Thank YouA Final Word from the Editor

Thank You
A Final Word from the Editor

caleb hennington

Caleb Hennington, Digital Content Editor for the Arkansas Conference.

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

I thought a lot about what I would write for my last From the Editor column.

Yes, you read that correctly, this will be my last time writing a From the Editor column as the Digital Content Editor for the Arkansas Conference. I have found a new career opportunity in Arkansas, and have decided to end my time here at the Conference office in order to pursue a new adventure.

And it’s a bittersweet change because although I’m excited for what my new career has in store for me, I’m also sad that I will be leaving a position that has taught me so much. I’ll also miss working with people who have been so good to me in the three and half years I’ve been here, many of whom have become close friends of mine.

But rather than be sad about all the things that will be coming to an end, I thought I’d use this last editor’s column to talk about the things that have been accomplished in my time here.

When I started writing for the Conference in June 2018, I was tasked with taking over and transforming The Arkansas United Methodist newspaper, a 130-something-year-old publication with a rich history in the state. From the ground up, I, along with the awesome Center for Communication team, transformed the AUM from a print-only newspaper to a digital-first, online magazine, The Arkansas United Methodist: Living Our Faith.

Although, in the beginning, many people questioned the plan to change such a storied publication so drastically, most people came to love and appreciate the new format. And at the first United Methodist Association of Communicators awards event after the redesign, our team took home multiple first place wins for the new AUM magazine, solidifying that our decision to take the AUM into unknown territory was the right one to make.

As your editor these past few years, I have loved getting to know your pastors, your churches, and your mission work. I’ve consistently been impressed with the depth and breadth of work and love that Arkansas United Methodist Churches put into their communities.

My favorite stories to tell were the ones where churches came together with their communities to overcome physical hardships and deep, emotional struggles. Like the volunteers that came together to help people who had lost everything in the historic Arkansas River flood of 2019, or the racial healing that occurred in our congregations in the summer of 2020 after the horrific murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

These stories were hard to cover, but they were necessary for healing historic wounds and for bringing together United Methodists all over Arkansas for a common cause. It’s stories like these that made us forget about all of the fighting and turmoil surrounding the UMC’s General Conference that weighs heavily on the hearts of many in our church.

My initial From the Editor column in August 2018 was titled “A New Chapter,” and in it, I said that I didn’t want to focus on the fear of the future, but instead, I wanted to focus on three important things: hope, faith and optimism. 

Hope that the new format of the AUM will be well received.

Faith that this is the right direction for the publication.

And optimism for the future of not only the “Arkansas United Methodist,” but for the United Methodist Church in general, that the church will remain intact, and continue to create vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world.

And although the ball hasn’t moved very many yards down the field since 2018, and we’re all still wondering when General Conference will take place, I think it’s important to continue to remember those three things: hope, faith and optimism.

In my mind, those first two points have been met; the AUM’s new format was well received by many, and I believe this was the right direction for the AUM.

As far as optimism goes, although things have looked rocky for the United Methodist Church for a few years now, and COVID-19 has accelerated those fears even more in the last year, I am still optimistic that the decision that will be made at General Conference on the future of the Church will be the right decision for all parties involved, and the mission of creating disciples for Jesus Christ will continue on.

Thank you to everyone who has written to me, emailed me, called me, or texted me with a story idea over the years. You have helped me in more ways than you realize, and my only regret is that I didn’t have the time to cover every story of vital mission work that came across my desk.

I have no doubt that the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church will continue to be a place where the vital work of making disciples, who make disciples will continue for many, many years to come. 

Thank you for allowing me to play a small part in the vital mission work of the ARUMC, and I’m sure I will see many of you again in the future.

Blessings,

Caleb Hennington

Sustaining A Summer Camp During A PandemicA Q&A with Camp Tanako Executive Director Kayla Hardage on the struggles and successes of camping ministries in 2021

Sustaining A Summer Camp During A Pandemic
A Q&A with Camp Tanako Executive Director Kayla Hardage on the struggles and successes of camping ministries in 2021

camp tanako

Camp Tanako. Photo by Casey Crocker.

Camp Tanako Executive Director Kayla Hardage had to battle a global pandemic once again this year in order to make a safe and fun environment for campers to enjoy the beautiful, serene setting at camp Tanako. She shares with us some struggles (but mostly successes!) that she experienced during the 2021 summer camping season.

This summer’s camps were obviously quite different than in years past due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. How did Camp Tanako adapt to the challenges of having camp this year?

