ALCOA, Tenn. – Tension in the Holston Conference office building was so evident yesterday that staff members gathered for afternoon prayer and a moment of “holy breathing.”
They inhaled and exhaled through facial masks and kept their distance from each other, ever aware that Tennessee is once again a hotbed of COVID-19 cases as the Delta variant tears through communities and hospitals.
“We wanted to give you a moment just to breathe,” said the Rev. Mike Sluder, connectional ministries director, before reading from Genesis and playing the song “Breathe” by recording artist Michael W. Smith. “When we get glimpses of the chaos and darkness around us ... remember that God’s spirit moves across the chaos and creates order.”
After months of planning for an in-person Annual Conference on Aug. 27-28, Holston leaders this week responded to rising virus cases by creating a “hybrid” session for business that would allow voting members to either participate online or meet in person in Kingsport, Tennessee.
The revised plan for an Aug. 28 session at MeadowView Resort and Convention Center for both in-person and online participants was quickly organized in a week that saw the nation and world reeling from news of a deadly earthquake in Haiti and government collapse in Afghanistan.
“One thing that’s clear to me is there is so much tension in the building because so many changes are happening at once,” said the Rev. Tim Jones, Holston communications director. “After a year in lockdown, we thought it would be wonderful for people to see each other again.”
An initial online session of Annual Conference was held June 12 to present reports and set up business for a subsequent in-person gathering. The planning team assumed that final business for Holston’s approximately 1,800 voting members could be safely conducted in person on Aug. 28, with an in-person memorial service and ordination service on Aug. 27.
The expectation was that an end-of-summer gathering would “give more time for the vaccinations to roll out” and for COVID-19 cases to continue to drop, Jones said.
Instead, the Delta variant and a population that’s about 50 percent vaccinated throughout Holston Conference has recently elevated the risk of in-person gatherings and reinstated facial mask and social-distancing rules in some places.
On Aug. 16, Jones announced by email that Annual Conference members could opt to stay home and participate online for the Aug. 28 business session which begins at noon. (The memorial service will be conducted in person as well as live streamed at 3 p.m., the ordination and commission service at 7 p.m., both at First Broad Street United Methodist Church on Aug. 27.)
However, a standing rule in Holston Annual Conference procedure requires members of the governing body to be present before they can vote on reports, nominations, resolutions, or other decisions. So members who opt to attend the Aug. 28 session in Kingsport will immediately be asked to vote to change the standing rule so that members who stayed home can also vote, said the Rev. Terry Goodman, conference secretary.
“It’s going to be clunky. There’s no way around it,” Goodman said, noting that GNTV Media Ministry has been contracted to handle online voting and other technology aid.
Bishop Dindy Taylor will preside over the Aug. 28 session. When commentary “from the floor” is in order, she will alternate between acknowledging online members and in-person members, Goodman said.
Although some members may feel anxiety around General Conference set for 2022 and a possible split in the denomination, the business of Holston Annual Conference 2021 is fairly routine. “There are no biggies this year,” Goodman said. Members will vote on standing rules, nominations, budget, pensions, equitable compensation, and resolutions on closing churches.
In addition, three resolutions (submitted in 2020) will be considered by the Annual Conference, as well as 20 minutes of “new business” items. These “new business” items were submitted by members during a designated time period following the first virtual session on June 12, 2021, and will be addressed in order of submission, as time allows. A Book of Reports Errata providing more explanation and detail of resolutions and new business to be considered will be posted at AC.Holston.org on or before Aug. 24, Goodman said.
The Aug. 28 Annual Conference session will also include recognition of Bishop Taylor’s ministry as she retires Sept. 1.
This week’s change from an all-in-person Aug. 28 session to a hybrid session necessitates a new registration process. All members of Holston Annual Conference 2021 who have registered earlier this year are required to re-register for in-person or virtual attendance by Aug. 24 at 5 p.m. (Others may watch the session via live stream at AC.Holston.org.)
As of 5 p.m. yesterday, 521 of the approximately 1,800 clergy and lay members on record had re-registered, said Donna Hankins, digital media and database administrator. “We do not expect that many to attend as more than 200 are retirees without appointments, several have passed away, and several have requested excused absences.”
Hankins echoed the concern that constant changes in Annual Conference planning is stressful and confusing for all. The wild ride for church members and staff started in March 2020 when the pandemic upended Holston Conference’s decades-long tradition of meeting for four days every June in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.
“Unusual is a great word as literally everything has changed this year,” Hankins said. “If patience and grace abounds from all involved, we will get through it.”
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Holston Conference includes 850 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.