Annual Conference 2017
At our 2017 Annual Conference, the delegate body adopted a recommendation on “The Authority of Annual Conference and Districts regarding the Accountability of Ministers, Congregations, and Districts”. This recommendation concluded by saying: “To stay on the journey together, it is also crucial that the church discern the compelling vision that this body of Christ is called to pursue. This will be a matter of further work by the Leadership Team and Council of District Executives.” This action launched the Compelling Vision process, guided by two teams: the Compelling Vision Working Group, which provided initial direction and oversight, and the Compelling Vision Process Team, which was tasked with developing the process by which we might discern a compelling vision. Members of the Working Group included:
- David Steele, General Secretary;
- Chris Douglas, Annual Conference Director;
- Samuel Sarpiya, 2018 Annual Conference Moderator;
- Donita Keister, 2019 Annual Conference Moderator;
- Paul Mundey, 2020 Annual Conference Moderator;
- John Jantzi, Shenandoah District Executive; and
- Colleen Michael, Pacific Northwest District Executive.
Members of the Process Team included:
- Kayla Alphonse, Atlantic Southeast District;
- Kevin Daggett, Shenandoah District;
- Chris Douglas, Annual Conference Director;
- Rhonda Pittman Gingrich, Northern Plains District (Chair);
- Donita Keister, 2019 Annual Conference Moderator;
- Brian Messler, Atlantic Northeast District;
- Paul Mundey, 2020 Annual Conference Moderator;
- Samuel Sarpiya, 2018 Annual Conference Moderator;
- Alan Stucky, Western Plains District; and
- Kay Weaver, Atlantic Northeast District.
For more information about how these two teams worked together, see the Compelling Vision Organizational Chart.
The Compelling Vision Process was not intended or designed to “test”, directly or indirectly, the desire of the body to maintain, change, or establish any particular official position/statement of the Annual Conference. Rather, the intent was to change the focus and tone of our internal discourse, attending to God’s Spirit moving among us, intentionally seeking to identify that which unites us and to discern that which God is calling us to be and do as the body of Christ in these times.
Throughout, the process was shaped by the guiding statement drafted by the Compelling Vision Working Group and affirmed by the Compelling Vision Process Team at the beginning of their work:
Confessing Jesus Christ as Teacher, Redeemer, and Lord, we desire to serve Him by proclaiming, professing, and walking in His way together bringing His peace to our broken world. Join us in reclaiming a new passion for Christ and helping set a course for our future as the Church of the Brethren serving Him in our communities and in the world!
The process was launched at Annual Conference in 2018 with the question: What compels you to follow Jesus? From there, the questions asked, analysis and interpretation of the data, and even the articulation of the vision itself, reflected a commitment to this guiding statement.
While involving some input from across the denomination, denominational visioning and goal-setting have historically been completed at the board level, resulting in varying degrees of wide-spread ownership. To facilitate increased input from across the denomination, and hopefully, as a result, a greater sense of ownership, from the outset, this process was designed to be different in three ways:
- One priority was to engage as many people as possible in the process by offering opportunities for wide-spread individual input and communal discernment in a variety of settings and with a variety of constituency groups.
- Recognizing the value of conversation in moving beyond conflict, building relationships, developing empathy, and enriching perspective, a commitment was made to gathering both individual input and communal discernment in the context of small group conversation.
- Key conversations were intentionally planned to take place at Annual Conference, giving Annual Conference a central role in the process.
At Annual Conference in 2018, the Compelling Vision Working Group and Compelling Vision Process Team outlined the process for the delegate body. Then, the delegate body adopted a recommendation that “all new business for the 2019 Annual Conference be set aside so that the delegate body and other Annual Conference participants can focus their attention on the essential conversations that will lead to discerning the compelling vision that Christ intends for the Church of the Brethren.”
Following the adoption of this recommendation, the Compelling Vision Process Team then guided Annual Conference participants through conversation around a series of questions:
- We have been called to work together to develop a compelling vision for the Church of the Brethren. At the heart of that vision is a desire to live as Christ’s disciples. What compels you to follow Jesus?
- With that conversation in mind, what are one or two values that you think we who are participating in this process share?
- You’ve heard your conversations around the two preceding questions. What are the themes you see emerging?
- Why is it important for God’s people to have a vision?
