It’s been several years since I attended the School of Congregational Development and I still think it is one of the most worthwhile United Methodist conferences I have been to. This year we gathered in San Diego, California and building on the imagery of waves and surfing, the 2018 theme was “Momentum.”
I am so in love with the United Methodist connection. This year’s school was one of the most diverse in terms of ethnicity and age. It was great to bump into and catch up with long time friends and colleagues. We had a solid group from the New York Annual Conference and eagerly shared ideas and insights. Exposed to teachers with new ideas and insights, over and over I found myself getting contact information and asking if I can connect them with specific people or asking my district superintendent, “can we invite this leader to our speak at our district gathering?”
There is so much more that I experienced than what I have time to write about. We had time for re-energizing and re-connecting in the California sun at the nearby beaches in addition to the valuable workshops and plenaries at the convention center. It is awesome to be with people who are not stuck in a dying church but who are dreaming and imagining and sharing ideas with energy and excitement. When someone offered an example of a new ministry, not once did I hear someone else respond, “that won’t work.” Instead the response was often, “Yes! And I can see that working in my context this way . . .”
Mono to Multi
In several plenary sessions and conversations with other clergy, we heard stories of racism in our church. A session on moving from “Mono to Multi” cultural started out explaining that it is a process that is “ugly, messy, racist, and difficult.”
I continue to be struck by the urgency for those of us who are White clergy to intentionally dismantle racism in congregations that are predominantly White. First of all for the current congregation’s own salvation and growth, second to be truly welcoming to all the people in the community, and third to properly prepare the congregation for when a pastor of color is appointed to lead their congregation. Our churches need to be safe for all people and preparing that foundation is vital to building beloved community.
Adiel DePano pointed out that “Holy Communion is the pre-curser to the great feast. Our spiritual DNA draws us together but we have to address the human DNA that puts up barriers.” It was encouraging to hear about the healing that is possible and how various congregations have addressed their own prejudices in order to build up the body of Christ that is representative of all God’s children.
Becoming the Tender Glance of God
One of the most powerful plenary sessions was led by Father Gregory Boyle, an older White Jesuit priest who has worked with thousands of gang members through a program called “Homeboy Industries” that offers job training and placement. His talk was a mix of stand up comedy, storytelling, and preaching. He authentically sees and connects with the hearts and souls of people who society has attempted to discard. Listening to him speak with tears in my eyes, I yearned to have that that kind of clarity.
I really appreciated his rejection of moral relativism. “Jesus didn’t take sides,” he said. “He stood in the right place.” He continued, “Sinful social structures can only be altered by people standing against them.” Some other quotes I jotted down by Father Boyle:
I was shocked but at the same time not terribly surprised by a presentation by researcher Jean Twenge. Explaining that generations who have multiple siblings are more likely to have families that have a “fast life strategy,” parents today tend to have less children and are more protective of them. This “slow life strategy” has led to several trends including a younger generation that hasn’t experienced freedom, making it harder to be independent and adapt to college life.
Twenge noted that around 2011, there was a sharp increase in middle school students reporting loneliness and depression. ER visits for self-harm among middle school girls tripled. Suicide among youth doubled. Meanwhile happiness, life satisfaction, and self-esteem plummeted. The timing of this stark cultural change directly correlates with the first year that the majority of people owned smart phones.
She explored what the average six hours of digital media and 8-9 hours of screen time is replacing for today’s teens. Face to face activities such as parties and gatherings have decreased. Teens are sleep deprived because they need 9 hours of sleep but are getting less than seven hours because of phones in their rooms. There is a decrease in media such as going out to the movies, watching TV, reading books or magazines. Screen activity replaces activities that are linked to happier kids including: sports and physical activity, religious services, in person social interactions. According to Twenge, students who are using electronic devices for three hours or more a day are 35% more likely to have indicators that correlate with suicidal tendencies. Five hours a day seems to be the tipping point for most of the negative indicators.
She suggests that limiting use of screens to two hours or less of leisure time will help break the addiction. Most importantly, she says that all phones and tablets in the home (including parents’ should be placed in a charger outside of the bedroom one hour before bedtime).
