By Melinda Shunk

Children's Ministry Coordinator

Next year’s Beyond Conference will take place entirely online, Jan. 22 – 23, 2021. The two-day event will focus on the Arkansas Conference’s mission of dismantling racism in our church and society, with the Bible verse Micah 6:8 as the main biblical focus.

The Beyond Conference is unique to the Arkansas Children’s Ministry. Very few UMC conferences offer professional development for faith formation staff and volunteers. Even fewer have a conference coordinator dedicated only to the ministry to children and their families. ARUMC has a history of investing in early faith formation.

More than eight years ago, a group of children’s ministers wanted to combine the two-state locations with limited training and pool their resources. They wanted to bring everyone together and share ideas and learn new tools for ministering to children and their families. I was not living in this state eight years ago, so I had to go back to one of the original planning team members, Karen Swales. 

Karen currently sits on our Conference Children’s Ministry team. She shared with me that they did a lot of research and found that there were few to no workshops for Children’s Ministers at the end of January, so they quickly chose what has become the traditional date. It also worked out to be a slower time for people to step away from church work for two days since it was after Christmas and before Lent.

The first four Beyond conferences were alternately held retreat-style at Tanako and Mt. Sequoyah, but in 2018 it was brought to Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Bringing Beyond into Little Rock allowed for it to become more of a professional training rather than a getaway.  Bringing children’s ministers to the Conference office connected them with ARUMC staff as well letting them see what the city had to offer in entertainment during their stay. No matter the location of the Beyond Conference the planning team has always looked for keynote speakers that shed new light on how we can best minister to children. Faith formation training is the continual focus at every Beyond training.

Beyond 2021 is no different, except of course the location has changed once again. Planning quality keynote speakers for Beyond usually takes six months to a year to book. In June of 2020, the CCM planning team had to decide if we would be able to plan for an in-person conference. We looked at the Bishop’s Task Force guidelines and thought about how we could hold in-person within the safety guidelines.

We have 10 members of our team plus special speakers, so under the guidelines for in-person, we would be able to have less than 35 attendees. In January of 2020, we had 90 attendees with five different states represented. We couldn’t plan a conference that would leave out half of our attendees in 2021!

I had Zoom conferences with our chosen keynote speakers to ask if they felt comfortable adapting their presentations to a webinar/Zoom format. They overwhelmingly agreed to the new format. I put in a webinar request with our award-winning ARUMC Communications director to see if Director Amy Ezell could supply the technical support we would need to go to an all-virtual format. Director Amy Ezell was in full agreement that Beyond 2021 could be offered in a virtual format with her team’s expertise in bringing it together.

If you have been to Beyond in the past you will note that the format has changed to two half-days of learning. In our research, we have found that all-day webinars/Zooms do not allow for the best learning. However, our theme for this year follows the Bishop’s proclamation that this would be a year of study and reflection for Dismantling Racism across our Arkansas UMC Conference. 

The CCM team chose our focus verse to be Micah 6:8 with a focus on Justice, Mercy and Humility. Our keynote speaker is the Rev. Dr. Y. Joy Harris from New York who just co-authored the book the ABC’s of Diversity. Click here to take a closer look at the speaker and break-out sessions. The virtual option allowed for more authors in our break-out sessions. 

Join us on both days or just one. Beyond 2021 is an affordable training for all in the comfort of your own home. Arkansas Conference attendees will also receive books and materials in the mail the last week of January, so please register before the deadlines. We hope to see you and your pastor on January 22-23, 2021!