Online or In Person, Our Conference Is Connected

Online or In Person, Our Conference Is Connected

ac2021 unity

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

Have you ever been to a hybrid Annual Conference, one that takes place both in-person and online? Do you know of any other Annual Conferences that are having hybrid events? Did you even know such a thing was possible?

Last week, the Arkansas Annual Conference held its annual meeting of business, worship, and fellowship. The June 2-4 meeting was in an entirely new format, one that we have never attempted before, and if we’re being honest, one that we weren’t entirely certain would work.

Although we had successfully completed an entirely virtual Annual Conference experience last year in 2020, adding an in-person layer to the event created a completely new layer of complexity.

But it worked! Our tech crew and backstage staff faced a few hiccups at the beginning, but once all the tech demons were exorcised, the event ran flawlessly, perhaps better than we could have imagined.

People attending in-person at the arena were able to hear and see virtual participants on our big projector screens near the main stage. When the Bishop spoke on his stage microphone, or when someone came to a mic in the crowd, the Zoom participants were able to hear them as well. It was sort of like a TV news station going to a reporter on the scene of an event for a live report.

One of the biggest advantages of pulling off this hybrid event was the sense of connectionalism and fellowship that it brought everyone attending the event. Whether online or in-person, you were able to see and hear people who many of us have been separated from since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.

COVID protocols were still in place for our in-person members, but those who had been fully vaccinated were able to hug their friends and colleagues for the first time in more than a year. For some, this was the first time they had seen many of their fellow United Methodists in person since Annual Conference 2019!

Despite the pandemic continuing to spread through our communities — granted, at a much slower rate than before vaccinations become available — the Arkansas Annual Conference was able to bring some semblance of normalcy back to our people.

I don’t have to tell many of you how important connectionalism plays in our United Methodist heritage. The pandemic not only devastated people’s lives, but it also devastated their connection to their communities.

Technology kept us connected last year, true, but it’s simply not the same as seeing your friends and neighbors in person, being able to hug their necks, squeeze their arms, and see their facial expressions in person when you recall a funny story from the past.

The hybrid experience was difficult, perhaps one of the most difficult things we’ve ever attempted at an Annual Conference, but it was worth the added struggle to be able to offer people that sense of community and connectionalism that they have sorely missed in the last year. I hope that if you attended Annual Conference this year, whether live or online, you felt some of that normalcy return. And let’s continue to pray for COVID to be defeated so we can return to full in-person fellowship at Annual Conference 2022.

The Finish Line Is In ViewPandemic Easter Round Two

The Finish Line Is In View
Pandemic Easter Round Two

runner

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

We all remember Easter 2020. Only a month after the first confirmed case of COVID was found in Arkansas, many of our churches were wondering how in the world they were going to be able to safely have their annual Easter celebrations.

We were told various things in those first few weeks of the pandemic: everything is under control, we are beating this virus, we’ll all be able to gather again by the time Easter Sunday comes around.

Unfortunately, most of those early statements were tragically misinformed and naive. Now, one year later, we realize that the pandemic was much bigger than any of us expected it to be.

And yet, our churches did find ways to celebrate Holy Week and Easter in 2020. Some churches had the infrastructure already in place to pivot to virtual worship services; others had to figure it out from scratch. Some churches figured out how to take their worship services outside, or in the parking lot, with cars tuned to specific radio stations to hear the pastor’s message; others gathered outside in small groups to have Bible study.

As Bishop Mueller has mentioned before, and coming from a member of the Conference Center for Communication team, we are so very proud of the way churches stepped out and made sure that Easter wasn’t canceled, but instead, celebrated in a safe and, still, deeply meaningful way.

Now, it’s almost Easter once again. But this year, things are different. This year, we are better prepared for the reality of a scaled-back Easter service. We’re better prepared for live streaming, recorded services, and virtual small group discussions.

This year, we have a vaccine that is stopping the virus from spreading and keeping our friends and loved ones safe from hospitalizations and even death. The sense of relief that another tool to fight the virus brings to every one of us cannot be overstated. It’s like finally seeing the finish line after running the most drawn-out marathon in history.

On the day that this column publishes, it will be Maundy Thursday. As anyone who has celebrated Holy Week can tell you, Maundy Thursday is a day where we remember the Last Supper in Luke chapter 22, when Jesus gathered the disciples together to break bread and drink wine, and give them a final lesson before his ultimate sacrifice on the cross.

