2021 US National Conference
The 2021 US National Conference was held July 14-17 at the Grand Wayne Center in downtown Fort Wayne, Ind. A quick summary before we get into details:
- A total of 586 people registered for the conference. Of those, 88% attended in-person, and 12% attended online.
- Todd Fetters, who has served as bishop since 2015, was elected to another four-year term.
- The delegates elected four members of the Executive Leadership Team (three of them first-timers).
- Our own denominational leaders were the keynote speakers: Bishop Todd Fetters, and directors Mike Dittman (National Ministries), Frank Yang (UB Global), and Sherilyn Emberton (Higher Education/Huntington University).
- The conference theme was “Make Disciples.” The keynote messages, many of the workshops, and other elements of the conference all built on that theme.
Deciding During the Heat of the Pandemic
Should we even consider doing an in-person National Conference in 2021? That decision had to be made during the summer of 2020—before the Second Wave of infections hit, before vaccinations became available. Contracts had to be signed with the convention center and hotels. The Grand Wayne Center kept us informed about the extensive measures they were putting in place to ensure that conferences would be safe, but nobody knew what things would look like a year down the road. So many uncertainties.
There came a point where Bishop Todd Fetters and the United Brethren National Office, which plans and administers the conference, had to make a decision. And so, nearly a year in advance, with the pandemic still raging, the decision was made and contracts were signed. We would hold an in-person conference, for however many people chose to attend. If things got bad, the state would no doubt step in and forbid in-person gatherings, thereby giving us an “out.”
But, even with vaccinations taking hold and the pandemic subsiding, would people be ready to once again gather in a large crowd? Would they feel safe? Planners knew numbers would be down considerably from previous highs of around 900. But how much of a hit would we take?
With this in mind, we enabled people to register as “virtual” attendees. This brought a variety of complications, added expenses, extra work, and opportunities for internet-related glitches. Would the majority of people attend virtually, and only a handful show up in person? When the contracts were signed, nobody could foretell. It was anyone’s guess.
People Want to Meet
Registration opened in February 2021. At that point, things were looking up, with millions of people getting vaccinated. Would 300 people come? Perhaps 400?
As registrations poured in, almost everyone was choosing to attend in-person. Clearly, people were eager to gather, face to face. And as the months passed and vaccinations pushed back infections and hospitalization rates, more and more people apparently decided they would feel safe attending. The numbers passed 300, then 400…and then 500. As best as can be determined, we had 586 total registrants. Of those, only 72 chose virtual registration. The vast majority of registrants came in person to Fort Wayne, Ind.
Turns out people were eager to get out among their fellow United Brethren, and felt safe doing so.
The business meeting was held on Thursday morning, July 15, with about 150 clergy delegates and 72 lay delegates, plus another 45 advisory members. Arrangements were made for online delegates to vote and otherwise participate.
There was very little “business,” and that was intentional. Usually, delegates deal with various proposals, most of which involve revising the UB Discipline. But because of the unusual nature of this particular conference, with some delegates participating virtually, voting and discussion would be cumbersome.
Therefore, Bishop Todd Fetters decided to keep anything requiring voting and discussion to a bare minimum. Only two items were urgent, requiring action by the 2021 delegates: electing a bishop for the next four years, and electing4 four members of the Executive Leadership Team. Everything else could wait until 2023.
Election of the Bishop
We elect a bishop every four years, and 2021 was one of those years. The Nominating Committee, chaired by Pastor Tim Sherman of Bethel UB (Elmore, Ohio), submitted only one name for bishop: Todd Fetters. Their report stated:
“Eight pastors were nominated for the position of bishop, one being our current bishop. Seven of the nominees declined to have their name placed on the ballot. They all feel God is working greatly in our denomination to spread his Gospel, create Unity, and build the Mission among his church. Also, looking ahead, several of these men are willing to be considered to serve in the capacity of bishop in the future. As a nominating committee, we have been greatly encouraged by the unity displayed in these men and their dedication and support of our God, denomination, and Bishop Fetters. God is working mightily amongst us.”
Todd Fetters was re-elected as bishop by unanimous ballot. He had been serving as bishop since 2015. He initially served the remaining two years of Bishop Phil Whipple’s unexpired term, then was elected to his first four-year term in 2017. He now begins a second four-year term.
Executive Leadership Team
The Executive Leadership Team handles business between sessions of the National Conference. It consists of the bishop plus 12 persons (3 from each district), evenly divided between clergy and laypersons. Each National Conference elects four members of the Executive Leadership Team—one from each district. The following persons were elected this year to four-year terms:
- East. Marc Stephenson, senior pastor of First UB church (New Castle, Pa.).
- Central. Ruth Nietz, a layperson from Mainstreet Church (Walbridge, Ohio).
- North. Matt McConnell, a layperson from Journey Church (Commerce, Mich.).
- West. Brian Kramer, pastor of Middle School Ministries at Emmanuel Community Church (Fort Wayne, Ind.).
Matt McConnell has served on the ELT since 2017; the others are newcomers to the ELT. These four persons will join four persons elected in 2019 to four-year terms. Those eight persons will then select an additional four members, nominated by the bishop, for two-year terms.
In addition, two ministers elected in 2019 to four-year terms need to be replaced: Andy Sikora, who has been appointed to a part-time staff position at the UB National Office; and Mark Wilson, who accepted a pastorate in the Missionary Church. The Discipline gives this responsibility to the ELT Executive Committee.
