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.




Designed. Indeed.

This is our whiteboard design for Transforming the Way We Gather and Lead: An Art of Hosting Intensive. It’s the agenda. It starts today. From a rough draft of three weeks ago, most of this came together yesterday.

This is a three day, non-residential version. Design that is not just planned, but welcomed to arrive in the four of us creating together — Kevin Hiebert, Jessica Riehl, Jordan Rosenblum, and myself.

It has the kinds of things that define a template for The Art of Hosting. Teachings. System frameworks. Core methodologies. Space for stillness. It also has unique features that come because this is our team. Not just stuff that we should do, but stuff that is distinctly interesting and compelling to who we are together.

Today, 40 people will come. They’ll see this version. Transparency matters. They’ll also see a fancier version (thanks Jordan). In how I think of it, we are part of a local story, and a bigger story. People everywhere want to do good with each other. People are hungry to be smarter together. People are hungry to feel more, imagine more, and contribute to a world that feels rather complex.

By design.

An Exercise to Begin With

I’m thinking of gatherings where people are together for a good chunk of time — 1-3 days. But I imagine a shorter version for a shorter meeting.

I’m thinking of groups of 30-40 people because that is what I have most immediately coming up, but I imagine, it could be much more or less.

I want a good start. An interesting start. More than description of an albeit, good program. That description could be, and probably should be, included. But I want a beginning that feels like more than dusting off an old encyclopedia. I want to set a tone that is more than description as the first thing that people experience in a gathering when few people know each other. I want an immediate encountering of self. And each other. And the space that is between all of us, the collective whole.

Step 1 (5-10 minutes) — Individual Participant Work.
On a piece of paper write three words and one sentence to each of the following questions (these are samples):
– What were you good at as a kid?
– What do you love about the place you live?
– What is a superpower that you have (others may know or not know of it)?
– When was the last time you ate spaghetti?
– What scares you?
It’s not meant to be a polished essay. It’s more of an activation of thinking and feeling.

Step 2 (5-10 minutes) — Create Engagement, Groups of 2 or 3.
Share a bit of what you wrote, and what happened for you as you wrote it. Feelings? Surprises?
It’s not fixing. It’s creating friendship and grounding.

Step 3 (5 minutes) — Share in the Full Group
Let’s hear from a few of you. Popcorn style, out loud — are there noticings that you want to share from your sharing with your small group?
It’s not transcribing what happened. It is building expectation to witness each other and pay attention together.

Step 4 (5 minutes) — Create Bridge to Purpose of Gathering
Here’s the bridge for me. I want questions that point to the subjective (there is no wrong answer), the personal (showing up), the unknowable (vast and complex), and the irrelevant (spaghetti, really?). There are no wrong answers in each of these qualities.

I want what can feel like a bit of purposeful distraction that dislocates certainty that people have or that they think they should have as they begin. I want distraction that dislocates certainty and expectation of what people thought would happen to begin the gathering — to wake ourselves up in the context of the gathering. It’s not charismatic hand holding for me. It is fierce commitment to the entity that is the group.

Leadership — here’s the bridge — leadership and being in any form of group together requires an ability to dislocate certainty. Can any of us claim that we know everything that is happening? Of course not. That’s different than knowing important stuff, I understand. In participative leadership, in community engagement, in working with teams — there is a need for us to get good at being in messes and surprises. There is a need to become acutely good at working with what emerges through interaction with each other. That’s the game. Everything that follows — tools, methods, frameworks — all those good things are about helping to build this capacity.

To beginnings.


Building Cathedrals

A friend that I’m working with shared this story recently, one that I’ve heard before, but was glad to hear again.

A man came upon a construction site where three people were working.  He asked the first, “What are you doing?” and the person replied: “I am laying bricks.” He asked the second, “What are you doing?” and the person replied: “I am building a wall.” As he approached the third, he heard the person humming a tune while working, and asked, “What are you doing?” The person stood, looked up at the sky, and smiled, “I am building a cathedral!”
With most of the people that I’m working with in participative leadership, I’m encouraging seeing a range of scale. From planning meetings to invoking movements. From trying a training once to apprenticing for three years. From dabbling in an experience to recreating a culture. From laying bricks to building cathedrals.
My last three weeks have included significant gatherings at which I’ve been glad to see and feel this range. I can feel myself stuffed with good learnings that will continue to unpack over the next days, weeks, months, or even years. That will perhaps build to cathedrals themselves.
There was the board meeting and retreat for The Circle Way. Because of the quality of people in this group, being together for four days was like advanced circle experience. In meeting each other. In exploring and committing to new initiatives. In decision making. In getting beneath the surface. I could feel a unique excitement as this group of people helped to repurpose a possibility through The Circle Way as a non-profit organization, working with young people, people of color, and people embedding circle in their work and community environments.
There was the men’s retreat, Soultime. I’ve been able to be a participant at this gathering many times now. It is a unique mix of men, 40 – 70 in age, each thoughtful in their own way. Together, this group reclaims some missing initiatory experience to help grow ourselves differently. That sounds fancy to say it that way. Men welcomed to show up with listening, and dreaming, and wondering, and vulnerability, and song, and shared work (literally chopping wood this time) — that is cathedral building.
There was The Circle Way Practicum in Tofino, British Columbia that I taught with Amanda Fenton, Kelly Foxcroft Poirier and Dawn Foxcroft. This is people learning skills to help offer and host important containers for difficult and important conversations, including those on reconciliation. This is people in depth of story and depth of questions. This is people committed to offering what they can in their respective communities. It’s so much more than rearranging the chairs. So much more than laying bricks.
It may not be that the work that any of us are in, is always about cathedrals — even cathedrals, after all, get built by many steps of laying bricks and tending to very non-sexy jobs that are in front of us. But there are some days, when generating the energy of cathedral-building is the only thing that matters. May all of us be so lucky as to find friends and colleagues and surprise strangers with whom we can do this. May all of us be so clear, that we know to lean in to each other with deliberate supportive forms that bring out the whistling in us.