As we approach the middle of April this week, it feels like a good time to let you know of the conference center’s plans for this coming summer. If you’ve regularly visited our weekly and monthly messages over the previous year, you are well aware that planning during the pandemic has been a challenging and sometimes wistful experience. Still, with increasing good news and a sense of hope, we see more light on the horizon today than we have since last March.
Planning our programming through this period has been a team effort, but no one has been more important to our process than Carol Steele, our vice president for program. I’ve asked Carol to share with you this week her view of the summer upcoming and a glimpse at the steps the conference center is taking to do ministry in this unprecedented environment.
Here’s Carol’s update on Montreat summer 2021:
About halfway through March I realized that, spiritually speaking, I was living in Advent instead of Lent.
We have been planning for at least six different versions of summer since last fall, when our Youth and Middle School Conference planning teams met on zoom to select conference themes for the nearly inscrutable summer of 2021. Every major public health development – approval of vaccines, surges in cases, drop-offs in hospitalizations and deaths, and shifting scientific focus from fomites to aerosols – has been incorporated into our perpetual thinking and process. (Alongside Youth and Middle School Conferences, the planning teams for Arts, Recreation, and Worship, Worship and Music, Clubs, summer worship, and Women’s Connection have all shared information and questions, each with their own contextual twists.)
By March of this year, after imagining dozens of scenarios, the way forward was finally beginning to come into focus. With vaccination timelines being accelerated and state guidelines beginning to ease in response to declining spread, some of our more drastic plans and scenarios could be put on a shelf (a nearby shelf, just in case). Now, our job is to wait. The remaining details of how to form Youth Conference small groups and organize recreational activities for Clubs depend on the incremental changes in North Carolina that will be realized in the next couple of months.
The plans for the most likely scenarios are in hand, the registrations are coming in, the conference leaders are writing, and we wait.
Normally, when the spring green creeps up the mountainside and we inhale our first breaths scented with mulch and blossoms, program staff and volunteers are moving full speed ahead into summer preparations with the confidence of people who have prepped for a dozen Montreat summers. Summer staff shirts are designed and ordered, worship liturgies are written and hymns selected, meeting spaces are assigned for each conference function. There’s a timetable for everything.
This year, we wait. Will summer staff receive Montreat masks, traditional summer staff T-shirts, or both? What will our worship music sound like this year? Will it sound one way in June and another way in August? Do we need to order those individually packaged communion things? And, if so, how long do they last before you discover that the grape juice has turned into wine? Is there a less wasteful way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper while limiting the spread of germs? Which of our meeting spaces will be usable given the state’s changing guidelines, and how many flat, covered outdoor spaces can we find or create?
While many tasks, like the hiring of summer staff and preparation of sermons and keynotes, have remained in forward motion, others are paused while we wait for the governor’s next press conference. It’s not the announcement of a star in the East we await, but it feels like Advent all the same as we wonder what the next phase of reality will be like.
Our theme for our Youth Conferences in 2021 is “Called to Connect” – that is, called by God, through God, and with God. We know that, whatever precautions are in place, whatever traditions might be adapted, whatever activities we must avoid for one more summer, we will be able to connect this summer in ways that weren’t possible a year ago. We will be able to form new friendships and pray alongside each other. We will be able to rock hop and hike a ridgeline together. It will be sweet indeed to walk around Lake Susan and come across a friend we haven’t seen for two whole years.
Many of our 2021 adaptations are clearly in view: more physical space between people, fewer “close contacts,” Clubs games adapted, more activities outdoors and in smaller groups. Other questions, like whether we can dance together or enjoy a parade, are still in wait-and-see mode. Right now, we can’t do them safely, but as variables change, we’ll be watching. And waiting.
While we await the exact dimensions of our gatherings this summer, let us use this Advent season to anticipate the possibilities of reconnection that await. How will we emerge, individually and collectively, as people alive to the presence of God in our midst? The answer to that will be more important than when we are able to sing or how many feet separate us.
Rev. Carol Steele
Vice President for Program
Montreat Conference Center