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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP) -- Their disciplines span the media world, but Christ was the common thread that brought more than 60 writers, photographers, video producers, graphic artists, Web designers and public relations specialists together in Little Rock.

Communications professionals from across the Southern Baptist Convention gathered April 17-20 for the 60th annual workshop of the Baptist Communicators Association. BCA is a professional development organization open to anyone serving in Baptist communications. Started in 1953, BCA encompasses roughly 300 members. Most are employed by Southern Baptist entities, Baptist newspapers, state conventions, seminaries and universities.

The theme of this year's workshop was "Mission: Impact" for which BCA program chair Trennis Henderson noted a two-fold meaning: "It refers to both the mission impact we can have as Christian communicators but also having the mission of making an impact -- seeking to do what we do with excellence and commitment."

Henderson, vice president for communications at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., said professional development is a key BCA focus. At this year's workshop, 14 breakout sessions covered such topics as advanced video production, career transitions, branding and social media, and members participated in roundtable discussions related to their particular communications affinity, from editorial and electronic media to marketing and management.

"There's time to collaborate and talk about what works and what doesn't," said Shawn Hendricks, managing editor of the Biblical Recorder, North Carolina's state Baptist newspaper. "For a lot of the younger communicators, they can learn from older, more seasoned veterans. Ultimately that's what it's about -- learning how to make what you do better."

"We are communicators in a faith community; we are talking about issues that matter -- spreading the Gospel, evangelism -- issues that are deeply ingrained in who we are," Hendricks said. "They are issues that we want to communicate with others, not only in our state or our city, but throughout the world."

Social media was a hot topic at the workshop, and the focus of presentations by several speakers. Brent Gambill, vice president of social media for the Martin-Wilbourn Partners marketing and communications consultant firm in Little Rock, said businesses and organizations shouldn't shy away from embracing issues of faith simply because they are not religiously affiliated.

Gambill, who founded and formerly directed social media for Sirius XM Sports (satellite radio), also showcased the power and potential of social media in faith-based contexts, citing a prime example of a missed opportunity to engage social media audiences in religious conversations: only 11 percent of Americans use social media while engaged in church activities.

"I'm always challenged in social media," said Barbara Denman, the Florida Baptist Convention's director of communications. "This is something on the cutting edge for not only our churches, but on the cutting edge of our agencies and institutions. How do we communicate as the world communicates?"

Awards competition

Denman was among seven grand prize winners in the Wilmer C. Fields Awards Competition, a highlight of the workshop for many. (See the complete list of award winners and examples of their work on BCA's Facebook page.)

"What's really exciting about receiving this award is that I get to cover the mission and ministries of Florida Baptists, and the exciting work that they are able to do in order to reach people for Jesus Christ. It's always a moving experience," said Denman, who won the Arthur S. Davenport Award for exceptional achievement in public relations and development for her team's work on Florida Baptists' Maguire State Mission Offering.

BCA members submitted more than 325 entries for this year's contest, which is divided into seven divisions ranging from public relations to newswriting.

Jessica Vanderpool, assistant editor at the Arkansas Baptist News, won a second-place award in feature writing for a series about Arkansas Baptists' work in Haiti.

"Arkansas Baptists have been going to Haiti ever since the earthquake ... and send teams once a week pretty much year-round. So I went with a mission team and wrote a series of articles covering various aspects of our ministry impact," Vanderpool said, adding that the award came as a pleasant surprise.

"It's encouraging to know that I'm capable of those types of stories and that caliber of writing," Vanderpool said. She described the BCA workshop as "incredible. I've been able to meet people from so many different organizations, and then there are incredible breakout sessions where I'm learning a new skill or furthering a skill, or just being able to dialogue with people who do my job, learning how they address certain issues or things they struggle with, knowing I'm not alone."

"I would really encourage people to come to a workshop, if nothing else, just to be able to fellowship and learn from their peers and superiors," Vanderpool said, "and be encouraged that others are in this trying to glorify God through their work as well."

But there's more to BCA than professional development. Between breakout sessions, members trekked to the Arkansas Traveler's baseball park, the Clinton Presidential Library and the headquarters of Heifer International.

"BCA is also about the networking, the fellowship, many long-term friendships and lots of new relationships," Henderson said. "And I think that's a time of encouragement and affirmation for those of us who do a variety of jobs in Baptist communications but have that camaraderie, those shared values and goals. This is an opportunity to share that and to strengthen it."

Mission project

BCA members also took time to give back. For their annual mission project, members hosted a baby shower at the Promise House Maternity Home. The nonprofit ministry serves unwed teenage and pre-teen mothers and mothers-to-be, providing shelter, medical care, food and education. In addition to gifts of baby clothes, jewelry and makeup for the mothers, BCA members took up an offering for Promise House topping $300. Two BCA photographers also took maternity portraits of the girls.

"In Arkansas, teenage pregnancy is a big issue, and a lot of time they don't have anywhere else to turn," said Stella Prather, who planned BCA's mission project and serves as director of communications for Arkansas Baptist Children's Homes and Family Ministries. She also is BCA's president-elect.

"The girls were a little timid when we first arrived, but they seemed to warm up to the women and men as well. I was so proud of them and of our BCA members because they just loved on them and fellowshipped with them -- just made them feel good about themselves," Prather said. "The girls were grinning from ear to ear. When they opened the gifts they would hold them up, 'Look what I got! Look what I got!' They were very excited.

"We are always telling to story of how Southern Baptists are on mission and ministering and sharing the Gospel with others, but this gives us a hands-on mission emphasis ourselves that we can be involved in."

Next year's BCA workshop will be April 9-12 at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. To learn more about BCA, including how to become a member, visit baptistcommunicators.org. BCA also is on Facebook (search Baptist Communicators Association) and Twitter @BaptistComm.

Don Graham is a senior writer at the International Mission Board and a member of Baptist Communicators Association. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

Copyright (c) 2013 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net

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