Beyond 2021 Moves OnlineConference Will Focus on Dismantling Racism

Beyond 2021 Moves Online
Conference Will Focus on Dismantling Racism

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!

Parks, Porches, Parking Lots, and Breezeways!How Children's Ministers Have Stepped Up During COVID

Parks, Porches, Parking Lots, and Breezeways!
How Children's Ministers Have Stepped Up During COVID

By Melinda Shunk

Children's Ministry Coordinator

Have you seen pictures on social media? Have you received text reminders? Opened emails with an announcement of what we can do safely together? Have you received a hand-written note from someone in Children’s Ministry?

Even if you don’t have kids in the children’s program at church, I bet you have seen some type of outreach to children and their families. Volunteers and staff in Children’s Ministry have a servant’s heart when it comes to their job. They are in that position because they feel so-called to serve children and their families that they will not let even a global pandemic stop ministry from happening!

As the Conference Children’s Ministry Coordinator, I am lucky because I get to witness their miraculous, creative, energy-filled, Spirit-led work.

social 1

Thanks to technology, I get to see around 50 or more posts on social media a day from different churches in our state. I get invited to Zoom meetings with passionate children’s ministers whose hearts are aching to be with their church family. I receive text messages sharing how they just had the most amazing porch visit with a family. I get emails telling me that they just tried storytime in the park with parents and toddlers on physically spaced blankets. I see video footage of teams handing out the next four-week activity packets in the church breezeway. My phone blinks on Wednesday and Sundays with a Facebook Live alert that another exciting Bible story is about to be shared for anyone to listen to. I get e-vites to parking lot fellowship events or, better yet, how a family can pull up and get a backpack of blessings placed in their car during a Unity in the Community outreach.

I have been in awe of their creativity to still be connectional in a time in our lives where we must have separation in order to stay safe.

The ARUMC Conference has been blessed by God with such outstanding ministry to children and their families. If there was a time to read professional books, clean cabinets, and wait for this all to pass so that we could bring everyone back in the building, this would have been the approved time.

However, I have witnessed great ministry to families that involved parks, porches, parking lots, and breezeways. As Jesus has taught them, children’s ministers have gone to the people and created space for all to hear the love of God.

A Letter to Early Childhood Education Directors

A Letter to Early Childhood Education Directors

School Work

Dear Early Childhood Education Directors,

We know this has not been an easy time to navigate. We appreciate all of the responses to our requests as it helps the ARUMC Conference team know how we can support you in the years to come. The partnership between ARUMC and its Early Childhood Education programs is so valuable to families and employers in our communities. We want to continue to grow this partnership with you and your feedback has helped us develop these beginning stages of support.

The ARUMC Conference recognizes the value of having a voice representing ECE directors on a Conference level, and we have asked Kris Mickna to be that person. Kris is from Central Rogers UMC where she serves as the executive director of their ECE programs. She has been serving on the Bishop’s COVID19 Task force for reopening churches safely. The Bishop’s Cabinet and the Conference Council of Children’s Ministry have asked Kris to continue her service on the Children’s Council so that she can represent the needs of ECE directors and programs as we move forward together in church ministry. Kris will attend CCCM meetings, access the ARUMC ECE database created, receive your feedback from emails and social media, and with the help of Karen Swales will create an online Facebook community specific to your needs. Karen Swales will admin the creative posts that would be most helpful to your programming.

Here is what we can offer to support you at this time:

Kris and Karen are looking forward to connecting with you on social media so please be sure to click on the link and join the page. Your teachers are welcome to join as well so please share the page with them. Our hope is that you all will use this group to share your good ideas and best practice with one another.

Grace and Peace,

Melinda Shunk
Conference Children’s Ministry Coordinator

Let Your Neighbors Know You’re Here by Adding Your Logo to Your Church Vehicle

Let Your Neighbors Know You’re Here by Adding Your Logo to Your Church Vehicle

By Melinda Shunk

Children's Ministry Coordinator

You may think that church vans are sitting alone in empty church parking lots out in the hot summer sun. Of course, we are not using them to pick up and deliver children, youth, and adults to our buildings or events due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so why would they leave their parking spots?

It would be easy to think that those reliable church vans and buses could not possibly be used again until the church returns to building use. The pandemic has required people to get creative with online worship and lessons. But some have pressed to think outside the normal walls and WiFi use in ministry which has led to porch visits, food delivering, dropping off Bible lessons supplies, and celebrating a masked milestone in a driveway. It has been amazing to see the church working in the community; but how did those ministry teams get out into their communities?

