It is just a couple of years ago that we actually had to “head off to” Annual Conference in person. For some it was a short commute. For others, a longer drive. For still others, a plane trip or ferry ride or maybe a combination of two or more.
Our in-person “holy conferencing” meant securing a place to stay, packing bags, making sure clergy robes weren’t too wrinkled, and having hard copies of the Pre-Conference Journal and Addendum to pull out for when the reports began. It meant looking forward to seeing friends from across the conference, laity and clergy alike; some that we hadn’t seen in a year. It meant watching families connect again between (and during) meetings. It meant sharing coffee in the back of the church meeting place or picking up “the good stuff” on the way to the morning sessions. There was time to break bread, and not just the virtual kind.
Gathering in person also meant that we could conduct our work differently. It’s much easier to understand people when you see facial expressions. It’s much easier to work through disagreements and misunderstandings when you have the actual give-and-take of discussion and debate. And when people are passionate, seeing that passion in person can be contagious (in a good way and not the way we’ve been talking about it for the last eighteen months).
While I truly understand and support the reasons for conducting Annual Conference online for the second straight year, I confess that I did not approach it with the same level of excitement I’ve approached our annual gatherings of the in-person variety. Behind the scenes there are whole lot of technical details to work out which bring some amount of worry. The agenda, by design, is tight so to limit surprises which can be hard to navigate through the multiple tabs, screens, and devices of our new Zoom world.
In a sense, this is now familiar territory. We’ve been at this for a while. But I did not enter into our sessions expecting the experience to be as life-giving or as fun as I have found our intimate, face-to-face Alaska Annual Conferences over the past twenty-four years.
Yet, even with this year’s online experience, the Alaska Conference leaned heavily into a new reality, a new kind of connection. This was the start of something new.
First, more than in the past, we could see how strongly we are connected to the Greater Northwest Area. This was evident at the start in a shared Opening Session with our sibling conferences of Pacific Northwest and Oregon-Idaho. Many of our leaders have been working collaboratively for a long time and so it made sense to have our Lay Leaders and our General Conference Delegations present their reports together. It was clearly a sign that we are not in this by ourselves and that we have partners and co-conspirators as we dream and build towards being a church where “Love Never Ends.” Moreover, this connection allowed us to pull our worship leadership from across a vast area, helping us see the diversity of our extended ministry setting. Yes, I missed seeing some of the familiar Alaskan faces. But I did enjoy seeing a lot of new ones.
Second, even without the postponed General Conference making it official, we used our Annual Conference time to live into “Mission District” status with Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church. We have shared so much over the years. We have shared a bishop. We have shared support staff. We have shared in a Cabinet and appointment-making. Many of our Alaska clergy have the PNW Conference as their “home conference” and many of our Alaska laity have deep connections with churches and people in the area as well. The delay of General Conference 2020 has meant that our two conferences can work together slowly, deliberately, making sure we enter this relationship in a manner that is free of colonialism and recognizes our commitment, together, to the work of anti-racism. Conducting one of our sessions jointly allowed us to further live into and gave us all a little taste of what it may look like going forward. I think we’re going to work together well.
There were some very “Alaskan” parts of our Annual Conference, though. As usual, we were all collegial while working through our agenda. Even virtually, we Alaskans have a lot of long-term relationships to lean on and the intimacy of our conference allows for some of that familiarity to be seen even online. We had some celebrations for our own as we recognized Emily Carroll’s ordination and Murray Crookes’ commissioning and as we welcomed new clergy. And while there was no refreshment table for the “water cooler talk” that happens in the back rooms of our normal gatherings, WhatsApp provided a space to chat with each other in an informal way.
I don’t know what the future of our Annual Conference gatherings will look like or whether they will ever be entirely in-person again. My hunch is that, like many of our churches, we’ll have a hybrid model. Some will be able to be there in-person and some will Zoom in from afar. And while I may lament this and look back with some nostalgia to “the way it used to be” it is clear that we’ll be OK. It’s a good thing, too. We have a lot of work to do living into the future God has in store for us.