“Watching you all hold hands around the tables and pray is one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life,” said Annual Conference moderator Tim Harvey to the delegate body after one morning’s devotions during the 2012 Conference, held July 7-11 in St. Louis, Mo.
The delegates, who were seated at round tables, had been asked to pray together with their table groups. This is the first year in recent memory that the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference has used table groups for face-to-face discussion, giving feedback on items of business, and prayer in small groups.
The decision to meet at round tables received many expressions of appreciation. “This year I really felt I was a part of everything. I love the round tables. It was the best idea,” said one delegate, speaking at the microphone during a time for conversation with the moderator. Meeting at round tables “is absolutely fantastic,” said another delegate, recommending that it be considered for future Annual Conferences.
Each table seated eight or more delegates, with one identified in advance as table facilitator to help facilitate the group discussion of questions. For at least the first day of business, delegates were seated at tables where they would meet new people from outside their own districts.
“Table talk” was used in particular following reports from the Conference-related agencies: Bethany Theological Seminary, Brethren Benefit Trust, Church of the Brethren Inc., and On Earth Peace. After each report, tables had several minutes to discuss questions posed by the agency, and then several minutes for table representatives to come to the microphones to report out of the groups and ask further questions. During “table talk,” the delegates agreed to a rule limiting speeches at the microphones to 45 seconds in an attempt to allow more people to speak.
|Photo by Glenn Riegel|
|Haitian church leaders who attended the 2012 Conference were on stage during a time of prayer for the Nigerian Brethren. The Church of the Brethren in Nigeria is experiencing increased violence, killings, and terrorist attacks.|
Table talk also facilitated discussion of the statement issued by Standing Committee titled “A Way Forward,” intended to address the continuing controversy following last year’s Annual Conference decision to reaffirm the 1983 statement on sexuality and continue deeper conversation outside of the query process (“A Way Forward” is at www.brethren.org/news/2012/ac2012-onsite-news/a-way-forward.html ). Out of the times of table talk, probing questions and concerns from across the theological spectrum were posed to all of the groups that have made decisions that some consider controversial, including the Mission and Ministry Board, the Program and Arrangements Committee, and On Earth Peace.
Opportunity for deeper discussion seemed to encourage deeper sharing by church leaders. For example, after concerns were voiced about decisions that open the possibility for a Brethren Volunteer Service project at the Brethren and Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, general secretary Stan Noffsinger gave an emotional statement from the floor. “My apologies to the church because it was never my intention to hurt the body,” he said. “It was my intention to expand the boundaries of the body. I pray that nothing I have done has hurt anyone’s relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Despite a sense of underlying controversy at times, camaraderie quickly developed among table groups. After the first day of business, the moderator invited each table to decide for itself whether to stay together the next day, or indicate that the table was open to new members. The vast majority decided to stay together.
|Photo by Regina Holmes|
|Table 92 sports hard candy, one of the table groups where delegates experienced camaraderie and sharing of snacks and goodies during this year’s business sessions.|
Tables began to acquire nicknames, or became known for the snacks and goodies they shared with each other, which became a running joke at the microphones. One group was nicknamed “The Wild, Woolly, and Wonderful Table,” another the “Table of Shared Mints and Gum.” One table was known to have donuts, and the Table 3 spokesperson announced, “We have chocolate, the best kept secret here.” At one table a cake was spotted by envious bystanders, and another shared fresh strawberries.
During times for table talk, the gallery of nondelegates was invited to share together in small groups. When the delegates joined in prayer, some groups of nondelegates stood together holding hands in prayer as well.
Following a report on the situation of the Brethren in Nigeria, who are suffering increased violence, terrorist attacks, and killings, the moderator asked table groups to hold hands and pray with him: “For our brothers and sisters in Nigeria…for whom the cost of discipleship may mean their very lives, I offer our prayers.” After the moderator’s prayer, a murmuring of prayer rose up from the table groups and lasted for several minutes.
At the end of business Tuesday–the last time the table groups would be together–many exchanged contact information so that they could stay in touch. Others were seen taking group photos, or giving hugs or handshakes around their circles.
— Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren.