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First-timers and veteran APCE event goers share their stories

The annual gathering welcomes more than 500 to Birmingham, Alabama

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

Christine Samuel and Belinda Quaye are among more than 500 people attending APCE’s annual gathering in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Christian education enthusiasts from all over North America have convened in Birmingham for the Association of Partners in Christian Education with an invitation to rest inspired by Matthew 11:28-30 as found in The Message, where Jesus asks his followers if they are “tired, worn out, and burned out on religion?”

The conference’s theme, “Unforced Rhythms of Grace,” underscores an ethic of care and compassion echoed in many of the workshops to be offered Thursday and Friday. Topics range from tending to children’s grief process, adolescent mental health, trauma-informed faith formation, end-of-life storytelling, and the deep work of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in community.

Author and pastor John Pavlovitz kicked off this first of his four plenary talks for the week Wednesday, reflecting on the hows and whys of Jesus’ ministry amongst bedraggled crowds and on stormy seas as described in the gospel of Mark. Pavlovitz shared a dozen moments from his own ministry career ranging from difficult to dizzying to despairing where he asked himself, “How did I end up here?”

In the halls, the marketplace, various pre-event lunches, first-timer gatherings and conversation circles, participants asked and answered the same question about how they ended up at APCE this year and what they most looked forward to. While the invitation to rest was universally appreciated, a spirit of enthusiasm and desire to connect thrummed throughout people’s explanations of what APCE’s annual event means to them.

Event Co-Chairs Jami Vandock and Mary Todd Peters are celebrating the surge in attendance. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

At a gathering for first-timers, 2023 event co-chairs Jami Vandock and Mary Todd Peters celebrated the surge in attendance at the in-person event after a two-year reliance on virtual gatherings during the Covid pandemic. “One hundred thirty of our 540 registration have identified as first timers,” said the co-coordinators as they opened their arms in welcome to a room of new attendees and described the structure of APCE and the spirit of mentorship between veterans and newcomers.

Erin Noh and Beverly Markham serve Alpharetta Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

Two first-timers, Beverly Markham and Kyungwon (Erin) Noh, are both associate pastors at Alpharetta Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, who heard about APCE from their co-worker, Kristen Hicks, director of children’s ministry. They are looking forward to the creative arts workshops and a workshop on intergenerational worship.

“I can’t wait to go to the marketplace and look at the books to find resources to take back,” said first-time attendee Christine Samuel, a Master of Divinity student at the University of Toronto who’s representing the Presbyterian Church in Canada. “I chose to come because there is so much buzz about APCE.” Samuel befriended APCE veteran Belinda Quaye at a table they shared near the main stage for plenaries and worship. “I’m really looking forward to this year’s theme. I plan to rest, recharge and go back refreshed,” said Quaye, director of Christian education at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York, who is returning for her fifth annual APCE event. “I love that I make new friends all the time and reconnect with the old here because it is a great place to share resources and to find people with whom I keep in touch.”

“It’s good to support one another and to hear from one another who are going through similar things.” said Chip Pope, associate pastor for family ministry at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, who has attended seven APCE annual events in the last 25 years. Ministries of support drive Pope’s focus during this APCE as well. “Quite a few workshops I signed up to attend recognize that children go through different stages of grief and lament just as adults do,” said Pope, adding he hopes to hear more about “how we as a church support them in times of trauma.”

Miguel Carlin said he’s excited to share the report of the diversity task force. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

Another APCE veteran, Miguel Carlin, ministries coordinator at Spring Branch Presbyterian Church near Houston, who serves on APCE’s membership ministry team and diversity task force, said he is excited for the presentation of the report by the diversity task force on which he has served for three years. “Hopefully the report will serve as a vehicle to help us live into our diversity, equity, inclusivity and justice statement on our website.”

Kathryn Campbell is APCE’s president-elect. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

“I love the connections that we make with people.” said Kathryn Campbell, pastor of Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, who serves APCE as president-elect and will transition into the role of president at the end of the week. Campbell reported that she had been to “probably more (APCE annual events) than I can remember.” Campbell lifted up the work of the diversity task force, the intentional engagement with the history of civil rights within and around Birmingham in pre-event programing, and the workshops centering antiracism in context of families and faith communities as a highlight this year. “I appreciate there is really a push to recognize diversity, equity, inclusion and justice.”

Pavlovitz began his opening address by saying his focus will be on two wounds, “the wounds of the world and the wounds that we sustain tending to the wounds of the world.” He invited the room of “damn-givers” to consider the idea that it was compassion and connection to others that brought them to their present state.

The Presbyterian Mission Agency is in mission partnership with APCE through the Office of Christian Formation. The APCE Annual Event online for Spanish speaking participants was made possible by Global Language Resources in ASG due to a partnership between the Office of Christian Formation and APCE.

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