“It was the best of being church,” said Kathy Reid of the training event for “Together: Conversations on Being the Church.” Reid is executive director of the Association of Brethren Caregivers, and has been on the planning committee for the Together conversations. “This experience was everything I hoped for,” she said.
The training Feb. 24-26 at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, Md., brought more than 140 people from across the denomination to talk about what it means to be the church, in preparation for facilitating and leading conversations in their own areas. Participants included representatives of all 23 Church of the Brethren districts, the district representatives to Standing Committee, district executives, and representatives of the five Annual Conference agencies.
The training was led by Lisa M. Hess and Brian D. Maguire. The married couple, who are ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), will serve as leaders for the Together conversations to take place at Annual Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, July 1-5. Hess teaches practical theology (ecclesiology, ministry formation, leadership development, and Christian education) at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio; Maguire is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Xenia, Ohio.
A new Together study guide and DVD published by Brethren Press was used to help spark conversation in small groups at the training. The guide is the primary Together tool, providing a flexible plan for groups to worship, learn, listen, pray, and reflect, and includes background reading, conversation questions, and worship suggestions. The training schedule included a practice or run-through of what a Together conversation might look like in a congregational, district, or regional setting, using the guide written by James L. Benedict, pastor of Union Bridge (Md.) Church of the Brethren.
The study guide is available from Brethren Press for $4.95 each, and the accompanying DVD for $4.95 each, plus shipping and handling (order one guide for each group participant and leader; the companion DVD contains supplemental images for two of the sessions–order one DVD for each congregation or group). Call 800-441-3712.
In addition, participants also worshiped together and met for Bible study and to plan Together conversations in their own areas. “The design and details for continuing the process will be determined by the people from the individual districts present,” said Julie Hostetter in a communication with participants before the event. Hostetter, a former member of the General Board’s Congregational Life Teams, is on the planning team for Together and chaired the training event committee.
A “listening group” served as recorders of the conversations that took place. Three process observers from On Earth Peace offered feedback on the sessions.
Reid said that by the time the weekend was over, her small group representing widely different theological viewpoints and experiences of the church, had bonded. “We sang together, we laughed together, had way too much fun, and we cried together,” she said. The group of seven people included two men and five women, all from different districts, and denominational and district staff. They connected so well that they took a group picture to help them remember the experience, exchanged e-mail addresses, and have kept in touch since the training, Reid said. The group plans to meet again at Annual Conference.
The Together conversation was initiated in 2003 by a statement from the district executives identifying fragmentation in the Church of the Brethren and calling for conversation “concerning who, whose, and what we are.” Since then, a group of leaders and staff of Annual Conference agencies and representatives of the district executives have been planning a denomination-wide discussion. From its beginning, the broad intent of the work is to help bring about a renewal of the church.
The training event “was a good experience,” said Lerry Fogle, executive director of Annual Conference, “but one that needs to go beyond discussion of what it means to be the church, to being the Church. Hopefully that will occur in greater measure in the months and years ahead.”
The February training is the jumping-off point for Together conversations later this year and next at Annual Conference and in congregations, districts, and regional events. At the 2006 Conference, “the Annual Conference officers have provided four 30-minute sessions on Together that hold the possibility to broaden the discussion and spur us on to our God-ordained ministry,” Fogle said. Conference participants also are invited to a Saturday evening dinner meeting about Together, and a Tuesday evening insight session.
The Together process will culminate at Annual Conference 2007. For more information go to http://www.togetherconversations.org/ or http://www.conversacionesjuntos.org/.