In-person gathering ‘exponentially better’ than online

Participants at Shaping Our Story Conference delight in seeing one other — and at expanding their partnerships

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Participants were thrilled to meet in person at Montreat Conference Center for the Shaping Our Story Conference, which was led last week by, from left, music leader Bill Buchanan, worship leader the Rev Papa Paniagua, and keynoter Natarsha Sanders. (Photo courtesy of Miatta Wilson)

LOUISVILLE — For many of the participants at last week’s Shaping Our Story Conference, this was their first in-person gathering since the pandemic began 20 months ago.

“It was exponentially better than meeting online,” said Joel Gill, the executive director at Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. “Most of us stayed connected during the pandemic, but we all missed each other so much.”

Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association (PCCCA) participants were joined at the conference this year by members of the Presbyterian Youth Workers Association (PYWA).

Three years ago, the Office of Christian Formation (OCF) brought together leaders of these two organizations —along with UKirk (collegiate ministries), Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network (POAMN) and Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) — to form the Christian Formation Collective.

According to Gill, last week’s conference came out of the efforts to see how these five PC(USA) organizations might benefit by supporting and partnering with each other.

Stephanie Fritz (left) and Miatta Wilson of the Office of Christian Formation at the Shaping Our Story Conference. (Photo by John Leedy and courtesy of Miatta Wilson)

“I’m grateful for the Office of Christian Formation,” he said. “I really believe the positive effects of this joint conference will be felt for years to come. We’re all realizing that we are part of the same thing, supporting youth as they explore their faith.”

For Gill, the conference dissolved the imaginary barriers that are sometimes created between organizations. As a result, he says camp leaders will be more likely to connect with youth workers in their area. And youth workers will be more mindful of what camp leaders can do to support their programs

Brian Kuhn, PWYA executive director, says the result of this kind of collaboration will give  young people a much better experience of church, faith and God.

“They’ll be more secure in who they are as children of God,” he said.

PYWA member Emily Powers,  director of children and youth ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, came to the conference to get some additional continuing education. During the week she became more excited about the relationships she was building with ministry colleagues in both organizations.

“I needed a reminder of why we do this job and vocation,” Powers said, “to hear people’s good ideas, where they’re struggling and where they’re successful — and sharing what we have in common during these times was really helpful.”

The Shaping Our Story gathering was held at Montreat Conference Center in Montreat, North Carolina. (Photo by Jennifer Rigoulot and courtesy of Miatta Wilson)

UKirk, POAMN and APCE also had leaders at Shaping Our Story. While presenting workshops and sharing about their work during the announcement time, they learned from others at the conference.

POAMN president Pat Baker — who led a workshop on the how-tos of a respite and relaxation retreat for family caregivers and partners — described the week as a “wonderful intergenerational experience.”

“Family caregivers have experienced above-average stress and challenges these past 20 months,” she said. “But I believe participants all went away with at least one inspirational idea that they can develop into a meaningful event for caregivers.”

Emily Wernsdorfer Hooker, associate director at Ferncliff, was on the Sharing Our Story planning team. For her the conference was a great reminder to remember the value of collaboration.

“We’re better together. It’s silly not to pool our resources for the betterment of us all,” she said. “The things we do are related to what youth groups are doing, to what [the Presbyterian Mission Agency] is doing. We’re all different sides of the same coin.”

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