By Rick Wolcott*
On Sunday, May 31 the Tuscarawas District held its Spring District Conference via Zoom video communications.
“It was the safest way to gather the district to complete our business and welcome our incoming district superintendent the Rev. Cara Stultz Costello,” said current superintendent the Rev. Benita Rollins, who will retire at the end of this month.
She and district leaders followed in the footsteps of the Three Rivers District, which, earlier in May, conducted the first-ever virtual Spring District Conference in the East Ohio Conference.
“The evening of Spring District Conference we had nine presenters in six different locations ready to go. Attendees were able to vote in real time using the Zoom polling feature as well as ask questions in real time using the Zoom Q&A and chat features,” said Three Rivers District Superintendent the Rev. Ed Fashbaugh.
Coshocton Grace UMC Senior Pastor the Rev. Timothy McCollum was charged with setting up the virtual meeting and worked with Pastor Jason Snyder of Utica UMC to, first, lead the practice webinar a few days before the meeting and, then, to offer tech support the night of the meeting.
“With the Zoom platform, the space to try and do a video webinar as well as providing room for regular phone calls was a significant choice. It provided opportunities for everyone to share in the conference at some level regardless of technology or comfort level. In this season with so many changes, trying something new like this demonstrates a willingness at all levels to keep the church focused on our shared purpose,” McCollum offered.
“I enjoyed being a part of this different way of doing Spring District Conference,” said Chasity Opphile, Three Rivers District youth coordinator, who offered a devotion during the virtual meeting. “I really wanted to share something that would be encouraging and remind everyone that we are all struggling in some way during this time and that’s ok! This is a great time to be seeking God to see how he wants to both use us in the middle of the struggle and grow us through the struggle.”
Fashbaugh cited the adaptive leadership of Three Rivers District clergy during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic as inspiration for him to do the ministry of the district office in new ways. “After the initial suspension of in-person worship grew beyond two weeks, I began seeing district clergy use online platforms to offer worship. The majority of these clergy had never done anything like this before in their ministry, but there they were exploring, learning, and doing it,” Fashbaugh shared.
Over the past two months, clergy and lay leadership across the East Ohio Conference have adapted the “just do it” mentality made popular by shoe company Nike in 1988.
For the Rev. Les Peine of Massillon Epworth UMC (Tuscarawas District) that meant moving his 9:00 a.m. Wednesday Bible study to the church Facebook page, where anyone can see it and can ask questions via messenger.
“The 30-40 people we are reaching is three times as many people as we would normally have in Bible study and we’re getting people from the community, friends, church members, former church members, and family of members, some from as far away as Oregon and Massachusetts,” Peine shared.
Epworth is one of more than 100 East Ohio Conference congregations and faith communities that have been reaching their communities online during the pandemic by posting sermons, worship services and devotions to their websites and/or social media channels.
“We’re getting people connected this way. Churches should consider doing it even after the pandemic is done,” said Peine adding that Epworth UMC leadership is looking into installing equipment in the sanctuary to be able to offer livestreaming once in-person worship returns.
“Last fall Cabinet spent significant time anticipating both technical and adaptive changes that will be necessary for the EOC future. One of those included taking advantage of technology to enable better lay participation in our district and conference leadership,” shared Mahoning Valley District Superintendent the Rev. Abby Auman. “Last fall I spent significant time in SPRC consults talking about why almost all churches need an electronic giving option. Did either shift take place just because they were good ideas? No! Have both shifts taken place now? Yes! The pandemic is forcing the Church and churches everywhere to stop dragging our feet on making necessary changes.”
Other Conference leaders are also adapting and embracing virtual connections.
“The Disaster Response Committee has used Zoom meetings to share information from and offer support to district disaster coordinators as well as the Emotional & Spiritual Care team. Several churches are working with local emergency management agencies to provide support for food distribution, for school connections, and to assess other needs,” said Director of Connectional Ministries the Rev. Steve Court.
In July the Rev. Kathy Dickriede, EOC Missions and Community Engagement Coordinator, and Mogadore UMC (Canal District) lay member Carmen Kluth will lead the Conference’s first virtual mission journey. The pair, along with Peru Methodist Conference Health and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Coordinator Annie Solis, were scheduled to lead a team of 14 people from East Ohio on a medical mission to Peru. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the trip has been postponed until 2021 but now participants – and others who are interested – can experience Peru from afar July 12-19.
“We already have planned the trip, so getting connected with each other and with Peru in a new way, was a good way to continue with the mission,” said Kluth, who was born in Peru and is excited to share her country with the East Ohio Conference.
“When I came to the USA, I learned that no matter which denomination you are, you can still serve God together,” she said, adding that trip participants will learn about daily life, politics and the geography of Peru. “We also what to share the ancient and modern culture of Peru and show the ways that people can be involved is serving God through missions. Peru has a lot of needs, more now a days after the pandemic collapsed our health system. Many people are dying and suffering the consequences of COVID-19 and this is an opportunity for us to show the love of God serving them in wherever we can.”
Not being able to meet in-person has also changed the way that the Cabinet has introduced clergy and congregations to one another during the appointment season.
“I think the preference of everyone would be for a face-to-face meeting and typically that included a tour of the building and parsonage but that just is not possible during the pandemic,” said the Rev. Dr. Steve Bailey, North Coast District superintendent and dean of the Cabinet. “What we have universally found is that our congregations and pastors have been very gracious and welcoming to the incoming clergy leader. Conversations have been Spirit-filled and warm-hearted. Everyone seems to understand the situation and has worked to be at their best. It truly has been nothing short of amazing and I think it reflects very well on our clergy and congregational leaders.”
Appointment changes shine a light on the adage that teamwork makes the dream work. The stay-at-home orders issued in the State of Ohio this spring meant that EOC Director of Congregational Vitality the Rev. Kelly Brown and his team needed to create new methods for sharing the healthy transition resources that were previously introduced during workshops at the Area Center in North Canton.
“We developed video resources and posted them on the Conference website. They are the product of a collaboration between Congregational Vitality, the Cabinet, the Board of Ministry, and the EOC Multicultural Vitality office. Each group developed and presented information in video form to introduce clergy and laity to the components of a healthy transition,” he said. “Our hope is that these resources would help congregations and clergy experience healthy transitions that creates ministry momentum as relationships are built between the pastor, congregation, and community.”
“Like many of our clergy and local churches, in these unprecedented times, the Cabinet and Conference staff have had to adapt to new methodologies and expand the use of technology for conducting meetings, resourcing and equipping ministry, supporting leadership and managing the administrative and missional life of the Conference. I celebrate how quickly the Cabinet and Conference staff adapted to change, the ongoing creativity and innovation in their work and their commitment to staying focused on the mission,” shared Bishop Tracy S. Malone.
Conference Lay Leader Kim Green has been impressed with the many ways that laity are leading, whether it be as part of a church transition team, a truck stop ministry, a community caravan, packing food, or offering clothes to those in need.
“As leaders in our beloved United Methodist Church, our response during this pandemic has been nothing short of being gracious, caring, resourceful, and pure kindness. I encourage you to continue to draw on every resource available to help us through this season,” she said. “Thank you for your resilience, sacrifices, creativity, passion, and commitment as we continue to focus on being disciples, making disciples, and maturing disciples for Jesus Christ.”
Visit the COVID-19 Resource page of the Conference website for links to churches that are offering online worship; view a list of non-traditional worship ideas; read the Guidelines to the Phased-in Reopening of EOC Church Buildings; and access resources from health agencies and from The United Methodist Church.
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.