Winter Blitz returns, blitzes pandemic

January 25, 2022
By Alan Wild
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky – When Winter Blitz organizers talk about the event and the life-changing impact it has on youth, they have people like Kayla Koerner in mind.

Koerner, 19, is a sophomore at Lindsey Wilson College.  Five years ago she traveled to Winter Blitz with her youth group from Richmond First UMC. When Bishop Leonard Fairley asked those who were called to ministry to come forward, she found herself walking to the stage.

“I started getting chills. It was a feeling I haven’t had before,” she said, adding that it hadn’t even been on her radar to consider vocational ministry. Now at college, she is double majoring in Christian Ministries and Middle Grade Education and hopes to teach middle school social studies and eventually become a youth pastor.

Koerner was among about a dozen Lindsey Wilson students serving as volunteers at Winter Blitz on Jan. 21-23 at the Kentucky Exposition Center. Her story and countless others are why the event has been held since 1991 – other than 2021, when COVID-19 forced its cancellation.

About 400 people in grades 6-12, plus their youth leaders and about 60 organizers – staff and volunteers – gathered in the Expo Center’s West Wing. About another 70 or so who opted not to attend in person because of concerns about COVID-19 watched on a simulcast provided by Georgia-based GNTV, which handled the media production for Winter Blitz.

“It went remarkably well,” said Rev. Michael Sweeney, who chairs the Conference’s Camp & Retreat Ministry Operational Team. “We can feel the Holy Spirit moving in people’s lives. It was a much-needed, life-giving event for our youth.”

Fairley, who often talks about how much he loves event involving young people, had originally expected to only be present Friday evening because of a preaching commitment in North Carolina planned for Sunday. But a winter storm there delayed his drive from Kentucky.

“You take advantage of the opportunities that God gives you,” he said Saturday evening as he sat at the registration desk, down the hallway from the meeting hall where music by the Asbury Worship Collective could be heard.

“It feels good just seeing people as I sit at the registration desk, the sparkle in their eyes,” Fairley said. “They’re just so glad to be back.”

Rev. William Moore, the Conference’s Director of Connectional Ministry, echoed that sentiment. “I think it says something significant that the second-largest gathering of United Methodists in Kentucky each year (after Annual Conference) is a gathering of youth and young people.”

The featured speaker was Lo Alaman, the Poet. Alaman, who lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, described himself as a “professional itinerant preacher.” His rapid-fire, upbeat message of hope during challenging times was a crowd-pleaser. (His work can be found here on Facebook or Instagram.)

“This was a real blessing to be here,” he said after Winter Blitz wrapped up. “It’s always so joyful to share the word of God with people.”

Dawn Sparks Fairley, Bishop Fairley’s wife, is part of the Winter Blitz Planning Team and also has helped with registration since 2006.  Her late husband, Rev. David Sparks, served many years as the youth ministry director for the Conference.  

She said she originally did it because she enjoys behind-the-scenes work. Now she does it not only to help but because she loves to connect with people at Winter Blitz. “I honestly get fueled with energy just being here.”

It’s been different this year because of the smaller group, but she said the planning team anticipated as much. “We’re just thrilled to be doing this again.” She noted that the UMC loves numbers, and they are important, but “you never know the seeds we’re planting.”

Paul Shafer, a congregant at Lexington First UMC and part of the planning team, runs the Sacred Space room. Formerly known as the Prayer Room, it focuses on “experiential prayer and worship.”

He said he tries to incorporate multiple elements – solitude, contemplation, plus room for groups to pray and meditate together. When people walk into the room, a sign says they are standing on holy ground and requests that they remove their shoes. By Saturday evening, dozens of people had come through, though he didn’t have an exact count.

In previous years, he has included a large painting of the biblical Prodigal Son with his father and brother. Youth were instructed to try and imagine which of the three characters they connected with most deeply. A youth leader told Shafer that one girl in the group, normally very quiet and reserved, spent 45 minutes focusing on the exercise and talking about it afterward.

“For her, it was a milestone,” said Shafer.

Another leader once told him that the idea of a sacred space resonated so with his youth, some of them put together their own in a broom closet at the church.

Across the hall from Sacred Space, a Leader Lounge was provided to share information for the weekend with leaders, to pray for their students, and to give them contact information for the college Wesley Foundations and Loucon and Aldersgate camps.

Sweeney, who serves at Maysville Central and Washington in Northern Kentucky, and Warren Hopper, Executive Director of Camp & Retreat Ministry, stressed that for months, the Winter Blitz Team balanced the need to practice COVID-19 safety protocols with the need to hold the event this year and allow the youth to connect with God’s word.

Bishop Fairley also cited the precautions that the Winter Blitz Team took – masks were required in the Expo Center, and church leaders were told to make sure their youth isolated in “pods” as much as possible.
He expressed his gratitude that people did so well observing mask-wearing and the other safety protocols. “The youth leaders had them ready.”

Hopper and Sweeney said the Delta variant of COVID-19 was creating headaches across Kentucky during the planning over the summer and early fall. Then came the generally less serious but more contagious Omicron variant in late November.

“If not for Omicron, I think we would have had 600-800 people in person,” said Hopper, who praised all the hard work that Sweeney put in with the planning from Maysville. One of the first things Sweeney did was reach out to 160 church leaders across the Conference to gauge interest in holding Winter Blitz this year.

“We got significant buy-in,” he said. At that point, the Winter Blitz Team moved ahead with plans.

Sweeney carried the bulk of the planning load because this is the first year it has been held without an Associate Director of Ministry with Young People. That person took the lead on planning before that position was phased out. Nathan Calvert, who most recently held the position, now serves as the youth minister at Middletown UMC but also still lends his expertise as a member of the Winter Blitz Team.

“The pandemic has had a major impact on the well-being of youth,” Hopper said. “They have been more adversely affected than many segments of society despite being less impacted by the virus. In some ways, our youth feel abandoned by the church.

“We pressed forward with Winter Blitz knowing that the youth of Kentucky are in need of connection with God and others. We moved forward to help our youth begin to heal, for them to experience community, and to offer them an opportunity to experience the love and message of Jesus.”

While the final financial numbers are still coming together, Sweeney and Hopper stressed that Winter Blitz would not have been possible without three Good Samaritan Foundation grants totaling $21,000 – not to mention individual donors who contributed. And donations are always welcome, they said.

The return on investment is about more than dollars and cents. Just ask Koerner and the other college students who helped this year.

Koerner described the “John Wesley moment” she had as a high school freshman during that 2017 Winter Blitz, when she heard Bishop Fairley’s invitation and her feet started walking toward the stage, seemingly on their own.

Just like Wesley, she said, “My heart was strangely warmed.”
(The writer of this article is also a member of the Winter Blitz Team.)


Interested in Winter Blitz but couldn’t attend? Church youth groups interested in a weekend experience on their own schedule can email and we will arrange to send you the recordings from this year.