I take this term from a UMC minister, John Helmiere, who began a new worshipping community in Seattle called Valley and Mountain, who I was introduced to by a friend in Bloomington. He and I have had numerous conversations about his philosophy on ministry.
Valley and Mountain’s vision is to build a radically inclusive and consciously interdependent community. Instead of being organized around doctrine or liturgy, the community is held together by common commitments to two actions/values: deep listening and creative liberation. Deep listening involves cultivating personal authenticity, practicing openness toward alternative viewpoints and developing spiritual maturity. Creative liberation involves working to replace cycles and structures that produce poverty, violence and marginalization with joyful, just and interdependent alternatives.
And so it makes sense that he takes on this identity: to convene. The roots of this word come from the Latin – con and venire – to come with or together. Like convention. But for John, it’s not just gathering people together – getting people to fill the proverbial pews – he sees it as an act of coming alongside people right where they are at in the here and now. This is where he says deep listening is crucial, because you can’t come alongside people and talk liberation if you are not listening to their deepest needs and desires.
I think new worshipping communities face the challenge of commitment-phobes for various reasons. John writes that he runs into this issue. But the solution came to him, he says, “when I read this statement by Howard Thurman, the great African-American mystic: ‘Do not ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come fully alive. Because what the world needs are people who have come fully alive!’ I have begun using Thurman’s passion-based framework for thinking about commitments instead of the typical deficit-based framework. In other words, instead of asking ‘what are our needs and who can we get to solve them?’ I ask the more important question ‘what makes you feel fully alive and how can you offer that to the community in a way that will help it flourish?’ ”
This is something that has resonated with me in my own ministry these last few years. I’ve worked with the two Presbyterian churches in town to reach out to college students at Indiana University since 2012. Right away we all acknowledged that the traditional campus ministry model was not a good fit for our churches’ ministry styles and that we would never be able to “compete” with organizations like CRU, IV or Young Life. As if. We didn’t want to compete with them, anyway. We didn’t and don’t even have our own gathering space, and I don’t have an official office. But, we saw this as a characteristic of our ministry – to be anywhere and everywhere there were/are college students. It means I spend a lot of time in coffeehouses and Chipotle’s. It means I spend a lot of time on my phone texting or on social media. These are the spaces I listen to students. These are the spaces that shape our ministry – our journeying alongside and listening – to students.
We have numerous diverse gatherings – Wednesday nights as a time of prayer and mid-week Sabbath, lunches on Sundays, one small group of women meets on Monday nights, and a group of grad students meets on Friday mornings for bagels. But our “programs” change yearly and even almost every semester depending on their needs, their schedules, their hopes, their desires. But that’s okay. We have to be limber. Being a listener means being limber.
What being a convener means then – what going and journeying alongside people and really deeply listening means then – is that we don’t use the usual metrics of measuring the success of a ministry: numbers, financials, pledges and pledging units, membership rolls. These categories don’t “work” for this kind of ministry leadership. I understand that bills have to be paid, lights are needed, repairs required, etc. I served as an associate pastor for two different churches and I really was listening during all the financial reports at session meetings. Really, I was listening. But that should never be the driver – it should never make or break a ministry.
Being a convener takes courage. It takes some tenacity and a willingness to take that posture of listening in a time when listening and being quiet is often not a marker of leadership and when talking somehow connotes expertise. It takes a different kind of humility and confidence to listen and to listen deeply, without judgment, without solutions, without answers. Listening not for the sake of information, but for the sake of transformation. And once that begins with us anything is possible.
Mihee Kim-Kort is a teaching elder but mostly stay-at-home mom to twins, Desmond and Anna, and a third named Oswald (I should mention the fourth named Ellis, our boxer dog). The children graciously allow her to also work part-time in a ministry with college students as well as serve on various boards and committees. She is a writer and blogger (miheekimkort.com). She and husband Andy, who is also a teaching elder, live in Bloomington, Indiana.