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Local churches get educational boost

By Susan Plassi-Klaus

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You'd think Southern Methodist University sophomore Ethan Gregory's plate would be full with classes and college life. The religious ministries major from Mineral Wells, Texas, is studying to become an elder in The United Methodist Church. Between his theology courses and involvement with the campus Wesley Foundation, he still has found time to sign up for yet another class — Exploring General Conference 101 — offered by United Methodist Communications.

Elected by his annual conference as a delegate to the 2012 General Conference, Gregory will be one of nearly 1,000 delegates attending the April event. A member of his team recommended he raise his General Conference IQ by taking the online course.

"I've been pretty involved for the last five annual conferences and so I knew a lot going in, but it's been nice getting a cleaner and more orderly picture of what General Conference is all about," he said.

"The online approach has been great for me because it's accessible and without time restrictions so I can do it between studies when I have free time."

Gregory echoes the experience of the majority of the 49,000 people who have signed up for United Methodist Communications' church communications training courses including, Rethink Church, Welcoming Ministry, United Methodist Basics, Web Ministry, and Connectional Giving . Additional live, online and do-it-yourself training is offered in Media Relations, Crisis Planning and Response, Central Conference Communications Training and Online Learning with Moodle.

"As a conference communicator, one of the services that I found very valuable from United Methodist Communications was the crisis communications and spokesperson training," said the Rev. Skip Strickland of the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference.

"It provided me with tools and resources to be able to speak with the media and work with my staff when a crisis took place &ellipsis; when things got stressful, it allowed me to be a non-anxious presence in a situation that was very anxious."

"The great thing about teaching and learning - especially online, is that it works according to your schedule," said Jack Galbraith, a retired website designer and administrator who moderates the web ministry course.

He confesses to working in his pajamas.

"You take the class at your own pace, at your own schedule," Galbraith said. "You learn like an adult rather than having to conform to the schedule of a university."

Danette Howell from McGowan, Texas, is another facilitator of the training courses, particularly Welcoming 101. She's a fan of the way technology makes it so accessible for her students to interact with classmates from all over the U.S. — regardless of the size of the city or the church.

"Folks resonate with online training because whether it's a rural smaller church or a large church, they can find ways to connect and plug into the larger connection from &ellipsis; home," Howell said. "And it's been fun for me to talk to people (from) Alaska all the way to the Rio Grande Valley."

Howell has even had other denominations show interest in learning about hospitality by taking the Welcoming 101 course.

"We would never get to folks from across the nation if it weren't for this environment," she said. "Methodism is impacting ministries of other denominations, and that is so exciting!"

What It Means to Be United Methodist was created as an introductory course for people who wanted to know the basic denominational stances and beliefs. The Rev. Tom Slack, associate pastor at Northwest United Methodist Church in Columbus, Ohio, often serves as forum facilitator for the course.

"This course is really for people who want more than information; they want a learning community," Slack said. "They want to comment. They want give and take. Things aren't clear to them. Their questions start conversations and their conversations lead to other kinds of learnings - even disagreements."

"What I do," he said, "is keep the conversations about the questions and not about the people."

Patrick Shownes, communications coordinator for the Arkansas Annual Conference, said he's always amazed at the level of enthusiasm with which people come into his web ministry training courses. "They want to soak up the learning," he said.

"I get a broad mix of clergy and laity to people in the pew who are just curious about ways they can use Internet technology to further the communication and interaction of their church," Shownes said. "There's not a lot of places you can go to get the skills that are specific to the ways we Methodists do church, so what United Methodist Communications is offering is really unique."

Shownes said he likes the playing the role of facilitator best when it clicks for people.

"I do it for the 'aha' moment, when they get it and start to comprehend &ellipsis;  what the next steps will be - how they will take what they have learned &ellipsis; back to their church and turn it into a tangible result."

To learn more about church communications training, visit