Videoconferencing bridges distances

Travel can be difficult during a Midwestern winter, whether heading to an annual conference board or committee meeting or a speaking or training option. The Great Plains Annual Conference, which covers nearly 160,000 square miles of Kansas and Nebraska, wanted a convenient way to bring people from its 17 districts together year round. Each region implemented videoconferencing systems to conduct regular meetings as well as leadership-development seminars.

"People who live great distances appreciate not having to drive to them," says Kathryn Witte, Great Plains communications director. It was not uncommon for people to spend more time traveling to and from a site than attending an event there.

The conference now has at least 14 videoconferencing locations in Kansas and Nebraska. A typical setup includes a camera, a video screen, a microphone and software at each site. Most locations are in local churches where meeting spaces may be larger than in district or conference offices.

The Great Plains Conference uses a system that began in 2010 in the former Kansas West Conference. Since the Kansas East, Kansas West and Nebraska conferences merged into the Great Plains Conference, the need for videoconferencing is even greater.

The Dakotas Conference began creating its videoconferencing system in 2005. It has expanded to 19 locations in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota with three to five videoconferences most weeks and as many as 10 per week during the winter. The Minnesota and Dakotas conferences share a bishop.

Dakotas can do its own scheduling, connecting and recording since it purchased a videoconferencing bridge instead of renting the service from another provider. A major donor funded the original purchase. It is maintained through apportionment funds and savings due to the elimination of travel expenses. Doreen Gosmire, associate director of communications for the Dakotas Conference, estimates an annual savings of $65,000-75,000 reduced travel costs.

For conferences considering videoconferencing, Witte recommends starting "with the end in mind" and knowing your purpose and needs. Make sure the system you choose is capable of doing what you want it to do. Both Gosmire and Witte recommend groups have at least one face-to-face meeting in order to build relationships and take the time to adjust to the system.

Andrew J. Schleicher is an associate project specialist with the maketing and advertising team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee, USA.This article was originally published in Interpreter magazine, November - December 2014.