I can imagine many of the disciples were frightened and uncertain about the future of the world that night. Not only did Jesus let them know that this was his last night with them, but he had also just told them that one of them at the table would betray him that night. Talk about creating an uncomfortable family dinner conversation!

But the story of Holy Week, thankfully, does not end on Maundy Thursday. Just as Jesus and his disciples faced a dark and uncertain future before his crucifixion, we also continue to face a dark and uncertain future when it comes to the pandemic.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. We can see the finish line — this time, we can be more certain of it — and it’s not too far ahead of us now. Easter follows Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and that should give us all hope in the coming year. I pray that we remember that hope as we finish another unusual, but powerful and inspiring, Easter Sunday.

Hope, Prayer, and Understanding in 2021

Hope, Prayer, and Understanding in 2021

light

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

I’m not the biggest fan of making New Year’s resolutions.

I’m not knocking the desire to better myself in ways that benefit my health, finances, empathy toward others, spiritual beliefs, whatever it may be. I just don’t think that waiting until the end of one year and the beginning of another is the best time to make that decision. 

Progressing toward a better version of myself is something that I need to work on throughout the year; otherwise, it’s like deciding to finally start sprinting on the last 10 meters of a 100-meter dash — and meanwhile, everyone else has already finished the race ages ago.

But this year, I decided that maybe making a New Year’s resolution wasn’t such a bad idea, considering what this year brought to not just my life but the entire world.

So in 2021, for the first time in a while, I set a resolution for myself: I’m going to make a point to be more hopeful, prayerful, and understanding than I’ve been in years past.

Hopeful

I don’t have to revisit the many, many ways in which 2020 was devastating. We’re still living through it, and many things are still uncertain in 2021. 

But I am hopeful that this year will be the year that the church grows and progresses in ways that we haven’t seen in hundreds of years. The virus has already forced churches to pivot to a new online reality that most were not prepared for, and just because we have a chance to return to in-person worship once again, that doesn’t mean that everything learned this year can be tossed aside and forgotten. 

Online worship is here to stay; in fact, I believe it’s the inevitable future for churches to be sustainable and relevant once again in our communities.

Of course, I’m also hopeful for an end to the pandemic and that lives will be saved from the virus that has taken more than 350,000 Americans from us in 2020. The two vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer give me a glimmer of hope that an end to the darkness is within reach.

Prayerful

I’ve talked about how my prayer life has weakened over the years and how I long to strengthen that part of my faith again.

In 2021, I want to make an effort to pray more about the things that worry me and cause me anxiety.

I also want to pray more about the things that bring me joy and comfort, and remind myself that despite the pain of 2020, 2021 brings a chance for new and better things to arise.

Understanding

And finally, my last resolution is to try to understand those who think differently from me.

I recently had a conversation with some very good friends about how difficult it is to understand people who have different beliefs than I do. Whether that’s political, religious, or moral beliefs, I have a tough time understanding their justifications for believing a certain way that goes against my own views.

It’s even more difficult these days to have a conversation with a person who thinks and believes in a polar opposite way than we do because we’ve become such argumentative and partisan people.

But through this conversation with friends, I began to understand that people make decisions either based on love or fear, and the “crazy” beliefs that some people have might not be so crazy after all. They most likely are making their decisions because they think they are doing what’s best for them, their family, or their friends, and, in fact, it’s the same way I make decisions.

By hoping for more understanding, I’m not saying that I will change how I believe or how they believe. But having more understanding means that maybe we can start to have pleasant and engaging conversations with each other once again, and leave behind the partisan bickering, yelling, and name-calling that have dominated our culture in recent years.

There’s no doubt that 2020 was an awful year. It’s undoubtedly the worst year I can remember living through. But 2021 brings new hope for a broken world. I hope that you’ve set resolutions for 2021 as well, and by holding onto that hope of new beginnings, we can surely get through this new year together.

A Fall Season Like No OtherDon't Let This Difficult Year Keep You From Celebrating the Things That Bring You Joy

A Fall Season Like No Other
Don't Let This Difficult Year Keep You From Celebrating the Things That Bring You Joy

pumpkin variety

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

Fall’s welcome arrival in late September heralds the return of everything pumpkin. Pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin scented candles, pumpkin decor; anything and everything you can imagine is guaranteed to be touched by the pumpkin spice fairy.

I’ve even seen pumpkin-flavored goods taken to extreme levels, like pumpkin spice protein powder, pumpkin spice salsa, and (shudder) pumpkin spice kale chips.

