Annual Conference affirms a compelling vision for the Church of the Brethren: A “table” perspective

Today, the Annual Conference affirmed this 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.”

Here is a view from a participant in one of the online “tables” or small break-out groups that participated in the process of affirming the vision statement.

Rhonda Pittman Gingrich presents the compelling vision statement to the Conference.

‘Where we make connections is where we overcome our fears’

By Frances Townsend

Thursday, July 1:

Sitting at my kitchen table with my laptop computer just isn’t the same as being at the table in the Conference hall. There is such richness to in‐person connections. My virtual tablemates and I took joy in meeting one another this morning, but we missed getting to hear the reports and other business in one another’s company. I remember 2019, when stories might be shared around the table of people’s experiences with On Earth Peace or with Bethany when those reports were presented. Instead, as each of us listened in our own bubbles, we were back to the old days of sitting in rows, disconnected people on connected chairs.

It led me to reflect on what is happening as we meet in the hallways at Annual Conference, when we drop in to see the progress being made in the quilting area, or the blood donation area. Hundreds of little events each day reinforce our identity as a people.

After the afternoon insight session, I went to Brethren Press on my computer to look for books by the guest speakers. Next year when I can be greeted by the volunteers and staff, and carry books back to my hotel room, I will remember to give thanks with joy.

I look forward to table discussions on just about any topic, any excuse for being together. When we were introducing ourselves in the table formation process, one of our participants said, “Where we make connections is where we overcome our fears.”

The compelling vision statement should create rich discussion tomorrow. The committee presented a video describing the multi-year process that has led us to this point of affirming the statement. They also broke down several of the key parts of the statement, commenting on some of the most common areas of remark or concern.

One concern was that focus on the “neighborhood” would undermine our world mission partnerships. But we heard reassurance that Jesus did not define “neighbor” narrowly. This is not meant to take us away from more geographically distant mission.

A part of the statement that invited more description regards calling leaders. The statement does not merely call on the church to call and develop leaders, but to nurture a missional stance in all of our people, calling every person to a life of courageous, radical discipleship.

Most of all, we were reminded, “Our life together must be grounded in scripture…we are a people who take the Bible seriously.”

Friday, July 2:

The table talk session dealing with the compelling vision statement took up two solid hours, but I was surprised when 5 p.m. came. Our “table” of seven had a substantial discussion on each of the five discussion questions posed by team chair Rhonda Pittman Gingrich.

She began by describing what could be called the “soul” of an institution, and asked us, “How does this compelling vision reflect the soul of the Church of the Brethren?” Our discussion time began with an uncommon amount of silence for a Brethren group to endure. But eventually we came up with answers accompanied by stories. One person allowed that making disciples is a core value of the Brethren, but said that “innovative, adaptable, and fearless” has not traditionally characterized us. Then we considered that, naming stories about the early Brethren which proved them to be much more fearless than the current generation.

We thought about other key words in the statement and how they match up with the Brethren soul. The words about relationship, the use of “together” as the first word of the statement, all made us think of the strong value Brethren place on relationship and the church as a family of faith.

The last thought as we were called away from discussion was that the statement can be read that we are supposed to call innovative, adaptable, and fearless disciples even if we ourselves are not those things. That will require humility from us and willingness to trust in God to lead us all–definitely drawing upon Brethren values.

The second question posed to the tables was “What are the needs in your community that might be healed through radical transformation and holistic peace of Jesus Christ?” We had less difficulty starting this conversation, as all of us named big problems common to our communities–racism, poverty, addictions, mental illness, and the church’s unwillingness to openly discuss so many concerns including gender and sexuality. We considered how so often the church fails people by not owning the problems as “ours” but pretending these needs are outside the church community, so those involved feel shame and stay quiet. As we thought about that, it helped us see that it is not only the community outside the church that needs Jesus’ radical transformation, but also the people inside the church. Again, humility comes into play.

One of the reasons table talk is being used is so that people can arrive at their own deeper understandings as they work through the process. We may know in an abstract sense that other people will notice different things because of their life experiences, but it is so powerful to have real life examples of that as seven people share their perspectives–even if only in little boxes on a computer screen.

The third question was, “How might we work at calling and equipping innovative, adaptable, and fearless disciples to live out the Jesus in the Neighborhood vision?” “Listen” was a key word in many of our responses, as in taking seriously the newest people in the church. It was noted that the newest people in a congregation are the most likely to bring in other people, partly because their biggest relational ties are outside the church. One of our participants at the table has been with the church for about five years, so she spoke of some frustration with how Brethren tend to treat people as visitors for too long, instead of as members of the community who are also at the “table” as disciples. Another participant said her teenager was thinking of leaving the church because of “take it or leave it” speeches about what Brethren should believe. Disciples need guidance, but we are all disciples together, so we must allow Jesus to continue to equip us through these newer members.

Saturday, July 3:

As we gathered around our virtual table this morning, Rhonda Pittman Gingrich presented us with only one question: “How might we be known–both as congregations and as a denomination–if we truly embrace and live out the vision of Jesus in the neighborhood?”

Our immediate response was a long silence. We broke the silence by considering that in today’s society churches are a lot less noticed, let alone known, than church people think. How would living out this vision turn that sad truth around?

One person used the biblical image of being known as the light on the hill, a place people would turn to when help is needed. Another person challenged us all to consider what unique gifts the Brethren might bring, different from other churches up and down the street, naming a deep understanding of peace as one of our gifts.

“If you don’t do something important,” someone said, “you’re just another building. We need to be doing the work.”

But more than one person also admitted their congregations might have some difficulty coming up with a unified vision to pursue. We discussed having the humility to put Jesus being known above having ourselves known, but many saw the term humility as an old Brethren excuse for inaction and lack of engagement with others.

Though we began the discussion with a long silence, we still had plenty to say as time ran out and we were called back to the business session.

As Rhonda read some of the statements other tables had come up with, it was obvious that this question provoked thoughtful discussion in many groups. Some of the answers were inspiring–that we would be known by our love, our compassion, our welcoming, known as healers. Other answers were more challenging–that we would be known as risk takers, known as peculiar people who actually live out our faith. And one response was sobering. By living out the vision, we might be known, but not necessarily be popular. Jesus told his disciples much the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount.

Moderator Paul Mundey led the delegates through the process of affirming the compelling vision statement, done through each delegate choosing from four responses. First, “I feel inspired and wholeheartedly affirm the vision. Second, “I affirm the vision.” Third, “I have reservations, but will set them aside and affirm the vision for the good of the body.” Fourth, “I cannot affirm the vision.”

Prayer and hymn singing surrounded the choosing of options by the 450 delegates who participated. When results were tallied, the statement was affirmed with 82 percent of those participating choosing an affirmative option.

Then, the table groups were convened once again to spend a couple of minutes answering one last question: “As you consider your gifts and passions, what is one thing you personally can do to better align your way of life with the Jesus in the Neighborhood vision?”

It was a question that could not be answered so quickly.

The compelling vision session ended with a consecration. We read a responsive litany, prayed, and sang a hymn text by Rosanna Eller McFadden, “Brethren, Come and Claim a Vision.”

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