AC 2020 Virtual meeting in December presents unique set of challenges

August 19, 2020
By Alan Wild

When clergy and lay members gather Dec. 6-8 for the 2020 Annual Conference, it will look and feel completely different from any past Annual Conference in Kentucky.

That’s because this year’s gathering won’t be a physical gathering: Due to the continued health threat posed by COVID-19, it will be a virtual gathering. But that won’t detract from the worshipful and celebratory nature of the gathering.

“It is our desire for our Annual Conference to be as inspirational as it usually is, even though it is virtual,” said Rev. Tami Coleman, Annual Conference Secretary.

“We want to make this experience as loving and joyful as we normally do,” added Coleman, who became Secretary in July 2019. The officeholder is charged with coordinating all preparatory work and also assists Bishop Leonard Fairley in presiding over Annual Conference itself.

Coleman stressed that even meeting virtually, Annual Conference will be inspirational and include times of worship. This year’s theme is Know the Hope, Show the Hope – and the liturgical theme will be Advent and actually will be taking place during the Advent season, Coleman noted.

The original gathering was to be held over three days in June at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center in Covington but was delayed six months by COVID-19.

The Conference already had reserved the December days in anticipation of a second gathering following the quadrennial General Conference – which also has been postponed by the pandemic and now will be held in September 2021.

Kentucky Conference leadership already had recommended that December’s session be moved from in person to virtual. The Conference’s Board of Directors met Friday, Aug. 14, at the Conference Center in Crestwood to formally amend the bylaws to allow Annual Conference to be held online. By rule, Friday’s meeting was required to be held in person.

Conducting Annual Conference virtually on a Zoom webinar platform rather than in person is safer from a health-related point of view but presents its own set of challenges. Among them are how to make sure the Conference’s roughly 1,600 clergy and lay delegates are comfortable using the technology, how to handle electronic voting so that their votes are properly recorded, access to reliable internet service in remote areas of the state, and how speakers will be granted floor time during plenary sessions, also known as “worshipful work.”

Here are some of the nuts and bolts members will need to think about in anticipation of virtual Annual Conference:

District conferences

All nine districts are meeting virtually in November and are using GNTV, which has handled technology at Annual Conference for many years and will do so again this year. The technology will be identical to what will be used during Annual Conference and will provide a chance for members to train on the same devices. The full schedule of district conferences will be announced in the next few weeks.

 Annual Conference dates

Coleman said that since these days in December were already reserved, the planning team figured it would make sense to keep it the same time. “We do think that going virtual will allow our young people to participate,” she said.

Internet access

Members are strongly encouraged to participate in Annual Conference from the safety and comfort of their homes if possible, but Coleman acknowledged that certain areas of the state may have connectivity challenges.

She said that each district will have a designated site for members to congregate if they need a reliable internet connection. The gatherings will be done using well-established social-distancing protocols to help ensure safety, she said.

People will need two devices, one to view the proceedings and one to use to vote, although those who attend at a district site will just need a voting device since the proceedings will be projected.

The technology

GNTV will again handle the broadcast and audiovisuals for Annual Conference, as well as the voting procedure. Each delegate will have his or her unique voter ID code that will unlock the  the voting process and ensure a secure vote. This code will be a different one than they used at their district conference in November, but other than that, the process will work the same.

Each voter ID code also will be set up to prohibit members from participating in votes for which they are ineligible.

People will be able to ask questions using a Q&A feature on Zoom. Members will be able to use the Q&A feature to pose questions and could be granted speaking privileges if recognized by the chair.

All members will be provided a cheat sheet to help them navigate the digital processes this year. It will also be included in the pre-Conference book that will be available this fall.

Unique challenges
Coleman, who also is pastor of Hanson UMC near Madisonville, said her first full year as Conference Secretary has been a “learning curve” on many fronts. She would have loved to have Annual Conference in person as usual but is making the best of a challenging situation.

“We live in a time where we’re just having to adapt to the challenges of our world in many ways,” Coleman said. “The challenges we thought we would face this year have been turned upside down, and we have found a deeper love for each other.”

The schedule

Here is the schedule for December’s Annual Conference, All times are EST:

  • Sunday, Dec. 6:  2 p.m.: laity session; 3 p.m.: clergy executive session.  
  • Monday, Dec. 7: 6:30 p.m.: Ordination and Commissioning at St. Paul UMC in Louisville. Will be live-streamed online.
  • Tuesday, Dec. 8: Start 9 a.m. with opening worship, followed by worshipful work, lunch, missional celebration, more worshipful work.

Annual Conference 2021

Believe it or not, it’s not too soon to start thinking about the 2021 Annual Conference, scheduled for June 7-9 at the Owensboro Convention Center.

Coleman is hopeful that conditions will allow in-person gathering to resume, although she and the rest of Conference leadership are again considering a virtual meeting if the gathering cannot be safely held in person.

Online registration to reserve hotel rooms in Owensboro will open Sept 15. Look for hotel information on on that date.

Annual Conference is scheduled to be held in Owensboro in 2021, 2022 and 2023.