For My UCC Friends Planning Annual Meetings


I’ve been in many conversations over the years with my United Church of Christ friends about their annual meetings. The first was with two people who would become my dear friends and colleagues, Glen Brown and Erin Gilmore. That was 2010 working with the Rocky Mountain Conference. We re-designed annual meeting to hold it in a participative format, helping them to turn to one another in connection and learning. It’s different than a keynote, albeit a good one, that so often can default to very passive participation and little connection with one another.

My most recent effort with UCC annual meeting has been with the Central Pacific Conference. Like Glen and Erin, some key people have become my dear friends and colleagues — Sara Rosenau, Kelly Ryan, Gayle Dee, Jennifer Seaich, Adam Hange, Alison Killeen, Kristina Martin, and Jonathan Morgan among them. Last year was our first effort, which created some real momentum. This year, built upon that to help establish a shift in norm of how annual meeting happens. It’s not rows of chairs facing the front. It’s a circle (actually two and three layers deep). It’s not large tables that seat ten. It’s small tables for four and five, close enough to connect with each other. It’s not a keynote person for expertise. It’s creating the conditions for the expertise already present to emerge from the group.

In each of the teams I’ve worked with, inevitably, we find ourselves needing to explore the deep purpose of what annual meeting is. I love this curiosity together. It’s essential. It helps us shift from “just a meeting, let’s get it done” to a more deeply centered intention.

The narrative I found this year, that I was able to share included four essential intentions. Within each of those are expressions or values that are about the health of this group of people, leaders, delegates, and curious onlookers.

  1. Sharing the State of the Conference — This is often offered by the Conference Minister and / or the Moderator. It’s not just a speech. It’s a time to share story and welcome people further into the story of how they are evolving as a group and as a body. It’s a time to further give attention to their core identity that grounds them and informs them well beyond words.
  2. Community — People are so hungry to feel community together in this once per year gathering. It’s one of the main reasons that I’ve been invited to help design participative format. People want some deliberateness together that has them in intentional connection. It means that our design for engagement encourages friendship, inquiry, play, connection, music, prayer, imagination, and action.
  3. Business — One of the reasons that this meeting happens is so that the group can conduct its business together, through a group of delegates, to work as a body and system, not just individuals. I’m aware of the stories — well-intended business meetings that take half of the time together (4-8 hours) and reduce people to very passive listening to reports or to contentious decision making nested within rules of order that are often void of more intimate learning together. The business meeting matters. For budgets. For nominations. For resolutions of collection action and intention. However, what I encouraged is that business meeting is about democracy, transparency, and gaining broad perspective — all dynamics that are being very challenged these days. Participative leadership supports these desires.
  4. Spirit — Of course people are there to feel a sense of communal spirit. To be in relationship with the invisible, the holy, and a grounding in Christian history and narrative. People come together to practice presence and to remember what that feels like. In this CPC meeting, our theme was about going to the edge and going to the well. It was great to feel those doorways in to feeling spirit.

Many meetings lose sight of purpose. Most of us, even the best, have defaulted to planning intricate details, but often, sadly, removed from the deeper purpose of things. I was glad to share the above with the group of 120 from CPC. To remind us and to invite our connection to purpose that by far transcends a Webster definition of “meeting.” What a privilege to be in the redefining and in the shared practice together.

And, just compiled by the UCC people, here’s a fun slideshow to get a glimpse of what it looked like, this participative form of annual meeting.


For The Interim Time

“On The Way” is a newsletter publication of The Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ. I love the title. It shows commitment to movement and process. I’m working (and friending) with some really good people in that conference to support a cultural evolution and leadership centered in participation. I get to cohost their annual meeting again this fall.
This month’s “On The Way” included the poem by John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and priest who died in 2008. I love this encouragement to “dwell in the between spaces, refining the heart for the dawn of the new.” There’s a kind of spiritual maturity in that that continues to beckon for patience in the deep.
For the Interim Time
John O’Donohue

When near the end of day, life has drained
Out of light, and it is too soon
For the mind of night to have darkened things,
No place looks like itself, loss of outline
Makes everything look strangely in-between,
Unsure of what has been, or what might come.
In this wan light, even trees seem groundless.
In a while it will be night, but nothing
Here seems TO believe the relief of dark.
You are in this time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.
The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you.
“The old is not old enough to have died away;
The new is too young to be born.”
You cannot lay claim to anything;
In this place of dusk,
Your eyes are blurred;
And there is no mirror.
Everyone else has lost sight of your heart
And you can see nowhere to put your trust;
You know you have to make your own way through.
As far as you can, hold your confidence.
Do not allow your confusion to squander
This call which is loosening
Your roots in false ground,
That you might come free
From all you have outgrown.
What is being transfigured here is your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn.

