[Diocese of South Dakota] When the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota held its annual convention on Saturday, Oct. 10 it didn’t look like any other convention that had preceded it.
Instead of gathering at a hotel or the First United Methodist Church in Pierre, as it had in years past, and instead of having 350-400 people present, in the year of coronavirus, the diocese went where it had never gone before: online.
Like so many other dioceses across the country and around the world, an in-person convention could not be held. South Dakota is tied with North Dakota for highest infection rate per 100,000 people in the nation, so the idea of meeting in person for the 136th Convention was a non-starter.
In mid-July, as the coronavirus pandemic raged throughout the country, the bishop of South Dakota, the Rt. Rev. Jonathan H. Folts, consulted with diocesan leaders via Zoom to discuss what to do with the two-day convention scheduled for late September. By early August, the decision had been made to take convention to online.
Going online, Folts told the diocese prior to the meeting, would keep everyone safe. Six sites across the diocese, which encompasses the entire state, were chosen, and special rules were set allowing only for delegates, or alternates taking their place, to attend, along with assistants to handle the technical details and to serve box lunches. Safety procedures were outlined, including the mandatory wearing of masks, social distancing at each meeting site, health checks at the door, and the continual use of hand-sanitizer and bleach wipes throughout the day. Special health instructions were created for the preparation and serving of food, along with instructions for how to vote remotely from each site.
“Whereas I know that other dioceses are conducting their conventions 100% virtually,” Folts said, “I haven’t heard of any diocese meeting ‘virtually in person.’ Even if we had the resources to conduct an all-virtual convention, a number of our regions are not privileged to have good or reliable internet service. So, if we couldn’t all meet in person – and if we all couldn’t meet virtually – this was the next best option to bring us together and to stay within our canons.
“Often, the only thing you can plan on in South Dakota is that nothing will go according to your plan. So you have to be remarkably flexible – and, with God’s help, our people are.”
By convention time, the Cheyenne River Reservation site had to be dropped because of COVID concerns, and several other sites experienced a drop in participants when various clergy and delegates were quarantined due to COVID exposure, or decided to stay home due to pandemic worries. In the end, 111 delegates attended, down from the usual 190. There were no vendors, no displays and no visitors allowed.
In his convention address, Folts, focusing on Romans 12:12 – “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer” – praised Episcopalians in South Dakota for keeping their focus on God’s mission.
“Our participation in God’s mission is where our true focus lies,” he said. “Living into Jesus’ Great Commandment – loving God and loving our neighbor – that is our focus. Living into Jesus’ Great Commission – worshipping God, making new Christians, forming new Christians, and transforming God’s world! – that is our focus. COVID-19 and all that it entails? That is not our focus. It is part of our current picture. It is certainly a part of our current picture. But it is not – and I pray to God that it never will be – our focus.”
The bishop emphasized various ways in which South Dakota Episcopalians have overcome pandemic difficulties to continue to serve God’s people, through online and radio services, taking the sacrament and prayers to the people – and seeing Church membership actually grow as a result – and by making videos of “virtual mission trips” to keep in touch with mission teams that were not able to travel this year.
“What has happened,” Folts said, “is that our clergy and the people of our congregations … have found ways in which to worship God and to follow Jesus despite COVID-19. They have found ways to share fellowship and to stay in relationship with each other despite COVID-19. They have found ways to form their people and they have continued to transform their communities.”
Rosebud Episcopal Mission Senior Catechist Erroll Geboe, who served as master of ceremonies at the Bishop Jones Building in Mission, liked the online format of convention.
Going online and meeting remotely “was a great idea because it helped keep us safe, and it was a good way to see each again.”
“Some of us,” he said, “haven’t seen each other in seven to eight months, so it was a nice way to visit with each other.”
Geboe added that “economically, it was better, because before you had to travel and spend money, but we didn’t have to do that this time. Maybe in time, we can perfect this, and just do it this way. It might save us money doing it this way all around. It worked out well for our first time. We got all the business done in one day. We didn’t have to go up the night before and have banquets. We had our communion service, and everything went well. It was very well organized.”
“There were definitely concerns about what to do if one of our sites lost signal,” Folts said, “and I give our Worship Committee high marks for their creativity. If a host site went down, they were given five to 10 minutes to get their signal back. If that failed, they would need to call in on the Zoom phone line. We put our convention within the context of a Eucharist service, and all the assigned liturgical leaders had back-ups in case we lost them electronically. We had con-celebrating priests at the other four host sites who were softly praying the Eucharistic prayer along with me, and we gave them instructions for what to do should our signal be dropped, namely… ‘Speak up and go on!’”
The diocese was able to hold convention this way by using a grant from the St. Mary’s Leadership Board, a group that provides scholarship assistance to students and supports youth formation, to purchase the necessary microphones and projectors, which will then be used for other on-line meetings and training sessions.
“Because of the COVID-19 virus,” Folts told the convention, “this new equipment became more than just a wish or an idea – it became a necessity – and it has become a genuine blessing. For many of our events, people have to travel a number of miles to attend – and we also are very dependent upon the weather. So having this technology and equipment will therefore widen our ability to meet and offer diocesan-wide programs, and especially those regarding Christian formation.”
He added, “Initially, when we were faced with the challenge of COVID-19, we were shocked and stunned. But we reached deep inside of ourselves. We made use of the faithful resiliency and tenacity that God has given us. We believed in God, we continued to follow Jesus, and we trusted each other.”
-The Rev. Lauren Stanley is superintending presbyter, Rosebud Episcopal Mission (West).