ministry who attended virtually from his daughter’s apartment. “The system worked very smoothly from my perspective. I appreciated the conciseness with which agenda items were presented, the ability for both in-person and online attendees to amend and collegially debate the various motions, and the ease of using the virtual voting system. And honestly, the ability to sit in a comfortable chair and take water and bathroom breaks on my body’s own schedule was a bonus!”
This was a sentiment echoed by lay member Janice Stone from the Midland South District, who welcomed the convenience of attending virtually after having to travel out of state due to a family emergency just prior to the beginning of conference.
“I like the online voting,” she said. “It was fast and convenient. The meeting was efficient and very well handled by Bishop Steiner Ball.”
However, just as many virtual churchgoers have felt disconnected from their siblings in Christ while navigating virtual worship services, Bible studies, and committee meetings during the Covid era, virtual business session attendees expressed similar feelings. While many appreciated the informality of online conferencing and the flexibility it allowed, it did not quite measure up to being in the pews and fellowshipping with friends and colleagues.
“To be honest, I quite liked the online voting process, and the seating was more comfortable, too! Even so, I look forward to hopefully being physically gathered together with my siblings in Christ next year,” said Rev. Cindy Briggs-Biondi, ordained Elder and pastor of St. Mark’s UMC (Charleston). “There’s no real substitute for that connection and fellowship that occurs at Annual Conference.”
And for a connectional church, that personal connection was significant in its absence for many.
“I truly missed the in-person experience of sitting in Wesley Chapel,” said Carol Peck, a lay member from the Little Kanawha District. “I missed enjoying friends, listening to beautiful choir and organ music, and congregational singing. Singing in Wesley Chapel with hundreds of others is heavenly!”
Some, however, are peering into a future where this hybrid model of conferencing perhaps can allow flexibility for both aspects discussed above by turning the host city and surrounding area itself into a virtual hub – a hybrid site in the truest sense that would allow both virtual and personal interaction between participants. Rev. Webb, who admittedly missed spending face-to-face time with friends and sharing the in-person session experience with them, thinks that this could be the Annual Conference wave of the future and the solution that keeps the connectional church truly connectional.
“It would be interesting to explore ways people could perhaps still gather in Buckhannon and enjoy time together,” he said. “And do so while still having the flexibility to participate in business sessions from locales other than Wesley Chapel.”
Exploring different ways of holy conferencing together, just as the church has been exploring different ways of doing life together during what Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball called a “year of challenges” during her opening remarks during the business session, will not stop with the adjournment of the 2021 business session. The prevailing thought of virtual attendees seems to be that those challenges were met, overcome, and blazed into a future path to follow, and that God will travel with us along the way as we shape a new normal to do the work of the people called United Methodists in the West Virginia Area.
“We have adapted meeting styles, planted new digital communities… we can feel stretched by these adaptations but yet we can be blessed by all that is possible,” the Bishop told the gathering. “We’re all learning together.”