- What can make a vision for the Church of the Brethren compelling?
- What about developing a compelling vision gives you hope?
- What question do you hope someone asks you during the compelling vision process?
Almost 800 people—delegates and nondelegates—participated in these conversations. Following Annual Conference, the Compelling Vision Process Team published the Annual Conference Data Collection Report , sharing information about how the data from those conversations was collected and analyzed and the themes that emerged from those conversations.
Following Annual Conference 2018, the discernment process was broadened through a series of conversations in districts and with various constituency groups.
Participants at the 2018 National Young Adult Conference and 2018 National Youth Conference were invited to respond to three questions similar to those used at Annual Conference:
- What excites you about following Jesus?
- What does a church that is making a difference in people’s lives and in the world look like?
- What do we need to do to be the kind of church that is making a difference in people’s lives and in the world?
These conversations were planned in recognition of the fact that our youth and young adults are not only the future of the church, but also an important part of the present. It is equally important to hear what they believe God is calling us to be and do. Because their voice was less likely to be heard at Annual Conference or at district conversations, we took the conversation to them. Around 30 young adults and 1800 youth and advisors participated in these conversations. An article published in the January 2019 issue of Messenger explored what we had heard at Annual Conference, National Young Adults Conference and National Youth Conference, highlighting some of the generational differences.
During the fall, winter, and spring of 2018-2019, the Process Team also hosted 72 conversations in districts and additional conversations with the board members and staff of each denominational agency. During these conversations, participants were invited to respond to a different set of questions. Questions for these conversations were informed by what was heard in response to the questions posed at Annual Conference and were designed to explore the emerging themes in more depth. Around 2600 people participated in district conversations and between 200 and 300 people participated in conversations with various leadership groups.
Eight questions were asked during the district conversations. The number of questions asked of agency boards and staff varied based on the time allotted for those conversations.
- What specifically are you grateful for as we have responded to God’s call to do Christ’s work as the Church of the Brethren (locally, and beyond)?
- Where do you personally need to repent to “prepare the way” for a compelling vision for our denomination? Where do we as the church need to repent to ‘prepare the way’ for a compelling vision for our denomination?
- What are the characteristics of a church that is making a difference in people’s lives, and in the world?
- Christ calls us to love our neighbor. Given this call, what are the most significant needs in your community that your congregation is addressing or would like to address?
- As you strive to love your neighbor and be a faithful witness, what scriptures energize you and/or your congregation?
- What values and priorities of the Church of the Brethren influence your congregation’s ministry on Christ’s behalf?
- The Church of the Brethren affirms: the New Testament is our “rule of faith and practice.” What scriptures can unite us as a church, drawing us closer together, both locally, and as a denomination?
- What changes within Church of the Brethren could strengthen Christ’s work among us even as we disagree on how to be faithful to scripture?
Once conversations were completed, the responses from each participant were entered into a database. While some data entry work was hired out, each team member also took responsibility to enter 50-100 forms, so they had a sense of how thought processes unfolded over the course of a conversation.
Once data entry was complete, the data was analyzed with the goal of identifying emerging themes for deeper reflection as the journey of discernment continued. Two questions asked for scriptural citations. Simple quantitative analysis was used to determine which scripture passages are key to our identity and mission. The rest of the questions required a more qualitative analysis. A team of two was assigned to each question with instructions to read through a sampling of responses, develop a list of keywords that captured those responses, and then analyze the full data set related to that question, categorizing responses using those keywords.
While each member of the Process Team brought unique and valuable gifts to the process, the team recognized that no one was experienced in large group process. Therefore, the team engaged the services of Auxano Consulting to test the internal analysis of the data by providing an independent analysis and working with the team to identify trends and themes to be explored in more depth. Their analysis largely paralleled that of the Process Team, however, they also raised questions which helped focus and hone the ongoing internal analysis and shape the conversation to take place at the 2019 Annual Conference.
Following both internal and external analysis of the data gathered from the constituency conversations, the team published a report, entitled “Unfolding Journey”, sharing detailed information about what was heard in response to each question. A two-page executive summary was also published.
Annual Conference 2019
The bulk of the business agenda at the 2019 Annual Conference was dedicated to continuing the compelling vision conversations. However, reflection and discernment were not limited to business sessions. In the months leading up to Annual Conference 2019, brothers and sisters across the denomination were invited to engage in a time of spiritual preparation guided by suggested scripture readings, prayer prompts, and spiritual practices. In addition, the worship services and Bible studies at Annual Conference were carefully planned to undergird the process.
