Seventh-day Adventists around the world were united in a unique and powerful way at this year's Annual Council, thanks to Scott Grady, the Church's technical manager for its largest meetings. Along with his team of 12, they facilitated through cutting-edge technology, Annual Council, a yearly meeting of the General Conference Executive Committee. This committee is the denomination's second highest governing body, made up of some 300 committee members and invitees worldwide.
The annual meeting, normally held in-person at the Adventist Church's world headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, was held last year for the first time completely online, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, however, church leadership decided to hold a hybrid event, with meetings held on-site at the world headquarters for those able to attend in person, while also providing worldwide connection to the on-site gathering via five simultaneous Zoom meetings—held in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Russian. The interactive Zoom meetings were available to Executive Committee members and invitees while the live-streams were available to all. According to Zoom representatives, nothing of this kind had ever been done before.
"A lot of firsts were going on here during this meeting," said Grady. "We planned out all of this on paper first. On paper it all worked, and we are absolutely thrilled that it works in actuality, too!"
The technical team arrived at the world headquarters ten days in advance to set up their broadcasting equipment, including approximately 3,000 feet of cables--fiberoptic for the cameras, co-axial for video, XLR microphone cables and heavy-duty Dante audio network cables. Approximately 10 racks held various types of equipment, including 11 laptops used for the Zoom meetings. Four graphics computers were set up for the videos shown during the meetings, for creating screen graphics, and for showing timers. Large stations were set up for audio, master control, and coordinating the simultaneous Zoom meetings.
Once everything was in place, a "dress rehearsal" was held on Wednesday, October 6, one day before the Annual Council was to begin, making sure all systems were working as planned.
The following evening the meetings began with the official opening of the Annual Council, followed by the LEAD conference. All went well as the program held in the General Conference auditorium was simultaneously broadcast around the world in five languages across the multiple Zoom meetings and livestreams.
Each day thereafter the crew arrived at 6 a.m. to review the program for the day and check all equipment, making sure all signals and connections were working properly, audio levels set correctly, videos cued up and ready to be played at the appropriate times, and more. When all was ready, the team gathered for prayer, asking God to guide and bless their work. Then the simultaneous broadcasts began.
"It all starts with the translators in the back of the auditorium," explained Grady. As they translate from English into their target language, "their audio goes into an audio network, which is distributed much like a computer network. Through the patching of those signals, we can route each of the languages into the proper Zoom meetings for that language," he said. In addition, those in the Zoom meetings have the option to switch to the English transmission if they choose. The various languages are also channeled into encoders for the five different livestreams, as well as to radio transmitters used by those attending in-person but desiring translation.
The video from the meeting goes into a video switcher and then fed back into each Zoom meeting, explained Grady. "We have a video router in our system, so we can route the video signal independently to each Zoom meeting. And in the router, we can embed the appropriate language with the video signal."
While this is taking place, "We are also taking the video from each Zoom meeting," Grady said, "and converting the output of the computers to the signal used by our video switcher." When a committee member or invitee attending through Zoom wishes to speak, he or she raises their electronic "hand," which the Zoom meeting coordinator notes and enters the person's name onto a list of upcoming speakers. From there the person monitoring all five Zoom meetings locates the individual wishing to speak and places him or her in the line-up that is fed to the video switcher. When the chair of the committee calls on the person to speak, their live video and audio feed is fed into the second output and placed on the main screen. Should the member wish to speak in their native language, live translators were available to translate into English.
The Biggest Surprise
The meetings took place from October 7-13. On the last day, when asked if he and his team had encountered any surprises, Grady chuckled. "The biggest surprise, and maybe it shouldn't be, is that everything has worked almost flawlessly! I can't think of any issues that set us into a panic. We were here for 10 days setting up. We tested everything. We had a dry run, so any issues or surprises we were able to correct before the meetings started. We spent a lot of time sorting things out beforehand, and back in our office drawing on a white board, laying out the connectivity. It's been a long process."
Although much preparation was done ahead of time, Grady acknowledges it would not have been a success without God's blessing. "The technology exists, but there is no way we could have done this on our own," he said. "Every morning we asked the Lord to bless us in our work. That was very important."
He also expressed gratitude for his team. "I can't take credit for what's happening here. It's all these guys," he said with a sweep of his hand. "They're the ones making it work. They are just working so far and above what we expected! I don't take credit for what they're doing. It's a team!"
The team consisted mainly of freelance technology experts from across the United States, in addition to Russell Moulder from Hope Channel International; Nick Wolfer, Production Services department director at the North American Division (NAD); and Scott Grady, who serves as the field production manager for NAD as well as the technical manager for General Conference (GC) Sessions. Appreciation goes to NAD for the use of their equipment and for sharing their expertise for this event.
"We are practicing [at Annual Council]," said Grady. "We're doing this as a rehearsal for the Session."
The upcoming GC Session, (scheduled to be held June 6-11, 2022, in St. Louis, Missouri) its 2,713 delegates, and the Church's 22 million members located in more than 200 countries around the world, will certainly benefit from the technology used at this year's Annual Council.