ALCOA, Tenn. -- On the second floor of the Alcoa Conference Center, Charlotte Riggins is prominently displaying her firefighter’s hat, a recent gift from a co-worker, because she’s “good at putting out fires.”
On the first floor, Ben Smith is sequestered in his studio, hurdling a mountain of multimedia projects as a new employee.
On the third floor, Lori Sluder works on schedules and notebooks for staff leaders. Just a few feet away, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett is sitting at her desk, signing certificates for the Credentialing Service and polishing her “state of the church” address.
This week in the Alcoa Conference Center, a building that has been unoccupied for long periods over the last two years was teeming with activity as staff prepared for the upcoming Holston Annual Conference. The four-day meeting begins Sunday, June 5, and continues through June 8 in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.
According to staff, the work was more difficult this year as various illnesses, transitions, denominational division, and a pandemic-induced absence from Lake Junaluska complicated planning and preparation for the first Holston Annual Conference “at the lake” since 2019.
"The only reason it’s been as time-consuming as it’s been is because I’m new,” said Smith, multimedia specialist since April 1. “It’s easy to see that next year it won’t be as hard.”
As administrative assistant for connectional ministries, Riggins said that working with an all-new staff at Lake Junaluska has been challenging. On Wednesday, she was nailing down lunchtime vendors and working on name badges.
“I’m looking forward to Wednesday and lunch at the Blue Rooster,” she said, grinning, before adding she was also looking forward to the Mission Celebration and seeing Bishop James Swanson again. (Swanson, former resident bishop of Holston, is one of the speakers.)
Surrounded by stacks of documents in her office, Lori Sluder said she was finally feeling “like I am a bit ahead of the game” as the clock ticked away before June 5. As the bishop’s assistant, Sluder was sending last-minute details to guest speakers and preachers on Wednesday.
“The biggest challenge (was) timing,” she said. “Pulling together all the schedules, the little details and making sure everyone has what they need but continuing to do the normal everyday work that takes place on a daily basis.”
Sue Weber, administrative assistant for the Wesley Leadership Institute and for clergy support, saw her last day as a fulltime staff member on Tuesday, as she retires with 25 years of Annual Conference under her belt.
“I’m planning to be a greeter at Annual Conference this year to say a proper goodbye to some of you,” Weber wrote in a farewell letter to clergy this week. Weber said she will continue part of her current work as a part-time, remote employee.
Next door to Weber’s office in the Alcoa Center, Brandy Williams was packing up gifts to be distributed at Sunday night’s Credentialing Service, as well as numerous forms and documents. She said she is both excited and anxious about “being together” at Annual Conference.
“I am immunocompromised, so I get anxious in crowds especially for this long of a period in an uncontrolled setting,” said Williams, administrative assistant to the conference secretary.
The Rev. Susan Groseclose was nearly breathless on Wednesday with the details of arranging child care for 46 youngsters at Lake Junaluska and the launch of a new initiative for children’s ministry, “Cultivate Faith.” The launch will be announced Tuesday morning at Annual Conference (June 4), complete with cabinet members wearing celebratory T-shirts.
“I am grateful and indebted to the child-care staff, people who will give up their time to do that at Lake Junaluska,” said Groseclose, associate director of connectional ministries. “And I am excited about Cultivate Faith and the work of the Children’s Ministry Team, because it’s been very much a team effort.”
While working on communications projects, both the Rev. Tim Jones and Millie Meese said they were looking forward to seeing friends in person at Lake Junaluska.
“Especially after the last few years, it’s just going to be special to hang out and be able to have a meal together,” said Jones, director of communications.
“It’s like Old Home Week,” said Meese, print media specialist.
Meanwhile, miles away from his co-workers and the Alcoa headquarters, the Rev. Mike Sluder spent part of this week in the driver’s seat of a U-Haul truck, picking up Hands-on Mission Project kits collected and assembled by churches over the past few weeks.
As director of connectional ministries, Mike Sluder oversees the compilation of thousands of pounds of food, school and health supplies that will go to support missions in Liberia and Zimbabwe. The buckets, backpacks and boxes were transported this week by Sluder, the Rev. Harry Howe, the Rev. Curt McKee and others to Fairview United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee, where they await their shining moment to depart for Africa.
“It’s a pandemic world, and there is a shortage of shipping containers and truckers,” Sluder said earlier this week. He explained that the Hands-on Mission kits didn’t yet have a ride to the South Carolina coast, where they will be shipped to Africa. Consequently, the loaded trucks will not be passing through Lake Junaluska next week for the traditional horn-honking celebration in Stuart Auditorium.
Yesterday, Sluder finally received good news from the organization he has been working with, Missionary Expediters.
“I received confirmation today about the shipping containers,” he said in a text message. “We will be loading the Zimbabwe container on June 14, and we will load the Liberia containers on June 21.”
Even if the trucks and shipping containers aren’t present at Lake Junaluska this year, the Holston Annual Conference will move on with a celebration of love poured out from the Father and for one another, including neighbors on the other side of the ocean.
Photos by Laura McLean, Millie Meese, Lori Sluder, Ben Smith, Brandy Williams, and Betty Yeomans-Barton.
Did you like this story? Sign up for a free weekly subscription to The Call. Holston Conference includes 840 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.
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