The questions asked during the Annual Conference conversations were informed by what was heard during the constituency conversations.
- Thursday morning participants were asked to dream about the future, to affirm where God is already at work among us, and to help us think about our identity through the lens of our practices and passions.
- Friday morning participants were asked to consider questions designed to help us think more deeply about what it means to be Christ’s community and how we can find ways to live well with each other.
- Friday afternoon participants were invited to take a closer look at some of our historical core convictions which had been affirmed in the District conversations, seeking to help us better understand these convictions and how we are called to put them into practice in these times.
- Saturday morning questions were designed to inspire participants to dream big about the future of our calling and work together as God’s people, as well as to help us start to envision what those big ideas could look like in practical and specific terms.
A complete list of the questions used at Annual Conference 2019 is available here.
In total, participants responded to 19 questions over the course of these four business sessions. Approximately 900 people—around 675 delegates and 225 non-delegates—participated in these conversations, resulting in between 750 and 1300 responses to each of the questions. In addition, around 30 youth also participated in a separate conversation at Annual Conference 2019, responding to four of the same questions.
A company called Covision provided an iPad for each table and the technical assistance necessary for us to receive these responses in real time. While it was not possible to read every response or begin to fully analyze the data on the spot, this technology granted the Process Team an initial sense of emerging themes and the ability to offer participants an immediate sampling of responses following each question.
Following Annual Conference, the team published three reports. The first, “May Hope Continue to Flourish Among Us” offers an executive summary of the conversations. Additional reports of the actual responses to two questions were also shared:
- Describe a Christ-centered ministry you have observed in another Church of the Brethren congregation or in the wider body in the last year that made you more hopeful about our future.
- What is the next big idea to address one or more of the world’s needs?
Articulation of the Vision
Although the initial proposal gave responsibility for articulating the final vision to the Compelling Vision Working Group, that group recognized that as designers and conveners of the process, the Compelling Vision Process Team had the most in depth understanding of both the flow of the conversations and the data gathered throughout the process. Therefore, a decision was made to merge the two teams, forming the Compelling Vision Team, to analyze the data and ultimately articulate the vision emerging from this time of extended and intentional discernment as together we faithfully sought to listen to God’s call.
The team listened to each voice that spoke into the unfolding conversation, seeking to identify shared perspectives, shared values, shared hopes, and shared passions, testing perceptions of the data with one another and with outside consultants. In seeking to faithfully analyze and interpret the data, it was necessary to expand our field of consciousness. “Management consultants Heifetz and Linsky describe this shift in consciousness as ‘getting on the balcony above the dance floor.’” When you stay on the dance floor, all you see is the people dancing right next to you. When you get up on the balcony you see a different picture—a bigger, fuller, more nuanced picture. A unifying and compelling vision needed to be informed by more than just the voice of those who thought most like us, more than just the loudest or most dominant voices. It also needed to be informed by the softer voices, the minority voices, the voices of those at the margins—who are also beloved children of God, seeking to be faithful to God’s call in their lives. The fact that the team, in at least some small way, reflected the diversity of the denomination, helped the team to be attentive to all the voices speaking into the conversation and gain the broadened and more nuanced perspective that was necessary.
Both internal and external analysis of the data took place. A couple members of the team read each and every response generated at Annual Conference. Other members of the team read samplings from each question. Still other members of the team focused on the responses to specific questions. In each case, team members took notes regarding observations on both recurring themes and unique ideas, comparing them with one another. In addition, the consultants from Auxano also analyzed the data. (For a report of these results see “May Hope Continue to Flourish Among Us”)
After completing this analysis, Jim Randall from Auxano, introduced the team to twelve vision templates—each biblically grounded. Using a series of questions designed to help team members evaluate the templates in light of who we are and what was heard, he challenged the team to choose one primary template and one secondary template around which to build our vision. After prayerful reflection and considerable discussion among the team, “Targeted Transformation” was chosen as the primary template and “Leadership Multiplication” as the secondary template.
