The in-person fellowship was missing, but the unity and encouragement were alive and well at the virtual laity session and other events of the Great Plains Conference.
“We hope you will live with us into this new moment,” conference lay leader Lisa Maupin told the 185-plus online attendees at the beginning of the official laity session Oct. 1. “This is a labor of love, a true labor of love – we love the laity of the Great Plains.”
Through recorded videos and an active online chat feature through Zoom, laity from some of the conference’s 1,000 churches were able to celebrate their ministries and exchange ideas. The weekend of events replaced the traditional in-person gatherings that were postponed when the annual conference session was delayed in May due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We want to spark an insight,” Maupin said, “something you can take home to your communities and congregations.”
Robin Bock, associate conference lay leader from Macksville Grace UMC in Kansas, gave a video tour of her church and talked about the importance of laity in the life of the church.
“We can be so active in our churches if we need to be,” she said, “and I know you do.”
Bock dismissed the idea that laypersons might not think they’re good enough or talented enough to serve.
“You are God’s masterpiece,” she said. “Don’t ever put yourself down. You are worthy and you have a gift to show to God’s people.”
Bruce Loy, a member of Leoti UMC in Kansas, shared that his church was without a pastor from October 2019 to July 2020, and he was one of four parishioners who filled the pulpit during that time.
During that time, he said, attendance at Sunday school and the men’s group doubled. The church is also proud of a weekly afterschool program that draws 60 to 80 elementary students.
COVID, Loy said, helped members of the church step up and fill the community’s needs.
“We are bolder in our faith,” he said.
Marilyn Zehring, a member of Columbus First UMC in Nebraska, said her church had begun a food pantry at its outreach center, distributed “Love One Another” signs throughout the community, and is planning on a prayer walk the night before the presidential elections.
Maupin, as well as associate lay leaders Keith Olsen, Randall Hodgkinson and Bock, then answered a set of questions in a round table format.
Those attending the 90-minute session online said they felt inspired.
Ethan Porter, a member of Chadron First UMC and director of Camp Norwesca, said he appreciated the community aspect of the sessions.
“That’s a huge thing that I miss right now with COVID is not being able to talk to people as easily,” he said.
Porter said he enjoyed listening to ideas from other churches, especially about how they handled the pandemic.
“It’s interesting to hear how other people are adapting with COVID to get their perspective on how we could do things a little bit differently and improve stuff,” he said.
Elizabeth Irby, a lay member at Liberal UMC in Kansas, said the session was enjoyable, even if it was yet another meeting over Zoom.
“I am blown away by how the laity across our area do so much,” she said. “I sit and I think about our church, and I think, ‘I need to get a fire under these people.’”
The Oct. 2 “Virtual Family Reunion Potluck” and the Oct. 3 “Breakfast at the Festival of Booths” each drew more than 100 people, Maupin said.
At the potluck, attendees were invited to group into districts, mission fields or interests, and in those groups they exchanged information and discussed celebrations and setbacks.
“Friday was a lot of brainstorming and sharing, hearing other people’s stories of how they’re doing church right now,” including ideas for Advent and “Trunk or Treat” celebrations, Maupin said.
“For some of them, truth be told, it was just getting comfortable on Zoom and learning its capabilities,” she added.
The Festival of Booths gave resources to those who were in need of learning more about ministries in the Great Plains and The United Methodist Church. Maupin said she realized it was a success the next day when, in a separate Zoom conversation, someone was presenting resources she had received the day before.
Maupin thanked her associate conference lay leaders and other staff for making the idea happen.
“We were taking something existing and making it virtual, and you can’t just transfer a thing from in-person to virtual and do it the same way you’ve always done it,” she said. “You have to rethink the flow and everything and how it’s going to be on the user end so it’s dynamic, even though you’re sitting at your computer.
“We had to really rethink and think through what your messaging would be and what we wanted people to get out of it,” she added. “We really, truly were stepping out in faith, taking a huge risk.”
Maupin said she considered the three-day laity session a major success.
“Words can’t even describe how excited I am that the Great Plains embraced this and took this risk with us,” she said.
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