Having made the decision to cancel camp in 2020, we did not want to cancel two summers in a row. The international camping and retreat community was a wonderful resource of ideas and best practices to adapt camp with pandemic precautions. The safety of our campers, their families, and our staff was always a priority. We relied on CDC recommendations for general space. The CDC also released camp-specific recommendations that were very helpful. We adjusted how we scheduled activities and meals and we changed how we ran small and large groups to create pods of campers and staff. By engaging in the CDC recommendations, we were able to contain COVID-19 when we had a positive case during our last week of camp.

What are some new things you tried out this year that you haven’t attempted in the past?

Keeping social distancing in mind, we moved more activities outside. A favorite was the Kona snow cone truck every Wednesday for canteen time. Thanks to a couple of donations, we were able to sustain the weekly visit. We look forward to setting this up for next summer. We also had some old picnic tables that we tie-dyed and used to make an outdoor classroom. This was a huge hit, and we plan to make a couple more areas. One of the things that is great about outdoor classrooms is that we can use them all year!

Share with us some successes from this year. What are some blessings that you experienced at Camp Tanako?

We hosted 10 weeks of camp! We had over 1,500 campers in Day Camp, Overnight Camp, Time Out for Tanako, and guest groups. I made the comment several times this summer that hearing children laughing and silly camp songs were good for my soul! The little moments you spend with a camper while they tell you a story, or hand you a friendship bracelet that they made for you, help to realign the good in this world. My favorite part of the day is evening worship, and it is always amazing to see the campers grow within the week. The last night of singing “Sanctuary” re-energizes the staff, as we remember why we do what we do!

What was the most challenging part of having camp this summer?

We had a few! As we all see today, there are mixed feelings on precautions, and asking some parents and campers to wear a mask was harder on the staff than we anticipated. Another challenge was the litter created on the grounds by disposable masks. Every day we had the fear of shutting down camp because of either an outbreak or rising COVID-19 cases in the state. On top of a pandemic, this was the first summer with campers for both me as Director and Matthew Gwinner, our new Program Director. Getting to personally know our staff, campers, and their families as the summer went on was great for our leadership. We learned a lot this summer, and are excited as we now plan next summer.

How did campers respond to camp this summer? Can you share any joyful moments with us?

These campers were ready to play outside and see their old friends and meet new ones. They were just as excited as my return staff to be here and see each other. We did notice that the stamina of staff and campers was not as it was in previous years. We expected a little of this and adapted as needed. After our first week of camp, we had a parent tell us that when they got home, their camper was playing like a kid again! As the summer went on, we all regained our sense of childlike joy in our day.

What’s the biggest lesson you learned from this summer’s camps?

People need people…the human connection is a beautiful thing to witness. No matter the relationship at camp, from parents picking up their camper to greeting the food delivery guy once a week, this place brings all the good feelings of joy, peace, grace, and love! It is our responsibility to be an open, safe place for all to come and be present with themselves and each other. One thing I say a lot when giving a tour or talking about Tanako is that if we just get people here, the outdoor chapel or a night at the fire pit on the lake will work their magic. Christ is present in this place! The testimonies of the campers through the generations give us the encouragement to keep going when things like a two-year-long pandemic seem to jeopardize our future.

What do Camp Tanako’s plans for the rest of 2021 look like?

We had several large groups cancel due to rising COVID-19 cases. We have adjusted our marketing to invite individual families or small groups to stay with us, as we did last year. Tanako is a great place to stay for a little R&R! We have RV sites, several options for cabins, and plenty to do outside. Being located 10 minutes from downtown Hot Springs makes us a great, safe place to stay while taking in the local attractions and parks. Registration for Summer 2022 camps will open October 1. (They make great Christmas presents for the children in your life!). We are hosting an Alumni Reunion weekend November 18-20, with the hopes of bringing old and new friends back to camp. Following our social media is the best way to stay up to date with us. Due to our large groups not coming, we are working on a couple of fundraisers that should be announced soon. Please consider Tanako in your charitable giving this year.

District Superintendents Craft New Fall Mission Strategy for Arkansas Conference

District Superintendents Craft New Fall Mission Strategy for Arkansas Conference

cabinet

The Appointive Cabinet of the Arkansas Conference. From left to right, Rev. Dr. Ann Ferris, Southwest District; Rev. Dr. Blake Bradford, Northwest District and Dean of the Appointive Cabinet; Rev. Jim Polk, Assistant to the Bishop and Director of Connectional Ministries; Bishop Gary E. Mueller; Rev. Dr. U.C. Washington, Central District; Rev. Edna Morgan, Southeast District; and Rev. John Fleming, Northeast District.

