By Neva Rae Fox
Correspondent

From Alaska to Wiesbaden and all points in between, the Episcopal Church deftly revamped plans for 2020 diocesan conventions, transferring to an online format because of the pandemic. Although the move proved labor-intensive, by all indications it was worth the work.

Despite the limitations of not meeting in-person, it was business as usual with reports, elections, resolutions, and budget discussions. The different format prompted creative ways of presenting the usual info in a not-so-usual manner.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh decided to make the switch early. “The group was concerned that the longer a decision was put off, the harder it would be to change course if and when one option was ruled out,” spokesman Rich Creehan said. “The five-month lead provided ample time to work through the new logistics of holding an online meeting for approximately 150 participants, as well as having the appropriate diocesan governing bodies (e.g. Standing Committee and Diocesan Council) sign off on the plan.”

“No travel, food, housing, parking expenses. Saving of time. No interruption in necessary daily activities postponed while away.”

Many dioceses reported attendance did not suffer because of the online presentation, nor did it necessarily increase. Fewer guests and spouses were in attendance and, of course, there were no vendors, food stations and offerings, or organizational displays.

Josh Hornbeck, canon missioner for communications for the Diocese of Olympia, said “Holding Convention online allowed for wider participation from individuals who might not be able to make the trek to a central Convention location, and allowed for both workshop and presentations for a wider range of ministries and groups from within the diocese on a range of topics — from engaging young adults to one church’s novel approach to online funeral services.”

Stephen Richards, communications specialist for the Diocese of Rochester, was cognizant of people’s time and energy.  “We actually shortened Convention time to be aware of Zoom-fatigue.”

Online pre-convention hearings provided the opportunity to iron out some technical wrinkles. Many reported extra steps including special assemblies, training of delegates, how-to videos, test runs, and upgrading internet capabilities.

Bishop Mark Edington of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, who has churches “spread over seven countries and nine time zones,” is a strong proponent of pre-planning. “Thinking anew. Imagining way in advance, as well as we could, all the things that could go wrong, and trying to anticipate them. Developing a tutorial for delegates helping them learn how to fully participate in an online meeting. Upgrading internet connectivity at the central hosting site. Learning new tools and learning how to integrate them. Figuring out how to honor the letter and spirit of our canons — and French law, under which we are incorporated — to make it all happen. Rehearsing. And rehearsing.”

“We challenged ourselves to make things as fun and enjoyable as possible for sitting at your computer all day.”

Communications Director Katie Clark of the Diocese of Maine explained, “Bishop Thomas Brown has instituted weekly Town Hall meetings for all clergy and lay leaders each Tuesday, and that has had an unintended benefit that we ‘see’ each other in one Zoom room weekly. We have a large geographical footprint in Maine so doing that in person is difficult on a regular basis. In that way, we have been able to stay in better communication with each other during Coronatide.”

In the Diocese of Lexington, an innovative idea — meeting at a drive-in theater — allowed for a necessary pre-convention gathering. The Rev. Canon Elise B. Johnstone, Canon to the Ordinary, explained, “On August 29, clergy and lay deputies headed to Mt. Sterling and the Judy Drive-In. They were checked in without contact, given the FM radio frequency to tune in to, and were shown where to park by Convention Planning Group members. After it was established that the necessary quorum had assembled, Bishop Van Koevering promptly called the Special Convention to order with a prayer from the back of a pickup truck, his voice resonating through the radios of attendees. Attendees answered the Bishop’s opening prayer with a chorus of car horns honking an Amen!” Johnstone added the closing prayer was “affirmed by a chorus of car horns.”

Most conventions were conducted on Zoom or a similar program.

“Zoom technology served us well,” Creehan said. “We kept microphones muted and used Zoom’s Spotlight feature to show only the person speaking. This gave everyone a front-row seat.”

The Rev. Meg Wagner of the Diocese of Iowa reported, “We held ours using Whova at the end of October. We worked hard to get as many to try out the platform as possible beforehand in practice sessions and resolution hearings.”

Issues facing online conventions ranged from muting, following procedures, voting, and ensuring that technology worked.

“Zoom polls were used in place of voice votes,” Creehan said. “For voting that required a more detailed accounting, such as votes by clergy and lay orders, we used a third-party vendor (OpaVote.com) where deputies cast their vote and the results were tabulated.  The outcome was known instantaneously, and that’s a plus for us because we previously used paper ballots that needed to be taken to another location to be counted, with the results reported back to Convention at a later point in the day.”