Tiffany Jones from Beebe shared, “When using our own cars, it created expensive mileage costs.” They also found their loads of goodies that they were taking to family’s homes fit better in the van during their multiple stops each day.

When they drove down long driveways or came unannounced, people always knew it was the church when they saw the church van logos. Tiffany also shared, “They would see us and immediately come to the porch to greet us. Many commented they knew it was the church as soon as they looked out the window.”

Well, you know who else looks out the window: neighbors! Neighbors saw that the FUMC van was making a visit. Neighbors asked what was in the Vacation Bible School box that they saw delivered to the front porch from the church. Neighbors saw masked church staff and volunteers driving the van to bring faith, hope, and love to members during the quarantine.

arumc decal

Church vans need to be used for everything you do in ministry now as a way for others to witness that church is happening outside the church walls. They may want to be part of a church that they can see delivering weekly faith, hope, and love. When people see that church logo driving through the neighborhood, they see the hands and feet of Jesus in their neighborhood.

I know that not all churches have the luxury of a church vehicle, but you can very cost-effectively purchase Church Logo Door Magnets. When a church staff or volunteer drives their own vehicle with a church logo driver door magnet, neighbors know this is not just a friend stopping by for a visit.

You can contact Digital Print & Imaging Mike Burnett at 902 Cumberland St., Little Rock, AR 72202, 501-376-2200, 501-376-2202 (fax), or for a 12×18 Church Logo door magnet. I purchased two for $60 and had to pay postage. I think that is a great deal for any church!

Beebe First UMC’s church van

Churches Adapt to Changing Environment with Virtual VBSHere's How Lakewood and First UMC Bentonville Found Success Through an Online Platform

Churches Adapt to Changing Environment with Virtual VBS
Here's How Lakewood and First UMC Bentonville Found Success Through an Online Platform

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

According to the latest information from the CDC, children are less susceptible to infections by the COVID-19 virus. However, that doesn’t mean there is no risk, which is why many United Methodist Churches are opting out of in-person Vacation Bible Schools this year, and are instead focusing on making a virtual, at-home experience just as fun as the rowdy and high-energy event that children’s ministers plan for all year.

At Lakewood UMC in North Little Rock, their annual VBS is well-known in the Central District for being big and bombastic, attracting kids from all over the Little Rock/North Little Rock area.

But this year, like everyone else, the Children’s Ministry team was forced to consider a new way to gather together for worship and, of course, fun.

Jill Dillman and Rochelle Gray, Co-Directors of the Children’s Ministry at Lakewood, got the idea for their virtual VBS from a previous event they held called Breezeway Buckets. 

Breezeway Buckets are take-home buckets that are filled with snacks, activities, and other knick-knacks for kids. According to Dillman and Gray, they started filling Breezeway Buckets in March, the week that schools were forced to shut down in Arkansas because of the pandemic.

“We had packing parties at the church to fill these buckets. We included activities and labeled them for different age groups. And we saw a response right away. I mean, people were coming to pick up the buckets as soon as we put them out,” Gray said.

The buckets were put together as a way to give kids something to do while they were stuck at home finishing up the school year. They also aided parents who were now challenged with being school teachers to their kids for the remainder of the year.

The Breezeway Buckets gave Dillman and Gray an idea: What if we could do the same type of thing for our VBS this year?

Lakewood put together about 150 of these take-home packets for their Anchored VBS, but quickly ran out due to high demand in the community. Photo provided by Lakewood UMC.

Lakewood’s VBS theme for 2020 was Anchored, an ocean-inspired VBS that could be done on a weekend instead of a normal weeklong event.

Because they had a lot of the supplies already available from the Buckets, Dillman and Gray just incorporated what they were doing previously into the new VBS plan. A few changes were made here and there, such as changing up the activities and devotionals to fit with the theme, as well as making the snacks ocean-themed.

“We had shark teeth, fish and octopus, and other fish-themed snacks made from candies or crackers that we could buy. Snack time is often one of the things that kids look the most forward to, and we wanted everything to fit the theme of our VBS,” Gray said.