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

The way churches do ministry is constantly changing and adapting to the world around it, and for the District Superintendents of the Arkansas Conference, that means applying new strategies for reaching people with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Starting this fall, the Arkansas Conference Appointive Cabinet, including the Bishop and the five DS’s from each district, will be implementing a new strategy that involves bringing people together for communal ministry celebration in the form of District-Wide Charge Conferences, as well as visiting local church pastors to have more one-on-one conversations about local community needs and plans for ministry.

“We’ve done these types of Conferences before, but we want to use this time of gathering as a way to connect and celebrate the ministry we’re all doing,” said the Rev. Dr. Blake Bradford, District Superintendent for the Northwest District and Dean of the Appointive Cabinet.

Instead of individual Charge Conferences, the District-Wide Charge Conferences will serve as a way to conduct the important business of the church, but also as a way to be in connection and celebrate the “family reunion” of United Methodists from around each district coming together in fellowship.

Due to the challenges from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, these District-Wide Charge Conferences will occur online in a safe, virtual environment, but the emphasis will still be on gathering together to conduct important ministry work in a connectional way.

Additionally, Bradford said the plan is to also have strategic leadership gatherings this fall with local congregations. District Superintendents, as well as circuit elders, will be meeting with pastors and key leaders in individual congregations to talk about the next steps for their mission plans.

DS’s will each have a list of churches in their District that they will be traveling to, and will be meeting with church leaders to discuss their overall mission strategies, post-COVID ministry plans, and opportunities and challenges for their churches. But more than anything else, Bradford said the goal is to offer support and encouragement to leaders in each church.

Circuit elders will also be trained and will implement the same strategy in their circuit churches, reporting back to District Superintendents on the information they’ve gathered in their travels around the district.

“That means that every church or charge will be visited,” Bradford said. “Charge Conferences are usually business meetings, but what I love about this plan, and I guess the business work I’m really looking forward to, is having some deep-dive discussions about ministry and ministry plans, and what’s going on in the local community.”

The Rev. Dr. U.C. Washington, Central District Superintendent, said that he is looking forward to the opportunity to form a strong coalition in the Central District through this new strategy.

“That includes the district strategy team, the district leadership team, and district boards of church, location and building. We want to extend the power of a coalition among those groups.”

Washington said one of the strategies that he is hoping to build upon in the Central District is the Conference’s commitment to Dismantling Racism and Building Reconciliation, which can be found on the ARUMC website at arumc.org/dismantling-racism-initiative/.

“When it comes to dismantling racism and building reconciliation as a district and a safe community, I’m hopeful we will pray and plan and practice efforts that will position us to be more welcoming of others. And in turn, we will begin to build and reflect the broad diversity of the Central District of the Arkansas Conference,” Washington said.

The disruption of COVID-19 forced many charges to rethink their mission strategies, and quickly implement digital presences, a rapid shift that many were not prepared to handle. By meeting with churches and discussing what their next steps should look like, Bradford said the Cabinet is trying to encourage local churches as they continue to adapt their plans and ministries to share Christ in their local communities.

“You know, I think it’s really important to have these deep, deep conversations around strategic ministry plans because the disruption of 2020, with COVID and everything else, what it’s done is it has pushed the clock forward on all existing trends. The things that we thought were going to be our future five, 10 years down the road are what we’re experiencing right now, today,” Bradford said. “Some of those challenges are challenges around church attendance, challenges around figuring out how to have both a digital and in-person presence.

“We now have to ask, ‘what did we learn about ourselves, and what ministries are going to no longer be effective in the world we’re now experiencing?’”

The Rev. Edna Morgan, Southeast District Superintendent, added they are also emphasizing the importance of equipping pastors and laity with community resources to respond to COVID-related stressors.

In cases of mental health crises resulting from job loss, grief, or isolation, appropriate referrals will be made to help pastors and laity get the help they need.

“We want to be ready to meet the needs of our neighbors during this challenging time for all of us,” Morgan said.

During recent “Leadership Gatherings” with pastors and laity, Morgan discovered that churches are connecting ecumenically with neighboring churches to help address food insecurity (blessing boxes, backpack ministries, and food pantries) within our communities at a time when many people are living from a place of scarcity or hoarding.

“We need to continue our current partnerships and explore making new ones to address other critical needs within our mission fields. This year, in addition to our feeding ministries, we are opening our doors to help with literacy programs for our children by providing books and tutors to assist children who are struggling academically,” Morgan said.

