Be Church

It was six years ago that I met Glen Brown. Glen was a participant at a local workshop in Salt Lake City that I and a friend were offering on Participative Leadership. Glen is a really good human — I would come to know that many times over the next six years. What made him a good human in that moment was his honest question. He was thinking about his role in his United Church of Christ congregation — “Would it be crazy to think that you could help us redesign our annual meeting (for 180 people) to be more participative?” Glen was on the edge of an “aha” in asking the question — I could see it on his face.

In a long story made short, Glen and I struck up a friendship and colleagueship that I have loved and that has carried through to today. I met people through Glen — his pastor, Erin Gilmore, who also became a good friend and colleague. The three of us had curry together often. We designed and co-lead the Rocky Mountain Conference (ROMOCO) annual meeting in 2011. And in that ROMOCO design, Glen said something that helped create a narrative. “We need to “be” church. Not just in worship, but in the whole meeting.”

Glen was speaking a longing that was and is widely held by people in his faith community. He was speaking an underlaying operating principle about connection, and about sharing stories and asking questions together. You see, previously, the annual meeting was more about a keynote speaker and a business meeting at which budgets would be approved, resolutions passed, and officers elected. Those are all good things. But Glen was a voice for what was in many — the desire to be more than a group of people administratively connected. He wanted real human to human curiosity as church.

This last weekend, I was able to work with another group of people, the Central Pacific Conference (CPC) of the United Church of Christ. They were at the point where ROMOCO was five years ago with their annual meeting. They wanted it to be more participative. The wanted not just an event, but a launch of a new way of being together. Being church.

I love the photo below, used for communion with the CPC. The postit notes are intentions set by participants in our participative process, that were then used in worship.


Working with a great team over six months, we built a good foundation and then hosted a group of 120 in participative format for a weekend. Just like five years ago with ROMOCO, and with Glen in my mind, we encouraged the participants to think of the whole meeting as worship, not just communion at the end. Worship is partner conversations. Worship is small table conversations. Worship is quiet journaling. Worship is the business meeting. Worship is self-organized working groups. Worship is meals together.

I gush a bit to think of how well all of this landed in the whole of the group at this CPC annual meeting. The appreciation was very apparent. For our facilitation. For our leadership. And, I think most of all, for an awakened imagination of being church — now ready to take on so much more together. Yes, that’s pastors, clergy, lay leaders, old guard, new ministries — stirred and awakened to another layer of imagination of being church.

Emergence is the Game

Recently, in working with a core team preparing for a multi-day, system-wide event in a faith community, there were six of us sharing reflections during a video conference call. This was a call that was less about the details of the event — room setup, supplies needed, and when breaks would occur. This was a call that was more about being in learning together — what are you learning now about yourself, facing the unexpected, holding responsibility for the whole? One of the primary practices that I’ve been sharing with core teams like this one is that we need to do together in our phone calls and meetings as a core team, what we hope the larger community group will do together when meeting for the multi-day event. This particular core team — Sara Rosenau, Kelly Ryan, Gayle Dee, Walter-John Boris, Alison Killeen, Chris Hyde, and Drew Terry, from the Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ, does this super well.

One of the particular topics that we discussed, that is really core to the ongoing invitation process that is now happening — the meeting is in September — was how to respond to people that are expecting the old format of meeting that has been filled with presentations and power point slides. Sara Rosenau, my friend and colleague that is chairing this year’s annual meeting planning team, is really gifted and clear in how she is responding to these queries. She is offering very good colloquial descriptions of the process methodology that is Open Space Technology. She is pointing people to how we will self-organize into working and reflection groups based on passion and interest.

It isn’t surprising that the people asking the questions to Sara are wondering how they should prepare. “You mean we should bring handouts? How many should we bring?” This group, this conference, is evolving not just who they are and what they take on together, but how they are together. They are evolving the annual meeting format to a new practice, if you will, which we were naming together as paying very close attention to emergence.

“Emergence is the game,” I said to them — OK, there’s still a 14 year-old in me that wants to make it a game. Emergence is not the familiar skill that is showing up and willing data or meaning upon one another. It is less about imposing, and selling or winning a perspective. Emergence is a less familiar skill (though I would say it is one that we are remembering, not learning as new) that is listening for the surprise that shows up among people engaging together, because they are interacting in words, and play, and silence. It’s paying exquisite attention to what is showing up in the together part that can’t show up in the not together part. “This is not a 100-level skill, the marker for most entry level college classes. This is a 500-level skill. It is a graduate class.”

I know that there will always be many layers of working together that exist simultaneously. Rooms do need to be set up. Supplies do need to be ordered. Breaks do need to be planned. And, to be clear, there are good keynotes to be delivered. Learning well always matters. But the skill of working with emergence is one of those underlaying approaches that changes everything. Not just meetings, but also the day to day norm of how we are together and how we attend to one another, and how we nuance into the future, the sourcing of “us” rather than “I.”