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A virtual conference ‘takes a village’

Behind the scenes at Annual Conference

As Michigan United Methodists experience their second Virtual Michigan Annual Conference, Executive Producer Mark Doyal comments, “I believe there is real potential to evolve into a new era of conferencing.”


KAY DEMOSS
Senior Content Editor

June 3, 2021 | LANSING – The production of an Annual Conference Session has always had many moving parts. For years, a team made up of the Commission on the Annual Conference Session, conference staff, and contracted professionals have picked up planning just weeks after one annual conference session closes to begin work on the next.

However, in 2020 the abrupt switching gears from an in-person meeting to conference by Zoom was jarring. The pandemic shut-down struck just one week after the Michigan Annual Conference had adjourned from a special session held in Albion. And it was a mere 11 weeks before the regular 2020 session was to convene in Acme, MI. Further, that turn-about took place in the shadow of a General Conference, which itself would be postponed twice.

Though leaders held onto the hope that an in-person session could yet take place in the late spring of last year, the virus and orders from the governor’s office conspired against that hope. With a change of date to mid-July, the 2020 Virtual Annual Conference would take place on Zoom, dealing only with “the essentials” required by Discipline and the effective functioning of connectional operations.

Twice the size

Last year’s event was a 19-hour blend of recorded and live-action. This year’s Virtual Annual Conference provides 37 hours of legislative committee work, worship, plenary sessions, and teaching. “It is the most challenging video project in my 40 years in the business. It was a remarkable effort,” said Mark Doyal. Doyal is the Director of Communications for the Michigan Conference and serves as Executive Producer of the Annual Conference. He adds, “People have been working all day and all night for months to get this ready. The 2021 Annual Conference has felt like three conferences in a single year, with two weeks of production and one of broadcast. It’s been very intense.”

Mark Doyal, Communication Director of The Michigan Conference, serves as Executive Producer of the Virtual Annual Conference, whether in-person or online. “Done well, a virtual Annual Conference remains a live, interactive experience,” Doyal said. ~ mic photo/Aaron Word

The script book for the 2021 Annual Conference is an inch and a half thick, involving hundreds of pages. Doyal describes the process. “Each person had to write in advance what they would present to use for staging, American sign language, and teleprompter.” The entire Annual Conference is organized online using various technologies, with all scripts on Google docs. “Many evenings I was online and I would see two or three others across the state putting their segments into scripts,” Doyal notes. “Each was working alone but you still felt like you were working alongside others in a group.”

Room for the Spirit

He continues, “We are working hard to make Annual Conference an organic experience. While we pre-record many segments, all the things that bring the Annual Conference alive are still part of this conference. That’s a real priority.” He emphasizes, “Done well, a virtual Annual Conference remains a live, interactive experience.”

Doyal provides a window into how production took place. “It has been six weeks shooting. This Annual Conference is built from over 300 pre-recorded video segments, shot all over the state, mixed with live segments.” There were two week-long sessions of filming at the Lansing Public Media Center. There were two 40’ x 25’ stages, one for worship and one for plenary sessions. “When we broadcast, we will shoot with six live cameras,” Doyal explains.

Virtual AC 2021 members of Production Crew
Mark Doyal reports that over 180 people were credited with producing the 37 hours of the 2021 Virtual Michigan Annual Conference. Some are shown here during a production session at the Lansing Public Media Center. L-r: Leslee Fritz, Andrew Stange, Aaron Greer, Mark Doyal, and Marsha Woolley. ~ mic photo/Aaron Word

The producer points out that “We make sure the pre-taped elements are only those things that don’t impact the work of the Annual Conference. We pre-record worship, certain reports, transitional elements. Anything that we know will not be altered by voting of members.” Of primary importance, according to Doyal, “for the technology to not get in the way of the Holy Spirit. Our objective is that Annual Conference feels like what members are accustomed to experiencing.”

Staying safe

Of course, layered over all the plans and preparations is virus safety. “The number one priority of Annual Conference,” Doyal shares, “is to get through it in good health.” During production sessions, leaders have modeled the same safety protocols recommended for local churches, vaccines, handwashing, masking. “We brought people to the Media Center in small batches,” Doyal says, “to keep everyone distanced and safe.”

As noted in the Program Guide: “Pre-taping and live segments were filmed on a giant, well ventilated sound stage at less than 20% capacity, using robotic cameras.”

Virtual Worship on Saturday afternoon
COVID safety protocols were observed throughout the two weeks of production at the Lansing Public Media Center. How do you measure social distancing? With a pool noodle, of course! ~ mic photo/Aaron Word

Nancy Arnold adds, “It was a big challenge, months ago, anticipating what the COVID-safe protocols might be at the time of the event. Last November we were searching for an outdoor venue for the Service of Recognition, Commissioning, and Ordination in June. What would be open and available that would meet all of our COVID-safe requirements?”

Low tech measures like masks, soap, and significant “elbow room” paid off. “We have succeeded in our efforts. We have had zero COVID.”

Passion and talent

Technologically, it is “an extraordinarily challenging task,” Doyal says. “There is so much essential detail and so many places where things could fall apart. It has taken a lot to make this work.” This year the production team was entirely out of Lansing for the first time. “The Biddle City Project has given it their all,” Doyal remarks. Biddle City’s lead man is Aaron Greer, He and his partners, Aaron Word and Mark Milliu, do all the camera work, editing, and broadcasting.

