For the 2022 Annual Conference, Friday was a day of great learning, introspection, and conversation about analyzing the present and looking to the future.

Jason Moore was introduced as teacher and preacher for the learning session. Known for his pioneering work in collaborative worship design and guest readiness, Moore has devoted the last two-plus decades to resource development, training, coaching and consulting that works for local churches of all sizes, styles, and means. He has authored 12 books and has taught in 47 states in the USA, including the Arkansas Conference. Most recently he has led Both/And worship cohorts with 42 Arkansas UM local churches.

Moore said he is really passionate about Both/And worship – those both in person and at home — and was excited about bringing a message to those here and at home.

Each person attending received a small container of Play-Doh. “How many of you remember Play-Doh? How many of you remember that smell? How many remember that taste? Play-Doh has so many up sides, it can be shaped into whatever you want, and you can smash it into a ball if it doesn’t work out how you wanted it. If it dries out, it loses its malleability. Friends, we don’t want to lose our malleability in this season of change.”

He said that we are all like clay in the hand of the potter. “These last couple of years have been kind of crazy. It has felt like we have been at the wheel and it’s been spinning so fast we can’t hang on. I’m telling you today, friends, that when we submit to the potter’s hand, God can do new things.”

He said he feels some of us in the local church are feeling a little dried out like that Play-Doh, and that Covid really changed the face of ministry. He said he had 30 to 40 speaking engagements in person pre-pandemic, “and then God did a new thing.”

“For me, everything changed, and I had moments of fear and panic, and I didn’t know what to do. I liked the way my ministry was shaping up. I couldn’t be in person any more, and I had to figure out how God was shaping me and my ministry in the moment. I wonder where you are in your local churches in reshaping in the midst of this pandemic. When we allow God to reshape us, there is a force more powerful than I that has a better picture that I have in my own heart and my own spirit. I encourage you to reclaim a childlike faith to learn what God is doing in your life and your ministry. … Only God can take that dried out, non-malleable clay and make something new.”

He said one of his fears is that churches will revert to what it was pre-pandemic in 2019. He said he would encourage churches to look at what the world is today, and that we are made to be reshaped. “Your ministry was made to be reshaped.”

Rev. Kenny Lee, senior pastor of Marvell and Lexa UMC, and Rev. Angie Gage, senior pastor at Cherokee Village UMC, joined Amy Ezell and Jason Moore on stage to talk about how they have leaned into this new season of ministry. They discussed how they started with online worship and how they have advanced since the beginning of the pandemic. Rev. Lee reminded us all that online worship is the new front door to the church. Rev. Gage said she was surprised that a young woman that joins them online from California felt that Rev. Gage was her pastor. “Here I am from Arkansas and I’m the pastor of a family in California. We don’t know how what we’re doing is impacting those watching us and worshiping with us online.”

It’s vital we continue an online presence and grow in that type of engagement, said Rev. Lee. Rev. Gage said her church has seen persons who have worshiped with us online who have been hurt by the church to actually find safety and security, and are now joining us in person. YouCan Toucan kits at Cherokee Village have been sent to children in several states and are distributed to the in person children.

Moore encouraged us to think beyond Both/And worship to Both/And ministry.

For our afternoon session, Moore changed the message slightly, taking on the task of discussing how hybrid worship needs to be continued in the futureand how we can reshape and redo our ministry.

There are advantages and disadvantages of both being at home and in person. How can we design worship to where no one feels like an afterthought – not those at home or those in person? The approach was more “ready, fire, aim” than “ready, aim, fire”. The pandemic closed the world down, and we weren’t able to aim before firing. In this “new wineskin” opportunity, it’s time to re-analyze.

With the entrance of Covid, we were able to take our worship to other places. There are some people who will never walk into your physical building. Both/And gives us an opportunity to do more.

Why continue hybrid ministry? When you know your why, your what becomes more impactful and has more purpose. Now we have this wonderful opportunity to reshape and look for our why.

  1. People have come back to our church. Three groups of people to consider: those who were committed and tell them where streaming (tend to think of these folks the most); those who have left the church (the disconnected); and those who are done with church or have no faith at all.

