Conference Adapts in Wake of Pandemic

By Audrey Stanton-Smith

Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball (right) and Conference Secretary Judi Kenaston practicing safe gathering with masks, face shields, and social distancing during Annual Conference 2020.

It happened “maybe not as expected, but in new, glorious ways,” Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball said of the Special Annual Conference during the Sunday, Aug. 2, worship service.

It was a statement that spoke equally of God’s work within the apostles during a chaotic time, and of God’s work within the church during this pandemic,  when a traditional one-location, four-day conference transformed into a multi-camera, multi-media event streamed to 12 remote sites and webcast into the homes and onto the smartphones of United Methodists anywhere.

Viewers could watch all of the business, celebrations, and worship of the Special Annual Conference — webcast and recorded over two days — in three-and-a-half hours.

“We’ve never done it this way before, but we know God creates all things new,” the bishop said during the conference’s business meeting. She also reminded those in attendance that their “blessed connection” went beyond location and sites.

“We are one body, living in one God, serving in one baptism,” she said.

What the bar of the conference  — voting in masks and seated socially distant — saw in those remote sites on Aug. 1 was the bishop and other conference representatives on large screens, from multiple angles, in real time, from the chapel at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

A current or former district superintendent at each remote site watched along with the bar of voters — as few as eight in some locations and as many as 47 at one — and followed a script that allowed her or him to call for local voting and answer questions at designated times. Those scripts also served as backups, just in case live-streaming or internet technology failed. And tellers, who had trained via Zoom, counted and reported.

Also at the remote sites, communications volunteers and church tech teams ensured smooth connections between local churches and main site live-streaming technology. Meanwhile, Communications Team members who were connected via Zoom used a chat feature and colored cards to indicate to the main site when voting was underway and completed at their respective locations. Eight of those 12 remote sites hosted agenda-identical meetings at 1 and 3 p.m., to keep attendance in compliance with social distancing requirements.

Later that same day, at 5 p.m., the cameras and technology allowed hundreds of viewers to celebrate reports of ministries and missions from screens within their own homes. Then, Sunday morning, those cameras and technology allowed hundreds of viewers — thousands as the week continued — to worship from home as the bishop conducted a live-streamed service of baptism and ordination.

Making it all happen involved dozens of planners and volunteers who adapted again and again. “Covid does not work on a timeline,” said Program Director Krysta Rexrode Wolfe. “Setting deadlines became impossible. Our markers for progression had to shift. Instead of watching dates, we began to watch the news, and we paced our work to prioritize health and safety.”

For example, as news emerged that showed a direct correlation between the length of indoor meetings and virus risk, the committee prioritized a limited agenda. As news emerged connecting crowd size with virus risk, finding multiple settings that would allow gatherings in safe numbers became a priority.

“There was never a question about whether we would follow the guidelines put out by our public health officials,” Wolfe said. “The question we faced was, ‘How can we be who we are, witness to whose we are, and celebrate our mission and ministry in a safe way?’ As a result, the 2020 session became a special called conference, focused on doing in person only that business which was necessary for the continuation of our mission and ministry. Ministry celebrations were made accessible online, and the service of baptism and ordination was highly adapted.”

Planners wanted to make sure the new format did not silence members, but instead offered new and expanded opportunities for communication.

West Virginia United Methodist Conference Secretary Judi Kenaston explained: “It was never about ‘How can we do this more efficiently?’ It was about ‘How can we be the safest we can be and still get the work done that we legally have to do?’ … It was so complicated because we were changing things so frequently — locations, how many, the times. Everything was driven by the need to keep people safe.”

So, the focus was on what could be done instead of dwelling on what could not be done. The workbook was made accessible online and members were invited to share their questions, comments and affirmations through email. A Frequently Asked Questions document was developed. Plans were formulated to make all comments part of the conference summary. And district offices were tasked with making regular contact with voting members, to keep them informed as the conference adapted.

One major adaptation involved the agenda. It had to transition from the agenda of a regular session of annual conference to a special called session, and it still had to comply with the rules that shape the church.

Unlike a regularly scheduled session, special called sessions take up only the business for which they are called to accomplish — in this case those items that need to be addressed annually for mission and ministry to continue. New business cannot be introduced during a special called session. Action items, those items of business which require a vote, were tackled in one hour, in two repeated shifts.

“We did not share all that we normally share, but instead prioritized the business that would allow our local churches to operate until we can gather again,” Wolfe explained.