“Many causes of happiness and depression are out of your control but you can control how you spend your leisure time.” Encouraging personal social interaction is beneficial to youth mental health and building relationships. Engaging in quality conversations also helps them develop social skills that are necessary in the workplace.
The session definitely helped me think about my own habits and how much time I spend on my devices. I am examining how I can be a model for moderate phone use as well as how I can be encourage children and youth to be healthier in their own interactions.
Jacqui King offered helpful and practical tips for effective leadership in congregations. She clarified some of the mandatory elected positions in addition to creating new mechanisms for building up leadership.
As she put it, “engage in the current practice but in new ways.” Looking at the model of Christ, she suggests that pastors identify their inner circle of twelve people. Pray with your leadership including one on one prayers. Ask them “what can I pray for you?” and encourage them to engage in prayer practices for disciples.
She suggested building ministry teams so that people are working together on meaningful projects and not just committees. Establish ministries under the nurture, outreach, and witness umbrellas that connect with but work outside of the traditional leadership model. The workshop offered a list of specific resources to build a leadership pipeline.
One of the most exciting workshops for me was learning more about Messy Church. I have heard about it before but wasn’t really sure about the specifics. Presenter, Roberta Egli explained that it is an alternative monthly church service that “explores the way of Christ in an accessible way for today’s culture.”
Messy Church begins with a gathering time of welcome and checking in/registration. A leader brings everyone together with a simple song and then introduces the day’s theme. People then break out into different activity areas. In my workshop we had a paper flower to color, an origami boat, word games, and conversation prompts. Each area would have a facilitator to help guide conversations connecting the activity with the theme of the day. Everyone is then brought back together with a song and the service moves into the “celebration” worship time that is about 15-20 minutes and include song, prayer, scripture, and sermon. Messy Church ends with a meal and fellowship.
While there are sometimes joint activities with the traditional church congregation and sometimes the traditional church might have a “Messy Church Sunday,” I was surprised that there is not usually a lot of overlap.
Because the church only meets once a month, it is important to have some discipleship connections in between including tools like a “take home box” or connecting with activities like “messy breakfast.”
Messy Church is laity led and should not be pastor dependent (though the pastor should be engaged). Encouraging us with the words, “We have what we need now,” Roberta suggested starting with a group of five leaders.
Echoing Father Boyle, she said the purpose of Messy Church is not to rescue people but to create space for healing. The foundational values are:
Pinterest has great ideas for designing a Messy Church. Several pastors from our conference attended this workshop and are thinking about inviting a trainer to help us launch this kind of ministry in our congregations.
I’m not usually a fan of paper resources at conferences, but my bag was noticeably heavier with the wonderful booklets including some for spiritually energizing congregational leaders, information packets and toolkits, and of course books. The program guide itself was such a gift and builds on a church assessment tool that was provided. There was room for notes in a meaningful format that sparked action items and next steps to build on what we were learning. I look forward to building on what I have learned and sharing with my congregation new ideas.
James Kang asked some great questions about “how is it with our collective soul? Are we engaging in visioning from the perspective of “who we are” or asking instead “who do we want to become?” Are we asking our youth and new members, “do you understand and accept these traditions?” or instead explaining, “these have been our traditions. What do you think needs to be adapted?”
On July 11 I began renewal leave and spent much of my time this summer prayerfully writing, relaxing, attending to my physical health, and engaging in time with family and friends. In the words of Sam Yun who started Embrace Church, “Life with God is better than life without God.” I cannot think of a better way to enter back into active ministry than being energized and equipped at the School of Congregational Development.
PS (what could have made this even better)
I wish that I had the time to have come for the pre sessions and the idea marts and in retrospect would have arranged my time differently. The SCD used to have teaching churches from the local area with the option to attend on Sunday. I think that hands on experience was really valuable even if not everyone can stay. I would recommend that be incorporated back into the curriculum. An undercurrent that could have been brought into the theme is more powerfully positioning our churches to be a moral voice in an era of moral relevance. Stronger sessions about the need to speak truth to power in these times would have made this conference that much more valuable. It cropped into some of the sessions but it did not seem to be an intentional focus that could have really equipped so many of us in this politically charged climate of injustice.