Pastor as Convener

“A pastor re-envisions his primary vocation not as a preacher, teacher, healer or administrator but as a host, a “convener.” It wasn’t what seminary prepared him for, but it’s a high and holy calling.”

The above is a headline for an article written by a colleague and friend, Cameron Barr, in the publication, “Faith & Leadership.” Cameron is pastor at a UCC church in Grinnell, Iowa. He’s as sharp and clear as they come. Oozes with the ability to shape story and invite people into it.

Cameron and I got to work together several times in the ways that he describes in this article. I was primary consultant in what started for them as a strategic planning process. What I was able to offer was an invitation to shift how that work is done, and a set of practices that helped give it a chance — all based on a premise of turning to one another, and going further together.

I love these words from Cameron:

The turning point came late in my first year, when I discovered the Art of Hosting(link is external), a leadership approach that views leadership primarily as a practice of hospitality. With the help of a consultant and ardent proponent of the Art of Hosting philosophy, our church focused on re-connecting with each other and “re-humanizing” our relationships. We spent time together, sharing meals, telling stories and reviewing our community’s history.

Soon, we held a series of retreats to engage church members outside our ordinary structure of boards and committees. Instead of recruiting people to existing bodies, we invited people to follow their energy and work on needs they had identified.

Gradually, I accepted that I was powerless to direct our ministry toward my own ideas of what a church should be. I began to think of myself primarily not as a preacher, teacher, healer or administrator but as a host — a convener. My greatest asset was not my knowledge but my position in our community. So I started creating a space for church members to have more genuine encounters with one another. I learned not to look within myself for answers but to summon the gifts of others.

Rehumaning is at the core of it. Funny to say this. Yet, I say it often. We are just trying to create processes (or interrupt some stuck ones) that help us to be better, smarter, kinder, more imaginative humans together in these varied arenas of life. It helps to be deliberate in noticing where there is energy. It helps to create multiple encounters that welcome genuineness of what people really care about.



Fluent Like Thunder

Over the last five years I have worked with many people from faith communities. Some of it large scale — helping to design and host annual or quadrennial meetings. Some of it wide scale — shifting culture to participation or piloting a learning cohort. Some of it everyday — supporting clergy and lay leaders in discernment and remembering to be kind in tending to themselves while they tend to so many. One of the things that I love in all of that is that people in faith communities have a predisposition to seek out and notice the invisible. The subtle. The stuff that you have to be quiet to hear. To be in community together to help the invisible become more visible, tangible, and palpable together — this reaches in to my belly-level of satisfaction and joy.

Charles LaFond is one of those faith community people that I’ve met — one who sees — first as participant at a workshop I hosted, second as colleague, and soon after that, dear friend. Charles wrote a poem a few years back that he recently republished (with his photo above) in honor of holy week in the Christian tradition. Fluent in Thunder, A Holy Week Poem. Read it below, or on Charles’ blog, The Daily Sip.


Fluent Like Thunder, A Holy Week Poem
Charles LaFond

Nature. She has Her languages too, in which we are not always fluent.

Lest we understand her cries for mercy.

It is hard to imagine what She felt that week.
She quietly covers the planet in green, brown, blue
and every color of the rainbow-reminder.
She waves as wheat.
She swoons as flower.
She bears the massive responsibility of air as tree.
She waits as water.
She paves as grasses.
She feeds as vegetable plants;
growing for the hairless bipeds
whose rich seek to gorge on Her and whose poor
have little access to Her real nutrition.
She lays majestic as sand, making life
even when life seems impossible or unlikely.
She warms as earth even as she warms as sun.

She too was there that day at the cross, and beneath it;
whispering breeze and speaking thunder so fluently.

She provides small holes in which there is birth and metamorphosis.
Only the humans scream – most of Her females animals make life in the
same silence in which God does.
She eats and processes what She eats as billions of
worms, bees and maggots, making mulch.
She makes the world by freezing molecules of ice between molecules of rotting wood,
splitting them apart so that soil may appear over time;
which is Her Great Friend.

