Q&A: Choosing symbols for worship at GC 2012

Marcia McFee

Marcia McFee will be worship and music director for General Conference 2012. In a Q&A with staff writer Mary Jacobs, Ms. McFee shared how she’s planning for the big event and what to expect.

Marcia McFee is worship and music director for the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A well-known worship designer and leader with experience in music, theater and dance, Dr. McFee has taught workshops, preached and led worship at numerous United Methodist gatherings. She also served as co-director of worship and music at the 2008 General Conference.

She spoke recently with staff writer Mary Jacobs; here are excerpts.

Can you describe for us, briefly, the process for the planning of worship for General Conference?

In my design process, I begin to find what I call an anchor image, a metaphor that’s rich enough to carry us through the whole series of services. In the case of GC that’s quite a lot—28 services, including morning prayer, noon communion and all the evening services.  We will be worshipping at the Tampa Convention Center, which is a beautiful place right on the water.

So I began to play with the idea of the shoreline as something that would be provocative enough to offer us a direction for all of our services. The most famous shoreline in the gospels is the Sea of Galilee. I began to pull out all of the stories in the Book of Mark of Jesus at the Sea of Galilee, and in all of these, there was a message coming from Jesus, about who we are to be as disciples, which of course really related to the theme of General Conference about making disciples.

The shoreline is a place of taking off into the unknown, into new adventures. It’s a place of coming home. It’s a place of going from the known to the unknown. The stories often talk about the storms, and Jesus being with us in the storms, and all of those things seemed to have a connection with the sometimes very difficult process of discerning where the church is going in the next quadrennium, which is one of our purposes for General Conference.

So how will that “shoreline theme” show up in worship at General Conference 2012?

The first opening worship begins with the call of the disciples on the shoreline, when Jesus calls the fishermen and says, “I will make you fishers of people.” Then the conference ends with the last closing worship, with the post-resurrection story of Jesus, again at the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, when he’s saying, “Drop your nets on the other side, don’t give up, even though it doesn’t feel like you’re catching any fish right now, don’t give up.” So it spans the whole of the ministry of Jesus in that time frame.

In between we have stories of Jesus teaching at the shore of the Sea of Galilee, we have stories of Jesus walking on the water, to the disciples who are scared to death because they’re in the middle of a storm. We have stories of Jesus inviting a tax collector at the porch at the Sea of Galilee to dinner.  So there’s a whole wonderful range of very familiar biblical stories that we’ll be exploring at General Conference.

There will be a symbol each day that will be a metaphor for our work together. One day it is a piece of sailcloth. One day it is the grasses that grow on the shoreline. One day it is a river rock. One day it’s water. One day it is a piece of sailing rope that connects us, that brings us safely to the harbor, or that we unwrap to go out on new adventures. So there’s a series of symbols that we’ll use every day. On the last day it will be a net, because Jesus says, go into the world and make disciples; we have to lay down our nets again, and go into the world.

To give you a sneak preview, the very first symbol in the opening worship will be lightning, which we will create audio-visually. Tampa has the most occurrences of lightning strikes in the whole U.S.  I thought that was really interesting, related to the fact that the Sea of Galilee, because of its geographical layout, there’s a reason why scriptures say that violent storms just whip up in an instant. So I thought that was a very interesting connection. And I think that it’s important to acknowledge that, sometimes it feels like our churches are experiencing storms, and we need Jesus with us.

How do you begin to plan worship for an “audience” that is so large and so diverse, to make it meaningful for everyone?

Because the Sea of Galilee is so much a part of the Christian scriptures—we all as Christians have those stories in our DNA. It’s really the biblical metaphors that we draw on, rather than worrying that everyone needs to live on a shoreline to get the metaphors. We’re all steeped in the metaphors of the Sea of Galilee. The biblical scriptures really are our common thread; no matter where you’re from or what language you speak. The trick is to create moments that are very big and grand to fit the space but also create some moments that are more intimate. So at times, we will turn to the people around us and we will share particular things, such as, what are our prayers for healing for the church, the world, and ourselves? So we create the larger experiences and also times when we can share intimately and really pray with each other. It’s not always all about pomp and circumstance; it’s about facilitating an environment where we can really worship.

Because we have a congregation that is so diverse in terms of language and experience, we will be worshipping with a variety of expressions—drawing on readers, singers and visual artists from around the world. We will be hearing some liturgies in Swahili, French and Portuguese. We have the benefit of media that can translate these into English, but we don’t need to translate that every time. In some places, I asked the translators not to translate. I believe that, even if we don’t understand the words, we feel the spirit moving in that moment. About 38 percent of the delegates will be non-English speaking. That’s a big percentage. We get to honor that.

Can you give us a “sneak preview” of some of the new or innovative elements you’re planning for worship for General Conference 2012?

We are using some of the latest digital media technology through the generous collaboration of a company called Triple Wide Media, and that is that the entire backdrop will be a triple-wide, panoramic screen—about 90 feet in width—so we can literally create the environment of being on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It will help us in a very sterile, generic convention center room to imagine ourselves in a different place. So this is the cutting edge digital tech we’re looking forward to using.

Another point of interest is that for the memorial service, in which we will memorialize the bishops who passed away in the last quadrennium and also have the opportunity to name anyone who’s been associated with General Conference. Anyone who’s listening in the room can lift up the names of those they would like to be remembered. Because we are right on the water—we will, as names are read, be launching small memorial boats that have candles in them into the water just off the dock outside the plenary room. We will have a live-stream of that happening inside the room as we do that. It’s going be absolutely gorgeous. This is a tradition that is well known in Hawaii and some other Asian cultures.

The noon communion, which at General Conference 2008 we had in the plenary space, will be in a portico, a porch-like setting, outside and on the water. So each day at noon we will be outside, having a communion service right there on the water. It’s a stunning setting and wonderful because it’s a covered area, so that even if we have some of those spring storms that Tampa’s known for, we will be OK. Especially during our breaks, people really yearn to be outside. This will give them a chance to attend communion services if they’d like to and also get some fresh air.

 

mjacobs@umr.org

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