“We tried our best to affirm the work of the gathered body by keeping as much of the 2019 approved business in place and moving multiple pieces of business to the 2021 session, when we hope to gather again in one place,” she added. “Our process evolved, but our hope never faltered. We give thanks that we were able to gather in multiple ways, and that our team exhibited the gracious creativity this new challenge demanded.”

That creativity provided hope, but a way forward was not always clear, Wolfe said. Prayer and the conference theme, “generative,” guided steps for her and for the directors of connectional ministry, Bonnie MacDonald and Ken Willard, and Bishop Steiner Ball.

“None of us could have anticipated how a global pandemic would thrust our theme to the forefront of every aspect of life,” Wolfe said. “Ministry was and is multiplying, adapting, and evolving to meet the needs of our communities.”

Acts 2:42-47, the scripture that inspired the “generative” theme, speaks of the apostles accomplishing their work when all who believe commit themselves to prayer and working in unity.

“Our hope in this season was the same hope the apostles had — that our common life would give shape to something meaningful, holy, and mission forward,” Wolfe said.

For Director of Communications Deborah Coble, the guiding scriptures in Acts and Jeremiah 30:18-22 reminded her that we are not the only ones to have lived in a time of chaos, fear and anxiety.

“What we’re dealing with Covid is not new. There have always been chaotic forces in the world, but God strengthened the church,” Coble said.

A strengthened church today includes new ways of sharing through technology, she said, pointing to a volunteer team of writers, camera operators, control centers and other tech- and communications-savvy individuals serving in new ways as local churches and the annual conference adapt.

“What’s important to realize is that technology is a tool that allows people to come together in different ways,” Coble said. “As we embrace that, we are able to find ways that really glorify God and the gifts of people. … People are now giving gifts to church who never felt like they had a place. They’re the ones helping to figure this out.”

Kenaston agreed. “The Communications Team really stretched their wings and did wonderful work,” she said. “The selection of sites itself was difficult. It had to be a big enough site. It had to have the equipment to allow us to do what we did.”

Those sites were Wesleyan Chapel, Potomac State University (Potomac Highlands District), Saint Luke’s UMC (Greenbrier), Epworth UMC and Mt. Pleasant UMC (Little Kanawha), Aldersgate UMC and Cross Lanes UMC (Midland South), Life UMC and Suncrest UMC (Mon Valley), Christ UMC (Northern), Beckley-United Methodist Temple (Southern), and Steele Memorial (Western).

“What I saw in terms of that generativeness is just what our churches have done as they’ve come through this process,” Kenaston added. “People are stepping up. It is hard for me to not get to sing at conference. It was hard look at out at Wesley Chapel with so few people sitting there, but at the same time I see people rising up in a way that is generative.

“There were so many people involved. So many Zoom meetings. So many conversations. So many late-night emails, and a ton of people doing the office work that has to be done. … The youth. They were spread all over the conference and so they couldn’t have the connection with each other. Shea James brought them together by Zoom. … We value them and their contribution whether they participated in person or by livestream. … People really pulled together to do it in a different way, and we were able to communicate in ways that we have never done before,” Kenaston said.

Although live-streaming has been a part of annual conference for nearly a decade, the layers of Zoom and simulcasting were novel.

“In some ways, hosting the annual conference by using large station churches as outposts brought us back to our roots,” said Wolfe, explaining that prior to 1953, when W.Va. Wesleyan College began hosting the conference, it took place in a variety of larger station churches around the conference or in Charleston Municipal Auditorium.

“In other ways, hosting conference by simulcasting business in one location to multiple sites is a new way of meeting, because the technology now allows those remote sites to communicate back to a singular presiding table.”

Wolfe called the resulting session “a perfect example of adaptive leadership.”

“We cannot do the same tasks we have done in other years to accomplish the same business,” Wolfe said. “The atmosphere is different and demands a creative application of our best practices.”

She extended thanks to all people of The West Virginia Annual Conference.

“We are scattered for mission and ministry, but we have been and will be one church, always,” Wolfe said. “I give thanks for those members who stayed home, and participated in the live-stream. I give thanks for those members who attended in person, and submitted to the safety guidelines. I give thanks for those who worked in each site and who remained faithful, hopeful, and flexible throughout the planning process.

“We can’t do what we have always done, but we can be who we have always been — a connected, faithful, resourceful, hopeful people who proclaim a gospel of transformation.”

Audrey Stanton-Smith is the District Communications Coordinator of the Southern District.