“We actually built a special help line phone bank in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit,  so that our participants could call in if they had any technical issues or questions about our online voting system,” said Anna Stania of the Diocese of Michigan. “It was a great success and helped us to ensure that we were supporting our lay delegates and voting clergy in an easy, safe and personal way.”

Liz Williams of the Diocese of Georgia remarked, “It was a learning curve for us. A lot of energy went into finding and choosing a platform and learning how to use it. For business during convention, it hindered only a small amount of attendees.”

Many benefits were cited, such as budget savings, no travel woes, and time reduction.

“The overall convention time was shorter,” Clark said. “Many lauded the fact that this convention was really ‘accessible’ to all. We had live closed-captioning for the hearing impaired, no-one needed to travel long distances, etc. Overall, we were able to save some money on convention this year.”

Anne Snyder of the Diocese of Virginia said,  “No travel, food, housing, parking expenses. Saving of time. No interruption in necessary daily activities postponed while away.”

Maleah Rios of the Convocation in Europe pointed out, “I particularly missed the opportunity to hear or overhear our conversations and deliberations occurring in all of the languages of the Convocation. While we were grateful to offer a simultaneous French language channel during the meeting, there is nothing quite like greeting and being greeted by every person in the breakfast line in the language of their heart.”

Richards didn’t miss “transporting printing materials, tables, chairs, podium, and anything else we would need to prepare for in-person Convention.”

Williams added, “We didn’t miss printing off name tags and tons of convention books!”

“I think there are both benefits and detriments in terms of access. It was much easier for many people to access, since they didn’t need to drive or to spend all weekend there, but there are also many people who don’t have access to a laptop, tablet, smartphone or even to the internet,” Stania said.  “There are also many people who do have access to those devices, but aren’t comfortable using them. We wanted to be very intentional about our ensuring that all of our delegates were able to participate fully.”

Stania continued, “On the other hand, we also had great participation from both the lay delegates and voting clergy in the Zoom session and from those who watched the live stream.”

Videos helped enhance the online conventions.

“The bishop’s sermon/address was pre-recorded, as were all of our major reports/presentations, so that individual internet reliability was removed as a challenge,” said Julie Murray of the Diocese of Southern Ohio.

“Being online forced us to rethink how things were presented during the course of convention,” Murray said.  “So instead of just dry videos of talking heads giving reports, we were able to enhance each of the presentations given. Also since people had expressed their sorrow in not being able to see friends that they have made over the years, we challenged ourselves to make things as fun and enjoyable as possible for sitting at your computer all day. We challenged each congregation to send in a ‘shout out to the diocese’ video, and we showed the videos during scheduled breaks for voting and over the lunch break. We asked trivia questions throughout the day, and the first person to text the correct answer to the designated number won a prize. A Connect the Dots initiative encouraging people to visit other congregations to learnand then share their story, came to a close that day with the bishop drawing the winning entry.”

“It was really heartwarming to see folks say hello and talk in the chat function, but still sad we couldn’t be saying these things to each other in person,” Williams said.

In the Diocese of Los Angeles, the convention was topped by a Sunday diocesan-wide Eucharist, according to Canon Robert Williams, which drew nearly 900 people from the diocese and beyond. “Among the especially welcome aspects of the diocese-wide Eucharist is the respite it provided many clergy and laity with one weekend off from preparing and airing the local congregation’s usual virtual Sunday services.”

As for the future, “it’s going to be fascinating to see how we change and grow with this new reality,” Murray said.

Rios noted, “Between the carbon footprint of travel, our need to better include interested youth, working adults, and full-time parents, and the changing demographics of our average parishioners, we will need to continue to offer a financially and temporally respectful way for more and different people to serve their parish or mission as future delegates to this annual meeting, as well as others. Now that we have come through the experience of our own, I believe the best questions for anyone in planning or evaluating a diocesan convention this year are: who is here? who is not here? what will we do about that?”

For the Diocese of Alaska, “I think there are many committees and gatherings that will continue to use Zoom or online platforms for meetings,” said Canon Suzanne Krull. “I do not see us having an online only convention as the way of the future.  Although there are some who would prefer to hold Convention online, the majority miss the social & human interaction. We want to worship together in person, to share the Eucharist, to lift up those who are hurting, to share our joys

As the Rev. Canon Susan Russell, canon for engagement across difference in Los Angeles, quipped, “Oy vey! The things they didn’t teach us in seminary!”