- Recognizing transformation as a powerful and familiar biblical theme, a vision built around the goal of “targeted transformation” focuses on a identifying a particular population which can be radically transformed in some way when the people of God faithfully partner with God in sharing the Good News of the Gospel.
- Recognizing the way God has consistently worked through inspiring, if imperfect, people throughout history, the goal of “leadership multiplication” is to call and equip God’s people to partner with God in the work of kingdom building.
With these templates providing a guiding framework, focus shifted to what we, as God’s people known as the Church of the Brethren, have to offer the world.
One of the first questions the team wrestled with in distilling the data was this: If our goal is targeted transformation, who/what is our “target”? It was clear from the conversations that took place throughout the process, there was great passion among the Brethren for reaching out and healing the brokenness experienced by so many in our communities and around the world, brokenness manifested in various ways: poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity; prejudice and racism; violence in all its forms; addiction; mental health issues; family dynamics, and so on. When affirming the command to “love our neighbor”, Jesus was asked the question: Who is my neighbor? It is a question that, the body of Christ—manifest in individual and local congregations, districts, and the denomination as a whole—is still asked to wrestle with. While many, many of those who participated in the compelling vision conversations felt a deep passion for transforming their particular geographic neighborhoods, this local focus does not undermine or diminish commitment to the denominational focus on transformation embodied through Brethren Disaster Ministries or mission work. There was clear and strong support for these existing ministries as well. However, this is a vision for the whole church, not just a vision for those ministries we carry out at a denominational level, so the language of “neighborhood” was chosen intentionally to ensure that congregations could engage with and be inspired by the vision in their particular and local context, while still undergirding and nurturing district and denominational ministries. Our neighbors are indeed nearby and far away. Further, it is important to note that while we are called to be the body of Christ in our neighborhoods, we are also called to see Jesus in the faces of our neighbors—hence the branding statement we have chosen to use to reflect this vision in “shorthand”: Jesus in the Neighborhood.
The next question the team wrestled with was this: What is the nature of the transformation we wish to see and be part of? Three qualities were evident in responses to questions related to our unique identity as Brethren. The transformation we wanted to see was grounded in Jesus Christ and embodied in our particular commitment to radical discipleship–expressed in word and deed—and our unique commitment to God’s Shalom or holistic peace.
- Not only did our guiding statement ground the process in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, those engaged in conversations throughout the process affirmed that commitment as central to any vision, citing Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life”, the source of transformation, but also citing our historical commitment to embodying Jesus’ example through our practices and our commitment to seeking the mind of Christ together.
- Closely related to the centrality of Jesus Christ, was our commitment to radical discipleship. Many noted that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses whose lives were radically transformed when they answered Jesus’ call to “come and follow me”. Further, many of our spiritual ancestors bore witness to this Christ-centered transformation through acts of great bravery and courage, as well as sacrificial service, in stark contrast to cultural conformity. Adding more depth, when discussing the nature of Christian service, participants named the importance of attending to both the physical and spiritual needs of those we serve, of engaging in service that holds the Great Commission and the Great Commandment in creative tension.
- Finally, we are an historic peace church and many participants expressed a desire not just to claim that historical commitment, but to embody that commitment today, to be a living peace church in the midst of a hurting and broken world. When participants were offered the opportunity to unpacked what was meant by this commitment in conversation, it was clear from the responses that different people hold different understandings of peace. Some prioritized peace between us and God, some prioritized inner peace, some prioritized interpersonal peace, some prioritized global peace. But this was a wonderful example of the importance of living as the body of Christ made up of many members, the importance of seeking the mind of Christ together; for together we share and embrace a commitment to God’s Shalom in all its fullness, to genuine and holistic peace that passes all understanding.
Finally, in light of this primary vision, the team wrestled with the question: How does leadership multiplication factor into all of this?
We are a people who claim the priesthood of all believers, so in order for us to “passionately live and share the radical transformation and holistic peace of Jesus Christ” it isn’t just about leadership development, it isn’t just about the missional stance of a few; it is about discipleship formation, it is about nurturing a missional stance among all our people. We must take seriously the need to call and equip our people to move into their neighborhoods with Jesus. Certainly this starts with identifying and nurturing the gifts and passions of those with a particular call to lead—clergy and laity alike. However, it also means calling all to live lives of radical, courageous, and creative discipleship, bearing witness to the radical transformation and holistic peace of Jesus Christ to their neighbors.