“It really does take a village,” Doyal states. “Aaron Greer is the director. My job, as Executive Producer, is to make sure all the pieces come together. I watch over the production team and follow the road map of 37 hours to make sure the trains run on time. I am the big picture guy.” Kristen Gillette, Mark’s administrative assistant, has the role of Traffic Coordinator, helping the hundreds of elements get to the right people at the right time.

Cynthia Wilson on the stage
The scale of the production of the 2021 Virtual Michigan Annual Conference can be appreciated in this big picture view of the recording of worship with the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Wilson. ~ mic photo/Aaron Word

“I counted the credits this morning,” Doyal reports. “There were 180 people needed to make this event happen, each doing their special part with excellence.” Many serve as volunteers. “This was David Eardley’s first rodeo as Chair of the Commission,” Doyal reflects. “It is a huge challenge to understand the job of the Annual Conference then do it virtually and do it with COVID. David has provided 12 months of leadership to get us from Point A to Point B.”

David Eardley comments, “The biggest challenge has been learning how best to lead in my role as the chair. We have such a great team of leaders that I want to complement their work and help them to achieve the vision that we have set forth for the annual conference.” Eardley says he was blessed by an amazing team of committed and talented commission members. “It is a privilege to work with them and be energized by their passion for their work of our conference,” he notes. 

“I want to shout out to the volunteers who devote so much of their time,” Doyal says. Leslee Fritz, functions as floor director. She pastors a local church but comes from Albion to spend weeks with the production team “as a calm, centering presence in the middle of those bright stage sets. It’s a ministry for her to help people get where they need to be and looking and sounding their best,” Doyal says. Andrew Stange, full-time at Holland First, spends many hours at home and in the study creating graphics. Brian West, a pastor at Grand Blanc UMC, worked on set because he is interested in the technology of online church. Northville’s pastor Marsha Woolley designed and coordinated all six worship services.

David Eardley and Leslee Fritz at the second AC produced online
Leslee Fritz, Floor Manager, checks signals with David Eardley, Chair of the Commission on the Annual Conference Session. Eardley praised the teamwork saying, “There are so many details that must be figured out, and it’s such a blessing to have a team that can identify them and work through each and every one of them. Our planning begins soon after the conclusion of annual conference, and each meeting helps address the many parts that need to come together for a successful and meaningful annual conference session. “ ~ mic photo/Aaron Word

The “glue that holds it all together” is Nancy Arnold, on staff as Conference Event Planner. What’s her biggest take-away from these past two years? “We’ve been reminded through these virtual experiences of the gracious and generous nature of the people of The United Methodist Church,” Nancy states. “The Annual Conference offering last year was $20,000 over the usual receipts, providing incredible support for The Bishop Judith Craig’s Children’s Village in Liberia and HAPI’s “Start Right” program for mothers and newborns in Haiti.” She also reports that the 2021 5K relief for child hunger has already topped $22,000. “We’ve learned our people don’t need a stopwatch to cross the finish line and win. They just need a cause and their generous spirits overflow.”

Figuring it out

As the 2021 Virtual Annual Conference is about to unfold, Doyal remarks, “This year couldn’t have happened without the learning curve of last year. Our organizational system developed last year and perfected this year has been essential.”

Added to that, “We have the experience of nine months of Zoom work that has helped all of us understand how to smoothly create this high wire act of virtual events.” Doyal emphasizes that we have watched failure and glitches on network news and other big productions. “For us, that has brought a level of assurance. We are doing the same work with a smaller staff and fewer resources.” He continues, “I have heard pastors say they appreciate seeing our stumbles during conference-sponsored Zoom events. It’s reassuring for them that they are not alone in this uncharted territory. We are ALL trying to figure this out!”

Doyal describes an aspect of community spirit that has grown during the pandemic. Past experience taught how to organize thousands of video clips. But most importantly, “people have offered unlimited grace. This is a new and difficult time. We are all doing the best we know how to do. That’s what we picked up in the last year that has made this year possible.”

Nancy Arnold, the "glue" for the  Annual Conference
Nancy Arnold serves on the Michigan Conference staff as the Events Planner. She was a vital part of the year-long effort to produce the 2021 Michigan Annual Conference. ~ mic photo/Aaron Word

What about next time? The conference communicator speculated that there is “the real potential to evolve into a new era of conferencing.” He pondered, “Online video is likely to be part of Annual Conference going forward.” Recorded video segments that could be viewed on-demand, would allow the laity to participate more freely, “fitting into the schedule of people’s lives. So, I anticipate,” Doyal predicted, “some parts of the 2022 Annual Conference will be online.” He quickly added, “I don’t know anybody who wants to give up in-person experience. Being connectional is too much in United Methodist DNA.”

Nancy Arnold’s stance is one of gratitude. “We’ve learned a lot through the virtual events of 2020 and 2021.  We are blessed that we can use technology to connect us and continue our necessary work as a conference.”

David Eardley has confidence that good things lie ahead. “I’ve learned the amazing ability of our team to be creative and adaptive. These strengths will help us prepare for next year’s annual conference session, as we look forward to gathering in-person once again.”