Compelling vision conversations were the highlight of the 2019 Annual Conference held July 3-7 in Greensboro, N.C. Other business was set aside–except necessary items such as elections and reports–to make time for the process intended to help the Church of the Brethren discern a compelling vision to guide the denomination into the future.
The Conference was presided over by moderator Donita Keister, moderator-elect Paul Mundey, and secretary James Beckwith.
Large amounts of data were collected from some 120 table groups of delegates and nondelegates, in response to a series of questions (see the full list at www.brethren.org/ac/documents/compelling-vision/annual-conference-2019.pdf ). This data will be assessed over coming months by the Compelling Vision Process Team and the Compelling Vision Working Group. The goal is to bring a vision statement for consideration by the 2020 Conference.
A love feast followed the conversations, and was open to all present. It was the first time in decades that love feast has been celebrated by the full Conference.
Compelling vision conversations
Delegates sat in small groups at round tables, and nondelegates who signed up to participate sat at a section of tables behind the delegates. Table groups of around six to eight people spent hours each day, Thursday, July 4, through Saturday, July 6, discussing questions posed by the Compelling Vision Process Team.
The process team chaired by Rhonda Pittman Gingrich includes Michaela Alphonse, Kevin Daggett, Brian Messler, Alan Stucky, Kay Weaver, 2018 moderator Samuel Sarpiya, 2019 moderator Donita Keister, 2020 moderator Paul Mundey, and Conference director Chris Douglas. In coming months they will assess the data working with the Compelling Vision Working Group that, in addition to the three moderators and the Conference director, also includes general secretary David Steele and district executives Colleen Michael of Pacific Northwest District and John Jantzi of Shenandoah District.
Tables each had a facilitator and a recorder. The latter typed table answers and responses on computer tablets provided by CoVision, a company whose services were engaged by the process team to facilitate this tech-heavy data collection process. Members of the CoVision staff were present to assist the process team, who sat at its own table to monitor responses in real time.
As responses were typed into the computer tablets, they were recorded automatically and collected throughout the three days. Tables were encouraged to submit each idea expressed as an individual entry. Some tables also entered group responses. Responses were automatically numbered as they were received, and were not identified by table unless the person typing the comment included the table number.
After each conversation session tablets were handed around the tables for each person to type their own evaluation of that session. These evaluations helped the process team identify what was working and what problems were arising, and make adjustments as needed.
As responses showed up on their monitors, the process team had a few minutes to create a “snapshot” of responses by identifying a few that stood out for one reason or another, grouping responses that seemed to be similar or have things in common, or flagging certain responses to quote verbatim to the Conference. Following each question, a member of the process team shared that “snapshot” before going on to the next question. Questions were repeated verbally in English, Spanish, and Haitian Kreyol, and were displayed in the three languages on large screens.
A couple of times the process team asked for a quick survey on a particular topic and immediately posted on the big screens a tally of top responses by percentage.
Questions ranged widely but were focused in certain areas on certain days. The opening question on Thursday, asking participants to imagine the church in 10 years and what the manner of our living might convey to the world at that time, was repeated in one of the final questions Saturday asking participants to consider what it will take to become that church.
Other questions–many based in scripture and calling for Christ-centered responses–pushed participants to continue to use their imaginations as well as their personal experiences and the experience of their congregations. They were asked to share about ministries that inspire, the needs in their communities, how the church may meet needs, “big ideas” to invest in, and more. Some questions focused on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, and led to conversation about how these may be coherent. Some questions asked about the church’s peace witness, while others provoked conversation about Brethren ordinances and practices.
“What have you heard during the visioning conversations that excites you or gives you hope about our future as the Church of the Brethren?” was the last question posed to the Conference.
‘Like drinking water from a fire hose’
Pittman Gingrich described the process of monitoring the incoming responses as “a little like drinking water from a fire hose.” Just a few minutes after the very first question was asked, for example, some 850 responses already had been received.
In her remarks to the Conference, she described the whole process–beginning at the 2018 Conference and continuing for the past year in districts and at National Youth Conference and Young Adult Conference among other venues–as “surprising, frustrating, energizing, humbling.”
Those involved in assessing the data that has been collected will not be able to give a comprehensive report until after they have a chance to read and reflect on each of the thousands of responses. That will not happen until later this year, Pittman Gingrich said.
At one point, Keister acknowledged anxiety that the process does not address deep concerns about division in the church. “I assure you that this work is happening around our division, on a parallel track,” she said. “We are not kicking the can down the road…. Leadership is aware of the elephants all around us.”
Her use of “elephant in the room” imagery was picked up several times in subsequent comments. When Keister expanded it to an image of elephants dancing around the room, the Conference responded with sympathetic laughter.
Despite anxiety about the process, by the time table groups joined in love feast together the congenial tone of conversation and the laughter heard at many of the tables indicated a feeling of increased relationship.
This echoed Pittman Gingrich’s prayer for the conversations. “Open our hearts and minds and imaginations,” she prayed before the first question was asked. “Following your example may we be gentle with one another…. May we grow together as your body.”
For more about the compelling vision process see www.brethren.org/ac/compelling-vision .
“Draw nigh to God and receive these sacred symbols to your comfort.” With these traditional words, Annual Conference moderator Donita Keister invited all who were present to receive communion.
The small groups continued to sit together at their tables for the four traditional parts of the love feast service. A time of confession and prayer was followed by feetwashing, with the options of an area for men, an area for women, an area for the genders together, and handwashing for those with disabilities. Because the convention center did not allow water to be used, feet and hands were washed above symbolic basins by wiping with large, pre-moistened towelettes.
The simple meal was delivered in cardboard cake boxes to each table: loaves of bread made by various congregations, spreads including peanut butter and jelly, and applesauce cups. Table groups served each other the communion service in the Brethren style by filling individual small cups with grape juice and breaking pieces of home-made unleavened communion bread.
The two-hour service was the closing event of business and a worshipful conclusion to the compelling vision conversations. Presiding were moderator Keister, moderator-elect Paul Mundey, and immediate past moderator Samuel Sarpiya.