They say that the real church meeting takes place in the parking lot after the scheduled meeting. I find that the real benefits to a conference for church leaders come between sessions, over meals and outside the meeting room when you meet other people and start sharing ideas.
So, why don’t we just meet in the parking lot? Or have a conference without “expert” speakers touting how they grow their churches? Why don’t we have a conference where the main event is a blank sheet of paper and the participants bring ideas and questions for concentrated and prayerful brainstorming?
Enter the Unconference – UnCo for short.
This was my first time attending UnCo, though there are several die-hard UnCo enthusiasts who return year after year. They tell stories of ministries, books and even churches that have started directly as a result of conversations at UnCo.
I came with fledgling thoughts on starting a new worshiping community, on bridging racial and cultural divides and on reaching those who are uninterested in traditional church. Turns out – I was not alone. How refreshing to know I’m not the only one who wants a new way to follow Jesus!
We talked honestly about when ministries die – also a refreshing conversation – and about the long hard work of starting a new ministry from scratch. Should you spend years on food stamps until the ministry is viable? Only if you’re called to it. Such honesty is rare when people talk in hushed tones about a congregation dissolving or a pastor burning out. Instead, UnCo is a uniquely open space where we bring our whole selves, not just the polished Sunday morning selves. Only then can we point out the strengths in a colleague or discover the seed God might be planting in us.
I resist success stories that claim there are three easy steps to whatever it is you’re after. Not that I wouldn’t love life to be that easy; I just know it’s not. As a new parent, I yearn for certainty even more acutely. Some days when there is a new challenge to overcome, I would love for some guru to tell me what to do in order to get through the day. The parenting section of the bookstore feels very similar to the weight loss or the self-help sections: all make a lot of money off of people who are looking for someone to help them.
UnCo is an intentional shift from the consumerism of church success stories. We bring our ideas, find others to further our discernment, and then reciprocate. Some people may resist the lack of a designated topic or speaker, wondering if UnCo is worth their time. I also asked these questions, but looked no further than within myself to find out if it would be worth my while.
A blank page can be more frightening than any slasher movie because it means it’s up to us. There is no expert that is going to tell us what to do. In the words of Marianne Williamson, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
As I drove away from Stony Point, I reflected on the conversations and the people of UnCo. No, I didn’t come away with my life changed – I didn’t lose 10 pounds either. I did feel caught up in the energy of what the Holy Spirit is up to, affirmed in my call and eager to discover what’s next.
Frances Wattman Rosenau is Associate Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian in Albany, NY where she ministers in all areas of church activity including outreach to young people and the urban neighborhood. A former Young Adult Volunteer in India, she is interested in the dialogue between church and culture.
Note: UNCO was held June 10-12 in Stony Point, NY. The next gathering is October 21-23 in San Francisco. You can learn more by visiting their website: unco.us