Despite my avoidance of most things pumpkin other than coffee or pie, many people enjoy their daily fix of pumpkin. They also realize that the return of pumpkin spice on every menu and grocery shelf in the U.S. means that cooler temperatures, beautiful and bright fall leaves, and big family gatherings are here once again.

But, let’s face it, this year is going to be different than any fall we’ve enjoyed in the past. COVID-19, and the strict social distancing, mask-wearing, and limits on group gatherings are going to severely limit some of the fall festivities we’ve grown accustomed to celebrating.

We’re already seeing talks of Halloween being “canceled” this year; the CDC has recommended that traditional Halloween activities, like door-to-door trick-or-treating, be avoided to stop the spread of the virus.

Churches that celebrate trunk-or-treat or fall festivals will also have to rethink their plans this year.

And Thanksgiving? Well, I don’t imagine most of us want to think about alternative plans for a holiday that is traditionally celebrated with large family gatherings and shared meals.

So what does it look like to celebrate fall traditions in the middle of a global pandemic?

At a recent staff meeting, someone brought up how different this year’s fall celebrations will be and how they are usually excited to decorate their house with fall colors, pumpkins and spooky Halloween decor. But why should they even bother putting up decorations this year if there’s nothing to celebrate?

As we all pondered this common feeling about the upcoming season, someone brought up the idea of celebrating for yourself; as in, if decorating your living space with fall decor gives you joy and lifts your spirits, then do it for you.

If buying all the pumpkins and ornamental gourds at your local nursery makes you happy, do it.

If pumpkins spice everything gives you a burst of positivity in your morning coffee, pour away.

Don’t let the things we can’t do affect the things that we still can do.

We can’t celebrate the way we used to, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate at all and we can’t find joy in this wonderful time of the year.

One thing that I look forward to every fall is camping season and the beautiful color changes we experience throughout our beautiful state. And guess what? I can still do that! The pandemic has not stopped me from getting out and enjoying the peace and quiet of a secluded nature walk.

Remember to celebrate the little things that bring you life and meaning, and make a point to celebrate fall in a way that brings you real joy and happiness.

Weathering the Unpredictable Storms of Life

Weathering the Unpredictable Storms of Life

storm

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

A few months ago, my wife and I decided we needed to take a much-needed vacation somewhere out of state.

With flying being out of the question, and not wanting to spend a full day of our vacation driving to a faraway beach, we decided on Galveston, Texas as our vacation destination. There isn’t as much to do on Galveston Island as some of the nicer beaches in Florida, but a week away from work — and on a beach — was still a vacation, regardless of where we were.

However, Mother Nature and her two destructive friends, Marco and Laura, had different plans for us.

As soon as we arrived in Galveston, we were being told we were going to have to leave. Anticipating the massive evacuation from the island and the traffic that came with it, we rebooked our AirBnB and headed out the next morning.

Thankfully, we found an available Airbnb in nearby Austin, Texas where we could spend the rest of our vacation week.

And although Hurricane Marco weakened, and Hurricane Laura thankfully did not end up being as deadly as anticipated — despite making landfall as a Category 4 storm — the unpredictability of the storms created a very stressful week for residents of Louisiana, Texas, and even Arkansas.

That unpredictability, and the stress that comes with it, can be a hard battle to fight.

It can feel like everything is out of your control. In the case of a rapidly strengthening hurricane charging through the Gulf, it very much is beyond anything you can control.

We were certainly stressed about having to change our vacation plans. I cannot imagine how the people who lived in the path of the storm must have felt, having to leave their homes in a flash, and not knowing if they would be there when they returned.

When I feel overwhelming stress, I turn to one of my favorite verses of scripture for comfort.

“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” Jeremiah 17:7-8 (CEB)

Notice how it doesn’t say that awful, stressful, unpredictable things will not happen to you. It’s guaranteed that they will. And in 2020? Yeah, you can bet on it.

But what Jeremiah is trying to offer here is a bit of comfort in the midst of chaos.

The Lord will watch over you in tough times. You will not be forgotten or abandoned. Even when it’s tough and the pain doesn’t make sense, you can turn to the Word of God and know that you are protected.

I know that’s a hard thing to believe in, especially when you’re in the middle of a pandemic, a storm, financial ruin, whatever unpredictable thing it may be.

But I believe that it’s true. I’ve seen the light through life’s darkest moments.

I hope you will remember Jeremiah’s words, place your trust in the Lord, and don’t let the storms of life keep you down.