For the VBS to work, everything had to be planned out ahead of time. The weekend VBS lasted two days in June, and Lakewood organized the days into two individual folders. Each folder had the day’s schedule of events, as well as a devotional, songs, and activities that needed to be completed on that day. There were even links to videos for things like skits or sing-a-longs. 

“We didn’t want to overload kids with too much screen time though,” Dillman said. “Because they are on screens all day at home now, we wanted to do as much as we could without screens involved.”

Volunteers at Lakewood show off some of the packets for their Anchored VBS. Photo provided by Lakewood UMC.

For the parts that did need screens, however, volunteers from the church filmed skits to go along with the theme. Everyone involved made sure to follow social distancing guidelines, so many of the skits were filmed using members of the same household, or filmed separately and put together.

Kara Chapman, one of Lakewood’s worship leaders, helped with the music, and was filmed singing and doing the motions for all of the VBS songs.

“She was the star of our VBS last year and we’re so happy we got to use her again!” Gray said.

Backdrops for the videos were also hand-built by volunteers, and in some cases, such as in the music portion, a green screen was used to give the video an underwater look.

Altogether, Lakewood made about 150 take-home bags for kids, and they ran out instantly. Interest was so overwhelming that Dillman and Gray said they had to put together about 40 extra bags because they ran out of their original amount.

In the Northwest corner of the Conference, Sadie Stratton Wohlfahrt, Minister to Children and Families at First UMC Bentonville, was putting together her own version of a virtual VBS.

Wohlfahrt is used to coming up with new ideas for VBS every year; she is known for her made-from-scratch VBS’s which she has been creating with her team at Bentonville for the past four years.

This year, however, posed a different challenge: finding a way to stay connected while we’re apart, and reaching new people that the church hasn’t been able to reach in the past.

Bentonville First’s theme for VBS revolved around the Affirmation of Faith that the church uses in their once-a-month family worship, called Children First.

Since there are typically four days of VBS and four parts of any affirmation, we decided to design a four-day virtual experience, with each day of VBS focused on learning about one of the statements,” Wohlfahrt said.

“We made this decision because we knew that this year had the extra opportunity of being seen by many unchurched people, via the magic of the internet; our message can spread much farther than a typical VBS year, so we wanted to use this opportunity to teach people the basics of our faith,” Wohlfahrt said. “We also knew that we wanted to teach the families of our church, that the church is not the building. We are the church, and we can be together, apart.”

For First Bentonville’s VBS, kids would tune in to a new video each day, which consisted of a devotional, activities, and more. Photo provided by First UMC Bentonville.

The planning and implementing of this virtual VBS was a collaborative effort, from the designing of the logo and the curriculum (Jennifer Russell and Katie Bloodworth) to the music (from Choral Director Dr. Ray Wheeler, who wrote an original song for this year’s VBS called “We Are the Church”) to the filming of daily videos (with help from Youth Director Brooke Crumpler, Contemporary Worship Leader Ken Weatherford, and Rev. J.J. Whitney, senior pastor).

Each day starting at 9 a.m., kids are asked to watch a video that includes opening worship, craft/activity time, and a snack. Kids have until their small group time at 4 p.m. to watch the videos, and Rev. Whitney offers a Facebook Live Communion at 3 p.m. each day.

Wohlfahrt said the real magic happens at 4 p.m., where kids meet with their small groups and small group leaders via Zoom. Each small group has three to seven kids, and there are about nine small groups in total.

First UMC VBS schedule

“Our leaders were trained on ‘Holy Listening’ earlier this month, which is a spiritual practice of holding space for children to share their thoughts and feelings, be validated and affirmed for those thoughts and feelings, and be prayed over. The leaders light a candle and have kids take turns sharing what is on their hearts using ‘Holy Listening’ shapes,” Wohlfahrt said. These Holy Listening shapes were created by the Rev. Dr. Leanne Hadley and more info can be found on her website, 

Although this year’s VBS drew only about half of the more than 225 kids that usually enroll, Wohlfahrt said being online has given them a better opportunity to reach far more than that number of kids.

“We won’t know the exact impact we have — we just pray that the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of whoever views it. As I tell my team: we do our best, and God does the rest!” she said.

As case numbers continue to rise in Arkansas and surrounding Conferences, virtual learning and experiences are becoming the norm.

And as Lakewood UMC and First UMC Bentonville, as well as hundreds of other Arkansas churches, have shown this summer, VBS can be just as fun, energetic and powerful online as it is in person.