It is hard to imagine what She, the natural world, with a body
of green, tan, brown and blue, undulating in the chaord of growth,
felt like,
that week,
in which humans plotted and planned
the destruction of the Loving-Truth-Teller;
the One with soft skin and kind eyes.

The clergy, the climbers, the bullies . The High Priests -they plotted

while we shouted.  Waved palms. Did She feel the pain when we cut the palms branches? Did winds in Asia shift when we waved our palms?

The brash, the loud, the insecure could see He needed to die.
Political leaders of church and state,
afraid of what was tiny in them, and on them, could see He needed to die.
Counterfeit monks and pretend artists could see He needed to die.
Religious competition and ecclesial failure could see that He needed to die.
Thousands of savior-impersonators could see that He needed to die.
Scribes in their book-forts could see that He needed to die.

But perhaps only She, the skin of earth,  could see that part of God which God
implanted in Her and also in Him:
the ability to die and then, after waiting in silent darkness, live again.
Perhaps Nature could see what would be Jesus’ emerging
simply and precisely because She experiences the emerging so often,
so casually, so cyclicly, so naturally.

Nature, She is the stage of this passion-play. She could recognize a being whose nature was life like Hers,
even if occasionally interrupted by being
cut with a scythe
or starved of water
or denied food
or choked on fumes
or poisoned by chemicals or genetically mutated
or left alone to heat up and slowly die.
Planet-nature could see that all would be well, even if hot or stinky.

And yet, as Jesus began this Walk, this week,
navigating prince-bishops, principalities and powers
in majestic silence,
head down pathways and staring down power,
looking at the planet’s crust for his
encouragement,His only companion,
She, the earth-skin, looked back and she wept through
her smile into his eyes with brief rains. “Keep walking on me. I feel your feet on me.” She whispered to Jesus.

And then, in a few steps again, she speaks his language;
“Jesus, King of Kings, show them what We are.” She whispered
in her feminine voice of breeze, missed by unfluent priests and rulers
as male voices accused
in their insecurity; little bully-boys in big togas – soon-  chasubles, punching at the One Who Is. Die.  Die.  Die.

And Jesus, looking down at dirt, saw God there, and remembered the
mountain-side chats they used to have on grasses before the Great Silence of late;
remembered divine encouragement under trees,
inhaled, and allowed the story to unfold by streams, just for the next 15 minutes, and the next, and then the next – the way we must live in those tremulous times.

And so Nature and Jesus let life unfold in
manageable segments, 15 minutes at a time.
when night and day are too long a stretch for the unfolding of our sufferings.

And then, as whips with hooks hit His flesh, the blood-bits spattered onto Her grasses – Her dirt – Her sands.
As the nails hit bone, the blood spattered onto Her rocks,
As the fever-sweat dripped down neck, shoulder, back onto wood and then slid sleekly silently down down into dirt and around the sweet little maggots’ wiggly welcome – messengers from past cross-occupants.
His eyes rolled back into sacred sockets-darkness, alone;
and as saliva dropped from a twisted, gaping mouth onto one lone dessert flower emerging from the rock in that dump of garbage by the city walls.

Every day at God’s agreement, Nature asks for permission to exist at morning’s twilight;

“May We exist?” She says each day.      “EXIST AND BE BEAUTIFUL.” God says each day, with an accent influenced by thunder the way the waitress’ accent betrays her polish childhood.
After mornings and mornings of Her request for life were again and again granted by the One-Who-is, She, the natural planetary-skin, almost died. In Jesus’ last breaths Nature almost died. The planet’s skin held her breath.

And in Nature’s fight to stay alive, God flared up inside Her
and in her revival She clouded over, darkened, moistened
and thundered, thundered blue-black, like His bruises,
just to show Him, even with His closed-eyes, that She was still there. That He was not alone. And with His eyes closed, He felt the brief cold breeze and saw the darkening from beneath his lids and knew, knew he was not alone.  She was there.  She always had been. The Mother Earth impaled by His cross.

He could see Her stormy darkness even under his closed, sticky lids
and felt the chill of the brief desert-night as the Divine feminine swelled, moaned, wept, and commiserated with Jesus.

And His last forlorn question,
about whether or not
God had abandoned Him
was answered.

But Jesus hear the answer.

We think God was silent that day.
But perhaps only because we are not fluent in thunder.