Each day included one main service. These were open to the public to attend (not just registrants), and were also livestreamed for anyone to watch. We know that many people across the denomination—in the United States, but also beyond—benefited by participating remotely in these services. (Thanks to the pandemic, we all have much practice with virtual participation.)
Mike Dittman, our director of National Ministries since 2016, got things started on Wednesday night with a message titled, “Discipleship as Apprenticeship.”
The next night, Frank Yang, who became executive director of UB Global at the beginning of 2021, spoke using the title, “The Disciple-Maker as a Foreigner in a Strange Land.”
The delegates spent Friday afternoon and evening at Huntington University. Sherilyn Emberton, President of HU since 2013, brought a message that night on “Generational Discipleship.”
Todd Fetters closed the conference on Saturday morning with a message on, “Our Divine Assignment is to Make Disciples.”
The closing service also included two commissioning services.
During the conference, Bishop Fetters announced that Andy Sikora, pastor of Renew Communities (Berea, Ohio), will begin a part-time position as associate director of Church Planting, while continuing as pastor of Renew. Andy led in prayer for several church planting couples in the United States.
Frank Yang then introduced Ruth Rivera and the John and Amber McCammon family, all of whom will soon depart for Sierra Leone to serve at Mattru Hospital. As a very nice touch, Bishop John Pessima of Sierra Leone Conference provided a videotaped prayer for the McCammon family; and Bishop Neptaly Ponce of Honduras Conference provided a videotaped prayer for Ruth Rivera, who comes from one of our Honduran churches.
The third day of National Conference has always featured a variety of workshops. This year, there were 30 different workshops (some held multiple times), divided between three 45-minute time slots.
A number of the workshops dealt in some way with the “Make Disciples” theme—digital discipleship, church planting, evangelism, the role of the Bible, small groups, how the Pietists made disciples, and discipling children, teens, women, parents, and worship teams. Other workshops dealt with current trends in missions, court cases impacting religion, cyber security, racial reconciliation, the UB Confession of Faith, sending out missionaries, and other subjects.
Huntington University Day
A big plus for meeting in Fort Wayne is the proximity to Huntington University, our denominational college. The delegates spent Friday afternoon and evening on the HU campus. It was an intermittently rainy day, but HU moved everything indoors, and it worked out well.
Lots of people flocked to the renovated HUB, where the abundant seating provided places to just sit and chat (while sipping on Starbucks brew). The “new” HUB restores the sense of community, a central gathering place, a place to hang-out, which was intrinsic to the building when it was erected in 1968. Delegates who were students during those earlier years loved the new look of the HUB.
There were food trucks in the parking lot, bounce-houses in the Merillat gym, live music in the upper level of the HUB, tours of the campus, and much more.
At 6:30, everyone gathered in Zurcher Auditorium in the Merillat Centre for the Arts for the evening service. Joyful Noise, the student worship team, led in music. Then Dr. Sherilyn Emberton gave her message on “Generational Discipleship.”
In one superb illustration, she mentioned Dr. M. I. Burkholder, the longtime dean of the Huntington University seminary, and cited some of his students over the years: Bishops Weaver, Miller, Sites, Kopp, Seihamer, Hirschy, Ramsey; and such other UB leaders as Paul Fetters, Kent Maxwell, Kirby Keller, and more. She then asked that people stand if they had been influenced by one of those persons. Many people stood. Then she told those still seated, “Look around. If you’ve been influenced by one of the people standing, will you stand.” Almost everybody in the auditorium was standing. It was powerful.
The evening concluded with fireworks over Lake Sno-Tip. Thankfully, the rain held off just barely long enough.
Many Thanks to Emmanuel
Emmanuel Community Church in Fort Wayne did a great deal to make the conference a success.
Most significantly, Emmanuel’s worship arts team provided high-quality music during the services on Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. They were led by worship leaders Sam Ward, Jay LeBlanc, and Jessi Hott. The team shot several videos which were part of the worship experience, and brought a team to manage the backstage aspects of the services (sound, lighting, slides, video screens, etc.).
But Emmanuel people served in other ways. They handled the entire registration process, from the online signups to registering people as they arrived in Fort Wayne. They stocked and staffed the Hospitality Room. They handled all set-up in the ballroom where the services were held—lighting, sound, stage, screens, etc. Jessi Hott, one of the worship leaders, designed the conference logo and other materials, and produced a video for the closing service which recapped the first few days.
UB Global set up what became a very fun activity: an escape room with a TSA theme. It proved very popular, with upwards of 150 people going through it in small groups, usually spending 20 minutes. They had fun, and in the process learned more about United Brethren missions.
Videos from the Conference
Many videos from the conference have been posted at ub.org/nc21-videos. They include:
- The four main services in their entirety (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday).
- Just the message from the keynote speaker at each of the main services.
- Videos of 12 of the workshops.
- The “In Memoriam” tribute to 30 UB ministers and missionaries who passed away since the 2019 National Conference.
- The 3Story training session from the business meeting.
2023 National Conference
It’s always nice hearing compliments about yourself. The Grand Wayne Center sent this note to the UB National Office: “Your attendees were some of the most pleasurable people we have hosted in quite some time.”
The 2023 US National Conference will return to the Grand Wayne Center in Fort Wayne. Date: July 11-14, 2023. The schedule has been moved back a day, so that we begin on a Tuesday and end Friday morning. Plan now to attend!