Planning and hosting virtual mission network meetings

A Zoom conversation with leaders from the Sudan/South Sudan Mission Network

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Melodie Jones Pointon and the Rev. Sharon Stewart were co-conveners of one of the first virtual mission network meetings. (Screen shot)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Sharon Stewart of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Rev. Dr. Melodie Jones Pointon, senior pastor and head of staff at Eastridge Presbyterian Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, recently served as co-conveners of one of the first virtual mission network meetings.

Stewart and Pointon co-convened the 2020 Sudan/South Sudan Mission Network Conference (SSSMN), which was livestreamed on YouTube and Facebook June 29 and June 30 with hosting provided by Eastridge Presbyterian Church.

“This was a big experiment. It took them a lot of work to prepare with other people to get this off the ground,” said Ellen Sherby, World Mission’s coordinator of Equipping for Mission Involvement. “I participated in part of it and also talked with them afterward. I think it was a great success.”

Stewart and Pointon met during the SSSMN gathering last summer, held for two days during the New Wilmington Mission Conference in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. In March, as the network was discussing options, the idea of a virtual conference was suggested.

The virtual mission network meeting drew participants from all over the world. (Screen shot)

“The idea of having a [virtual] network meeting with people all over the world was absolutely intimidating to me at first,” Stewart said. “Melodie’s church was so gracious to be able to host us in the livestreaming and the Zoom conferencing and that made all the difference. It was vital that we got encouragement from the network, but also from our small subcommittee for the conference. One of the things that we did was get Lynn and Sharon Kandel on board immediately.” The Kandels are World Mission’s regional liaisons for the Horn of Africa. “Without them, this would not have happened.”

Working with the Kandels, Stewart and Pointon decided the virtual SSSMN would be a time for mission co-workers to talk about what’s going on in their lives and what’s on their heart. Romans 1:12 served as the conference theme: “or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”

The Rev. Dr. Melodie Jones Pointon talks with regional liaison Lynn Kandel during the in-person Sudan/South Sudan Mission Network meeting in 2019. Pointon and the Rev. Sharon Stewart met during last year’s in-person mission network meeting and this year served as co-conveners of the first SSSMN virtual conference. (Photo by Tammy Warren)

The network and subcommittee realized a virtual conference during the pandemic would provide a unique opportunity to support and pray for all mission co-workers in Sudan/South Sudan and Ethiopia, since many are still in the U.S. due to travel restrictions.

Stewart reached out to everyone in the SSSMN and asked them to be praying about the virtual gathering. “I said, ‘just start to pray,’” she said. “Don’t ever underestimate the power of prayer.”

Having the buy-in of the network, the support of the World Mission staff and the livestreaming and Zoom support from Eastridge Presbyterian were essential in planning, Stewart said. “Our primary goal was to hear from, pray for and support our co-workers and partners in Africa.”

“We kind of split up our responsibilities,” Pointon said. “Sharon did a great job of talking to all the mission co-workers, getting the schedule done and taking care of the registrations, while I really focused more on the details of the technology.”

The guiding principles they started with were adopted from those of Eastridge Presbyterian, Pointon said, “to do what we know how to do and not to try to learn something new.” That’s why the livestreaming platform worked well, she said, since it is what she is used to using during worship. The SSSMN hired an audiovisual technician to take care of the livestreaming and videoconferencing during the virtual conference.

Eastridge Presbyterian also provided a number that people without a computer could call and listen to the conference by phone.

About 70 people from 21 states and six countries participated in the 2020 virtual SSSMN conference.

Participants were able to use the chat function in Facebook to ask questions during the sessions and to pass the peace during worship. Resource and worship materials were emailed to registered participants ahead of time. Each participant was prayed for by name prior to the conference. During the conference, Stewart and Pointon and others participating in the conference took turns praying for the co-workers, and partners in Africa, and their ongoing work in God’s mission.

Since modern technology is as reliable as it can possibly be, but not always so, Pointon shared that if the livestream happened to drop, participants should get back on or jump on using Facebook if that format works better for them. During breaks, participants were encouraged to let the music play and stay connected to minimize reconnection issues during the conference.

Linda Tartisio, a Roanoke, Virginia, resident who is originally from South Sudan, and the Rev. Sharon Stewart of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, look at materials displayed by mission co-workers the Rev. Bob and Kristi Rice during last year’s New Wilmington Mission Conference in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tammy Warren)

“I really appreciated how the Sudan/South Sudan Mission Network had breakout rooms 15 minutes before the start of each session and had a mission co-worker in each room intentionally, just to catch up,” said Nicole Gerkins, mission engagement associate, Mission Engagement and Support. “That was wonderful.”

With one virtual mission network conference complete, Stewart and Pointon joined World Mission staff in a Zoom presentation July 14, “Planning and hosting virtual mission network meetings.” They shared what they have learned with other mission network leaders and answered questions to help leaders plan for virtual gatherings of their mission networks.

With limited access to technology and internet access and reliability being the biggest issues for participants in partner countries, leaders believe virtual meetings still are preferred to not meeting in person during the pandemic, which continues with no end in sight for the foreseeable future.

“I think the main thing is that there are gifts and challenges in meeting virtually, but that mission networks are finding ways to do so — and discovering that, in some cases, they can have greater partner participation by meeting virtually,” Sherby said.

“Our mission network never led us to believe that failure was an option,” Pointon said. “There was no failure. There was only something that we tried that didn’t work. That was crucial, and we were so focused on what we knew we could do.”

Organizers said that failure was not an option while hosting a conference including about 70 participants from around the globe. (Screen shot)

“We sent the registration and login information to our partners in Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda. They were concerned about being able to participate because of the time difference and reliable internet services,” Stewart said. “At the last minute, a few of our brothers in Christ from South Sudan and Uganda were able to listen on livestream and then join our Zoom conversation. That was a wonderful surprise. The co-workers and all of us in the SSSMN miss hearing their voices, so when they came into the Zoom conference room, we just stopped everything, changed the agenda and allowed time for them to talk.”

“When they came on, there were tears,” Pointon said. “We were so overjoyed. It was like a family reunion.”

If you’d like to hear the full presentation on planning and hosting a virtual mission network meeting, email To find a list of upcoming virtual network meetings, visit

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