Ministers Convocation wins the week with flexibility, hospitality

Ministers Convocation wins the week with flexibility, hospitality

Rev. Candace Lewis, president-dean of Gammon Theological Seminary, preaches on hospitality Feb. 8 at Ministers Convocation.

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. -- When you’re planning an event in the age of COVID-19, you best be prepared for surprises.

The design team for Ministers Convocation knew this going in, said the Rev. Will Shelton, design team chair. They knew any speaker or musician could fall ill shortly before the Feb. 7-9 gathering in Pigeon Forge, interfering with their best-laid plans. They decided to go forward anyway.

“If space was created for us to be together in person for the first time in two years, that would be good news,” Shelton said. “It was so good just to be in the same room, share a meal together, and hear each other's voices.”

Ministers Convocation, the annual continuing education and fellowship gathering for Holston Conference clergy, actually went off with few surprises last week at Music Road Resort Convention Center.

At least one surprise was good. Attendance was 205, including 35 online participants, which was not dramatically fewer than the last in-person Ministers Convocation attendance of 239 in February 2020, said Shelton. In February 2021, the pandemic caused Convocation to be online only.

“We felt really good about having more than 70% of our pre-pandemic attendance in person in 2022, plus those who were able to attend online,” said Shelton, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Pulaski, Virginia.

Under the theme “Boundless Hospitality,” masked-up pastors learned from three speakers, joined in worship, dined together at Pigeon Forge restaurants, and shared Holy Communion with Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett at her first Holston Convocation.
Pastors wear masks during small groups.

“My heart was warmed to see the shared compassion of my colleagues in the wearing of masks,” said the Rev. Sharon Bowers, design team member. “Masks were optional and yet, my sisters and my brothers showed genuine care and love for one another by wearing the mask.”

The Rev. Teresa Fry Brown, Bandy professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology, was scheduled as one of the speakers but was not able to attend, due to the impending birth of a grandchild. (Brown also canceled her Holston Convocation speaking commitment in 2016).

Shelton credited Bowers for contacting the Rev. Candace Lewis, president-dean of Gammon Theological Seminary, who agreed to preach for Holston pastors with nine days notice.

Speaking on hospitality, Lewis asked participants to share their favorite music from different decades (“Hotel California” from 1977, “Hey Ya!” from 2003), and then noted that for most of us, “we tend to think the old is better.” Referring to systemic racism, Lewis then asked, “But if the old isn’t good for everybody, is it good?”

Greg Atkinson, author of “Secrets of a Secret Shopper,” shared “eight reasons why your guests are not returning.” One reason could be bad smells in the church, such as mold, bleach, or dirty bathrooms. “As best you can, try to walk into your church with a new nose,” he suggested.

Amy Oden, professor of early church history and spirituality at St. Paul School of Theology, spoke on “Gospel hospitality,” which borrows good ideas from the hospitality industry (signage, parking) but is not “merely transactional.”

“The welcome that comes from Jesus Christ is not a welcome that we summon up and create out of nothing, but it is the welcome we receive from God,” Oden said. “God has welcomed us first into abundant life, into the good news of Jesus Christ, and it is that out of which we welcome others.”
Rev. Kitchens sings "People Get Ready."

The Rev. Willie Kitchens led devotions and shared praise music with accompanist Jeff Seay. He sang “People Get Ready,” the 1965 hit recorded by the Impressions musical group, of which Kitchens was a member. He currently serves as pastor at Bethlehem-Wiley United Methodist Church in Chattanooga.

In the concluding worship, Bishop Wallace-Padgett shared memories of a trip to South Korea where she was shown great hospitality by a host family. She related it to sharing Holy Communion.

“How hospitable Jesus was in that final supper he shared with his disciples, and our whole communion service is grounded in that memory and in that experience,” Wallace-Padgett said.

A tradition at Ministers Convocation, the commissioning of incoming Appalachian Trail chaplains was scheduled for Tuesday night. Chaplains Rachel Ahrens and Randy Simpkins were not able to attend due to recent COVID-19 exposure. Shelton lifted a prayer in their absence.

An offering of $775 was taken for the outreach ministry of Alexander Memorial United Methodist Church in Bishop, Virginia.

Worship music was shared by The Gathering praise band from Keith Memorial United Methodist Church, Athens, Tennessee; and from the choir of First United Methodist Church, Maryville, Tennessee.
Bishop Wallace-Padgett celebrates communion.

Shelton, who concludes his six years on the Convocation design team, including two years as chair, said long-term planning has been difficult during the pandemic. The "Boundless Hospitality” theme was chosen with that in mind.

“There are so many uncertainties in church world right now. Not only do we not have all the answers, in some cases we're not even sure if we're asking the right questions,” he said. “So we wanted to center our event around a theme we knew would be part of being the church, no matter what the future looks like.”

Several participants said a Convocation highlight was the opportunity to be with friends in person. “It’s good to be back together again,” said the Rev. Dwight Kilbourne, senior pastor at Ooltewah United Methodist Church.

“It was so good to see my colleagues in person and to hear and see about the victories both in big and small ways over COVID,” said Bowers, director of the Inclusion and Dialogue Center at Emory & Henry College. “To see and hear about the stories of resilience was especially affirming for me."

See recorded sessions of Ministers Convocation 2022.


Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.

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