One other thing heard repeatedly throughout the conversations: our life together must be grounded in scripture. Obviously, there are different perspectives on Biblical interpretation, but one thing is clear, no matter one’s theological perspective, we are a people who take the Bible seriously. The team recognized and respected that commitment, but rather than getting caught up in debating about scripture, the team felt it was more powerful to simply—and profoundly—affirm the importance of scripture in shaping our life together by using it to undergird the vision statement through the interpretive document.
Throughout the process, as a community, we were centered in Jesus Christ, guided by Scripture, and led by the Holy Spirit, resulting in the emergence of a new, and hopefully unifying, inspiring, and compelling vision for the Church of the Brethren:
Together, as the Church of the Brethren, we will passionately live and share the radical transformation and holistic peace of Jesus Christ through relationship-based neighborhood engagement. To move us forward, we will develop a culture of calling and equipping disciples who are innovative, adaptable, and fearless.
Annual Conference 2020
The process was originally scheduled to culminate with a final conversation about and (hopefully) affirmation of the vision at Annual Conference in 2020. However, with the cancellation of Annual Conference due to the pandemic, those plans were postponed until Annual Conference 2021.
Postponement of the final action to affirm the vision due to the cancellation of Annual Conference in 2020, presented the team with an opportunity to invite further engagement. Once again affirming the centrality of God’s Word—recorded in scripture and incarnate in Jesus Christ—the team developed a Bible study series exploring each substantive word or phrase in the vision statement. Each of the thirteen sessions was written by a different author. Originally intended to prepare delegates and other conference-goers for more meaningful conversation at Annual Conference, individuals and congregations are encouraged to continue using the Bible study as they reflect on their identity as disciples of Jesus Christ called to bear witness to the Gospel in their particular neighborhood and around the world. It is the hope of leadership that continued study of scripture as it undergirds the vision will enrich our collective perspective, foster deeper understanding, and inspire faithful and creative outreach to and with our neighbors near and far.
Annual Conference 2021
Action was taken at Annual Conference 2021 to affirm the Compelling Vision.
Because discernment of the Compelling Vision emerged from the work of the whole church through significant conversations which took place in a variety of settings over the course of two years, in January 2020 the Annual Conference Officers had determined that the process for responding to the proposed Compelling Vision would be one of creative, prayerful engagement through continued conversation, rather than a process of motions and amendments.
Although the team had hoped to gather with brothers and sisters face-to-face, with the announcement that Annual Conference 2021 would be a virtual event, the team worked diligently to ensure that meaningful conversation could still take place around virtual tables. Delegates and non-delegates alike participated in conversations around six questions. They were able to submit their responses to these questions in real time via the online conference platform. Members of the Compelling Vision Team “themed” the responses as they came in and then shared a sense of what was said with the conference body.
Final affirmation was not determined by a simple up or down vote, but by inviting delegates to respond in one of four ways: I feel inspired and wholeheartedly affirm the vision; I affirm the vision; I have reservations, but will set them aside and affirm the vision for the good of the body; I cannot affirm the vision.
Embodying Jesus in the Neighborhood
It is now our hope that the Church of the Brethren—at all levels—will embrace the vision and the challenge to embody Jesus in their neighborhood. The interpretive document / documento interpretativo / dokiman entèpretatif and the Bible studies are invaluable resources for congregations and districts as we continue to discern future direction in light of the vision. Further, the denominational staff is already evaluating their work in relation to the vision and making plans to support the church—at all levels—as together, we seek to live into the vision.
Reflections on the Process
Throughout the process, the team heard from people who placed high expectations on the process to “save” the church. In spite of those expectations, this process was not some magic cure for all that ails us. There are those across the theological spectrum who walked away from the conversations frustrated. Deep division still remains and some congregations are continuing to deliberate about severing ties with the Church of the Brethren. However, the conversational nature of the process did open doors to greater understanding. Throughout, the team heard from people who sat at tables with very diverse groups, shared with vulnerability and honesty, listened with compassion, found common ground, built respectful relationships, and strengthened the bonds of unity even amidst diversity. Thanks be to God. May we all find hope in this. Aside from the resulting vision and its potential to renew our ministry, moving forward, perhaps the process itself has laid the foundation for a different way of engaging around difficult topics. This should not be overlooked or dismissed.