“Living with COVID is not a sprint. As Methodists, we are here for the long haul, so let’s continue our traditions to help where we can by being creative and intentional as needs arise among our neighbors. We purpose in our hearts to ‘do all the good we can, in all the ways we can, to all the souls we can, in every place we can, at all the times we can, with all the zeal we can, as long as ever we can,’” she added, attributing a famous John Wesley quote to the work they are striving to do.

Bradford said the consultation strategy for DS’s meeting one-on-one with clergy will also be shifting. Instead of focusing on form-heavy assessments during the summer, the plan will now be to focus on one-on-one meetings between clergy and their DS in late summer and early fall, with a more robust assessment happening in November and December during consultation season.

This shift helps clergy to focus on their summer activities and new appointments, and gives a little more room for experimentation and figuring out their next steps in a post-COVID world, according to Bradford.

The Rev. Dr. Ann Ferris, Southwest District Superintendent, is finding one-on-one check-ins very meaningful. She reported, “It’s wonderful to hear stories of how God is working in the lives of the clergy and their churches, and to learn of some of the ways they have adapted to the COVID environment to try new and innovative things in worship, discipling and reaching out into their communities.

“I believe everyone and every church, however limited, can do something to help make disciples and transform lives, so I’ve been challenging our pastors to help all their members identify something they can do and then start doing it. I have also been connecting pastors with others who might have ideas or resources they need to become more fruitful. Despite all the challenges of the present time, there is so much we can do and I am excited by all that our churches are doing.”

The new strategy for this year falls squarely in line with the Conference trajectory of making disciples who make disciples, equipped and sent to transform lives, communities and the world.

“We’re going to have to be creative in some new ways. We’ve known this for years, but the tools that used to work aren’t working like they used to. We can’t transform communities if we’re not realistic about where they are today and we can’t transform lives unless we’re realistic about where people are today.”

“We’re going to have to be mindful about where the world is today and learn new methods to tell the old story of God’s grace and God’s great love.”

The District-Wide Charge Conferences will be held for each District on the following dates:

Southeast: 3 p.m, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021
Southwest: 5 p.m., Sunday, Nov 7, 2021
Northeast: 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021
Northwest: 3 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021
Central: 5 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021

ARUMC Churches Boast High Vaccination RatesArkansas congregations turn to vaccines to keep their communities safe

ARUMC Churches Boast High Vaccination Rates
Arkansas congregations turn to vaccines to keep their communities safe

cdc vaccine

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

As the Delta Variant continues to move through Arkansas, more and more United Methodist Churches are turning to one of three recommended vaccines to help prevent the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in their communities.

Although Arkansas still has a relatively low rate of fully vaccinated individuals compared to other states in the U.S. — 39.9% of Arkansans are considered fully vaccinated, 38th out of all states and territories, according to data from Covid Act Now — in recent weeks, more people are getting the jab in order to keep themselves, their families, and their church communities safe from the coronavirus. Some churches have even partnered with local businesses to encourage vaccinations and incentivize participating with giveaways.

Lakewood UMC of North Little Rock recently conducted an online survey to gauge how many in their congregation had been vaccinated and found that about 92% of survey respondents, 308 individuals, declared they were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The Rev. Roy Beth Kelley, who started her new appointment at Lakewood in July, said in a letter that they believe the respondents who responded saying they were unvaccinated were families with young children who were not yet eligible to get the vaccine.

“It seems likely that our church events are safer than what you might experience in other gathering spaces such as stores and restaurants,” Kelley said.

At the First United Methodist Church of Siloam Springs, senior pastor Rev. Clark Atkins said that his church conducted a survey in April 2021, prior to the FDA giving emergency approval for the vaccine to people under 18 years old.

“At that time our survey indicated that 90% of vaccine eligible people in our worshipping congregation were either fully vaccinated or would be in the next month,” Atkins said. “Since that time I believe that number has increased and we are probably at 93%.” 

Atkins said they haven’t conducted a follow-up survey since children 12-17 were approved for the vaccine, but he believes that ⅔ or more of that age group are vaccinated.

“A driver for many young people in our church is the ability to participate in athletics and extracurriculars without having to quarantine,” he said.

For some congregations, vaccination hesitancy has caused their numbers to rise slower than other churches. The Rev. Daniel Thueson, senior pastor at First UMC Mountain Home, said that although less than half of the church’s active membership responded to the survey they sent out, he was still pleased with the responses and thinks that there are more in the congregation that are vaccinated but chose not to participate in the survey.

