The power of the United Methodist connection was on full display last month as over 250 participants from the Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Susquehanna conferences came together for Level Up, a learning and equipping event focused on new places for new people. What began as an aspirational conversation over breakfast rapidly transformed into a dynamic gathering that brought together church leaders from diverse ministry settings.
The seed for this event was planted in the minds of the tri-conference congregational developers, who have been a collaborative team for over two years. During a staffing transition in the Susquehanna Conference, Ken Willard from West Virginia and Rev. Rob Wilson from Western Pennsylvania worked together to fill the gap and support the conference. When Rev. Dr. Kathleen E. Kind began serving as the director of connectional ministries for the Susquehanna Conference, the three recognized the benefit of collaboration and mutual support and continued their work together. The team meets together every month, over Zoom and in-person.
During an in-person meeting this past spring, the trio began dreaming over a hotel breakfast. They wondered if there could be a tri-conference, in-person “something” that would bring people together, explained Rev. Dr. Kathleen E. Kind. During that breakfast conversation, they questioned whether there was time to pull it off, pondered the realities of how people come together differently, and acknowledged that the event would have to be compelling to draw people in.
The team recognized through their monthly conversations that a main focus area for all three conferences had been “new places for new people” and “fresh expressions”, a movement that helps pastors and leaders equip their church to reach more people for Christ in unique, innovative and creative ways.
As their idea began to grow, they began reaching out to individuals and details fell into place. They kept hearing “yes” from everyone they asked and within 24 hours had a location, staff to help organize, three keynote speakers, workshop ideas, and a rough schedule. They reached out to Jason Moore of Midnight Oil Productions, who agreed to MC the event and brought the concept of “Level Up” to life with promotional graphics, videos, and on-site visual elements.
“It was one of those things where the three of us one morning just asked, ‘what if’,” recounted Rev. Dr. Kind. “We were dreaming something that should not have been possible in the time-frame and with the many moving pieces and details. Everything came together and every door was opening. It’s implausible.”
“But that’s the spiritual part,” added Ken Willard. “That’s the Holy Spirit and it was amazing to just be sitting there and feel the spirit through our conversation.”
The goal of Level Up was to get people’s spirits and minds going the right way and offer a positive thrust to give momentum to the ministry dreams people were already formulating. Christ United Methodist Church in Bethel Park provided the space and the volunteers to pull off the ambitious two days of keynotes, workshops, worship, and group activities.
The event began with two experiential pre-workshops, Messy Church and Dinner Church. Dr. Johannah Myers offered participants the opportunity to engage with hands-on materials, while Rev. Luke Edwards led his workshop participants through an actual dinner church meal. The three keynote speakers—Rev. Dr. Michael Beck, Rev. Luke Edwards, and Rev. Rachel Gilmore—addressed crucial topics such as congregational renewal, deep listening, and creating space for new initiatives. They joined a handful of workshop leaders who tackled specific topics for small groups to grapple with. Every speaker and workshop leader gifted participants with insightful yet practical tools to take back to their respective ministries.
A key component of Level Up was the rousing worship led by the Christ United Methodist Church praise brand, which created a positive vibe amongst participants that carried throughout the entire event.
“There was an energized, charged spirit and an excitement that we hadn’t seen on people’s faces in awhile,” said Rev. Rob Wilson.
The closing part of the event included a powerful moment of anointing and sending forward. Rev. Mindi Gochnaur described her experience during the anointing. “My team of women went forward together and Kathy Kind prayed over us. When we walked back to our seats, we discussed how empowered we felt to lead and serve together. Kathy prayed ‘Lord, let these women lead well’. That moment has stuck with each of us and is fueling us to move forward.”
“I felt like it was very personal and powerful for us to have the opportunity to anoint and pray with folks who so chose,” said Rev. Dr. Kind. “Many who came specifically to me are people who I have an ongoing relationship with. It was really important for me and I felt honored to pray with them in their next steps.”
Rev. Wilson noted that some came up in groups of two and three, joining together as they take the next steps in their ministry. He shared that two women from different conferences who had just met the day before also came up to be anointed together. These moments speak to the relationships that participants began building, once again highlighting the connection that we strive for as United Methodists.
“Drawing on the strengths of all three conferences made Level Up a stellar event” shared Rev. Hannah Sledge. “As someone who grew up in the Western PA Conference before transferring to the Susquehanna Conference after college, attending an event in Pittsburgh felt like going home and provided the opportunity to connect with pastors I had not seen in years.”
The planning team praised the staff from Christ UMC for their indescribable care and hospitality and Cindy Weaver for her organizational planning skills. They recognized that the gifts brought to the table by so many people elevated the event in a notable way and were heartened to hear that participants continued conversations about what’s next for their ministries during car rides home and in the days that followed.
While the collaboration of the three conferences – Western Pennsylvania, Susquehanna, and West Virginia- was not the focal point of Level Up, the powerful nature of this relationship can not be understated. For the past few years, these three conferences have developed deeper connections due in large part to the shared vision and encouragement from Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball. Bishop Moore-Koikoi leads the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference and Bishop Steiner Ball leads the West Virginia Annual Conference, with shared episcopal responsibility and oversight of the Susquehanna Conference.
The three conferences also share resources and personnel, with leaders often crossing conference boundaries to provide training, consultation, and expertise. The extended cabinets from the three conferences come together yearly for a retreat, focusing on connection building and professional development.
While no plans are currently in place for a follow-up to Level Up, many expressed interest in participating in other tri-conference events. Level Up shines as an example of what can be accomplished across the connection when vision and collaboration come together.
For more photos, visit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wpaumc/albums/72177720312738207