  1. Those who have left the church, some left because they have been shunned or felt shunned – perhaps they had too many tattoos, etc. – and they have now returned to online worship. They can go to church online because they can do it in a way where they don’t feel shunned by the church. We have to get rid of the idea that the only people that count are the ones who come to the building.

  1. Shut-ins have had the most incredible two-plus years in worship. Before the pandemic, we weren’t able to really give shut-ins anything even close to actual, in-person worship. Another kind of shut-in are those incarcerated folks. Some churches have worked out a relationship with a prison. Your work online is actual worship, even if it is delivered digitally. If we reimagine the experience, embrace the limits of that technology, people at home can really be transformed.

  1. Busy families, travelers, etc., can actually worship from wherever they are. Blue Laws don’t exist anymore, so families decide “are we going to the soccer match or church, or the dance recital or church?” 2020 changed that a little. Now you can do both.

  1. Worship now lives beyond Sunday (or whatever day you do worship on). The good news of Jesus Christ can happen at almost any time now. The Gospel is timeless, so it’s encouraged that churches create “evergreen” content. Keep your message in the context.

  1. Visitors can now try us out in a non-intimidating way. Online worship is also an evangelistic tool for those who are looking for a church.

  1. Geography no longer matters due to online worship.

  1. Special needs families can worship without fear of judgments.

  1. Dialogue is now possible in real time during worship we offer, for both online and in-person worshippers. Have greeters in the chat.

  1. Evangelism and sharing our faith has never been this easy. Just share a link, a url, a hashtag! 

  1. Introverts and those with social anxiety can take a respite from in-person worship.

  1. Those who have hearing and visual impairments can have an enhanced experience.

  1. It ain’t over til it’s over! 

“God didn’t cause the pandemic, but God can use the pandemic. In adversity we can grow. If we will lean in, I think God will do good things in our worship.” Our ministry began as hybrid ministry – Paul conducted hybrid ministry. He’s preaching to the people in person, and then from prison he begins writing these epistles and sending them to the church. “It’s a return to our roots to embrace hybrid ministry.”

Denman and One Matters Awards

One special presentation Friday morning was to the recipients of the Harry Denman Evangelism and One Matters awards.

The Harry Denman Evangelism Award was given to lay member Sean Jennings of El Dorado for his work with technology during the pandemic, and to Rev. Kathleen McMurray in her work to reach out to young people in Little Rock. The Harry Denman Evangelism Award is given out every year to two individuals, a youth and an adult recipient, who exemplify what it means to be a disciple in their own communities.

The One Matters Award was given to Green Forest United Methodist Church and Rev. Michael Bolin for their work at growing the membership of the church. The award is given every year to a local church that exemplifies remarkable leadership in their community and seeks to bring people to Christ through action and spirit.

Special Recognition

Rev. David Hoffman, Senior Pastor of Faith United Methodist Church in Little Rock, introduced Rev. Nat Grady and wife Nona. Rev. Grady is observing the 65th anniversary of his ordination as an elder. He was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and became a member of the United Methodist Church in 1967. He continues to serve as a circuit elder. “He has never turned me down for anything I’ve asked him. He subs for me, he mentors me, he corrects me, and I love him for everything,” said Rev. Hoffman. Rev. Grady said, “I want to say thank you to the Arkansas Conference for being in your midst and to serve those churches which have been appointed for me.”

Business

A resolution was adopted to request the Congressional Delegation from Arkansas to act on Responsible Fire-Arm Legislation. “It is past time for the church to speak to the least, the last and the lost,” said sponsor, the Rev. Andrew Kjorlaug. 

Other reports given included the Youth address, the Committee on the Episcopacy, the Committee on Nominations, the Board of Trustees, the Commission on Equitable Compensation, the Board of Pensions, the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, United Methodist Men, United Methodist Women (now United Women in Faith), United Methodist Ecumenical and Interreligious Concerns, the Cabinet Report, the Commission on Religion and Race, Children’s Ministries, Youth Ministries, Board of Higher Education and Ministries, Committee on Disaster Relief, Committee on Native American Ministry, and the Committee on Disability Concerns. Reports were also given from various institutions such as Philander Smith College, Hendrix College, Lydia Patterson Institute, Methodist LeBonheur , and Methodist Family Health.

Annual Conference ended with a short worship service and the setting of appointments for the following year.