By Woody Woodrick
Annual Conference 2009 will open quite a few new doors for the Mississippi Conference.
The gathering, scheduled for June 11-14, will feature new dates, a new venue and many new activities.
The most obvious change is the venue. The 2009 Annual Conference will meet at the new Jackson Convention Complex in downtown Jackson, moving away from Christ UMC where it has met for the past four years. The Rev. Steve Casteel, director of Connectional Ministries, said one of the reasons for the change of venue was because of the change in dates. The conference will be held over a weekend instead of during the week.
“As we began to talk to leadership at Christ, they said they couldn’t give up their Sunday morning worship,” he said. “It’s such a large church, and we can’t do it together. We were going to have to take Sunday and figure out what to do with 2,000 people and bring them back to finish. As we began to look at things, it became a logistical nightmare.”
When conference planners learned that the convention complex would open in January, they began looking at the center as a possibility.”
In addition, the facility at Christ UMC had reached capacity. Plenary sessions over the past couple of years have completely filled the 2,200 seat sanctuary and many found themselves sitting the stairs between the balcony and main seating area of the church.
“We give thanks for the hospitality of Christ UMC for the past four annual conferences and for the way the sacred space enhanced our life together,” said Bishop Hope Morgan Ward. “The new venue holds new possibilities as we create an environment for gathering, for worship, for plenary, for break-out sessions, for community meals and for informal interaction and ministry exhibits.”
Ward also announced the theme for the 2009 Annual Conference and a project for each church.
“The theme for the 2009 Annual Conference is drawn from Revelation 3:22, ‘Behold, I am standing at the door, and knocking. . .,’” Ward said. “Each church and other ministry is invited to choose a door of any type and to creatively decorate it to express its unique ministry - a screen door, a paneled door, an old door, a new door , a small door, a large door - painted or collaged or signed or in other ways transformed by creativity to proclaim Christ's ministry. The doors will embody our strong belief that Christ knocks at the doors of our hearts and that there are a myriad of ways that we come toward God.”
The shift to a weekend conference resulted from listening sessions around the conference, Casteel said. He said many people who would like to attend Annual Conference can’t get off work for two or three days midweek.
“As we went around one of the exciting things that began to emerge is that we want Annual Conference to be more than just a meeting; more than just voting; more than just business,” Casteel said. “We wanted to begin to be a place where there’s a sense of revival and renewal, great worship, growth and true conferencing; conversations about serious and important things.”
Activities related to the conference are scheduled to begin on June 11 with Trans4mation, a day of teaching and learning from noted speakers. Sessions will run through the day and carry over to the morning of June 12. Clergy attending the full session will receive continuing education units. Those attending previous Annual Conferences said they liked the break-out sessions on various mission opportunities, but time and space constraints sometimes made attending difficult. Holding the sessions all day Thursday and on Friday morning will make those events easier to attend. The seminars will be tied to the four centerpieces of ministry for the denomination over the next four years:
• Developing principled leaders for the church and the world
• Creating new places for new people by starting congregations and renewing existing ones
• Engaging in ministry with the poor
• Stamping out killer diseases by improving health globally
The Annual Conference officially opens with a communion service at 3 p.m. June 12.
Also, with more space, Casteel sees more opportunities to invite all United Methodists and the community to attend the worship services. “We have the capacity to handle that many people,” he said, “to come and look at Annual Conference and be on the ground with us.”
Ward expressed her desire for all United Methodists and members of the community to take part in the gathering.
“I hope that laity and clergy will participate in Trans4mation - a day of inspiration and teaching and learning and interaction before annual conference is called to order Friday afternoon,” she said. “Spectacular leaders will be with us, and it is an opportunity not to be missed. I hope that youth groups will come in large numbers to the Saturday evening worship service, designed and led by young people.
“I hope that all clergy will be present and vested and participate in the procession for the Service for the Ordering of Ministry on Sunday at 3. We will celebrate the ministry of all people as laity and clergy renew our baptisms, as local pastors are recognized, as persons are commissioned and ordained. This is a time for congregations to be present to celebrate the ministry of all and to set apart clergy leaders in Christ's ministry.”
Another plus offered by the Jackson Convention Complex, located on Pascagoula Street near Thalia Mara Hall, are the rooms available for special dinners. Over the past couple of years, space and time limitations either forced the canceling of some dinners or required they be held off-site. The JCC will be able to accommodate several meals at a time. Casteel said he’s eager to revive the Small Membership Church banquet and awards.
Conference agencies will have more room for the annual Mission Fair this year, and some vendors who provide goods and services unique to churches will be given display space.
The African Children’s Choir will sing during some of the worship services. The Mississippi Annual Conference is hosting the group’s U.S. tour. The choir also sang at the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
Plans also call for simulcasting the Sunday morning Bible study session led by Ward. That will likely be streamed over the internet, but churches will be encouraged to provide their members an opportunity to view the study.
Another slight change planned for Sunday is to combine the commissioning service, the recognition of local pastors and the ordination service. They will be joined in celebration of all the baptized and conclude the conference.
Casteel acknowledged that parking will be a challenge, but pointed out that more spaces are available now than when the Annual Conference met at Thalia Mara Hall in 1998. Annual Conference will rely on a combination of free convention complex lots and paid parking garages to handle the traffic. Plans call for shuttles to move among the lots, and Casteel said he hopes area hotels will offer shuttles to the complex.
Details on hotel availability will be released at a later date.