“To get our numbers up, we encouraged the congregation early on to get vaccinated, especially since many are considered part of the highly vulnerable population. As we offer COVID updates to our community, we intentionally encourage vaccination. As a result, some of our Sunday School classes, on their own, said all the members would need to be vaccinated in order to meet as a class again.”

The Rev. Cindy Henry, deacon at Lakewood UMC, said returning to Sunday School classes was a big factor for Lakewood’s congregation to get the vaccine as well.

“Truthfully, we didn’t take any ‘intentional’ steps. The Sunday School classes were very encouraging of one another because they wanted to meet face-to-face and feel safer,” Henry said. “The staff got fully vaccinated early on and we were very public about our choices to get the vaccine.”

But for many, the biggest persuader to get vaccinated seems to be word of mouth and personal conversations about the importance of getting the vaccine.

“I’ve had several one-on-one conversations with people asking about the vaccine theologically. Helping them put the politics aside and thinking of it as a way to love their neighbor allowed them to make the decision on getting vaccinated,” Thueson said.

Similarly, Kelley said her church is currently studying “The Jesus Priorities” by Christopher Maricle, which explores Jesus’ priorities during his life on Earth. 

“Jesus’s number one priority was healing. There are many ways we can bring God’s healing love to our neighbors, and being vaccinated and telling our own story about why we did is one step within our power to bring healing,” she said.

To find a vaccine location near you, visit the Arkansas Department of Health’s website, and continue to check the ARUMC COVID Dashboard to monitor COVID-19 cases in your area.

The Evidence of LoveChurches Show Love In Different Ways As Students Return to Classrooms

The Evidence of Love
Churches Show Love In Different Ways As Students Return to Classrooms

toy rabbit

Photo by Inga Shcheglova on Unsplash

By Rev. Sam Meadors

Community Coordinator, The Delta Project - 200K More Reasons

As I was looking through the books given through Giving Books for Love, one of my all-time favorites caught my eye: The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. Written in 1922, the book tells the tale of a stuffed toy learning about love and what it means to be Real. 

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

The message of the story never fails to bring tears to my eyes. In the book, the toy Velveteen Rabbit comforts a young boy as he struggles through sickness. The rabbit has his fur rubbed thin and nose kissed off in the process. After the boy recovers from scarlet fever and to prevent the spread of germs, the rabbit must be destroyed to keep the boy safe. It is only then that the rabbit cries a tear and becomes Real. 

Perhaps the tears that come to my eyes are due to all of those I know who are working diligently to make sure children can thrive even in the midst of a pandemic. 

Across the state this summer, many children’s ministers, pastors, and volunteers developed plans for Vacation Bible School that not only reached the children in their church but would help children throughout their community. During their Knights of North Castle VBS week at Beebe FUMC, church members, the local Headstart, and the school came together to provide books. Children who participated went home with books and the church’s Little Free Library was stocked with books to spare. Lakewood United Methodist Church in North Little Rock created an Amazon Wishlist for members to buy new books to give to Project Transformation. They even had a published member donate classroom sets of their book to use in the Delta. Many churches are preparing to return to backpack programs to feed children this fall or hosting school supply drives to support students and families. For this, I give thanks to God. 

After a year of interrupted schooling and worry, I admit that I was hoping this school year would be different. The Delta variant has made us acutely aware of the need to support and protect the children in our families, schools, and churches. For many who have been trying to do their best for the children in their lives, those who cannot be vaccinated yet, it may feel a bit like the velveteen rabbit who, “longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.”

You can always tell a well-loved toy by the wear and tear on it- the evidence of love. When I look at our churches, I see the evidence of love as well. In the disheveled appearance of children’s ministers making plans A through F for their back-to-school events. In tired eyes that peek over masks of mostly vaccinated congregations who put the needs of children first. In the weary trustees and reopening committees making hard decisions to protect the vulnerable. In the exhaustion of those who try to reach out in literacy, nutrition, or stability ministries even when it’s hard. In all of these and more, love of others is evident. 

The story of the Velveteen Rabbit echoes the Gospel in its core message that love is transformational. Love changes us. Whether that is the love of a child or the love of God- we can’t encounter it and go back to how we were before. The Skin Horse says as much to the Velveteen Rabbit, “Once you are real, you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”  God’s love is beckoning to us- to enter the fray and not be afraid of the uncomfortable things that may happen. “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”(John 13:34). So, may your whiskers be worn off and may you grow shabby… in love.