A: With an Unconference
The Holy Spirit often works through communities and conversation.
That’s the mission of Unco, an open-space gathering of church leaders.
Active users of social media may have noticed a flurry of activity leading up to and during May 16-18, 2011, when Unco11 was held at Stony Point Conference Center in Stony Point, N.Y.
Searching for “#unco11” on Twitter revealed a stream of sometimes confusing conversations about open-source meetings, collaborations, friendship, families, ministry and even unicorns (the Unco11 mascot). Beyond the Twitterverse, Unco could also be found on Facebook (theUNCO) and online (www.unco.us). If social media are new to you, much of this may have flown below the radar.
While the gathering may sound like a conference, it wasn’t. This faith-driven “unconference” was a participant-driven gathering. The idea was to make Unco11 a place where folks who were connected technologically but separated geographically could connect face-to-face, deepen friendships and share ideas.
The idea took root. About 30 people attended the first gathering, Unco10, held in May 2010 at Meadowkirk Retreat Center in Middleburg, Va. One year later, Unco11 more than doubled in size.
Although Presbyterians comprised more than half of this year’s group, participants represented many faith traditions: Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Anglican and others from across the U.S. and Canada. Some paid their own way, some used continuing education resources and some received donations so they could participate. The group included elders, ministers, deacons, ministry staff and seminarians. From families with little ones to retirees, people came via train, plane and automobile to be a part of something new.
The uniqueness of Unco begins in what Unco isn’t. Unco isn’t “a think tank for the great minds of the 21st century” or yet another “let’s fix the church” event. Instead, attendees participate by bringing their own spirit-given gifts, graces, questions and ideas to a place where every voice has the potential to be heard by a receptive audience.
The groundwork for the event happened through friendships built on Twitter, but the conversations at Unco11 reflected deep personal relationships. The “program” (if one can call it that) was a simple schedule including times for meals, worship, social interaction and intentional space for collaborative learning, sharing and processing (read: “extrovert-heaven” — though introverts where there too.)
For all of the participants’ similarities, they held diverse ideas on hot-button issues in the church. That was evident the first night, when after spirit-filled singing and prayer everyone added ideas to a wall of blank newsprint. That gave rise to conversations that guided activities the next day’s activities.
One of the most powerful aspects of the event was socializing. Participants gathered to discuss important issues, share stories and learn from different perspectives. On the morning of the only full day, participants filled in a scheduling grid to facilitate conversations on key topics, such as children in worship, preparation for ministry, ministry with nerds and ministering faithfully in a dying congregation.
After participants identified issues that might “have legs” beyond Unco11, they developed action plans and left with connections and strategies.
Since Unco11’s 48 hours of intense dreaming, conversations have continued on Twitter, in new Facebook groups and through new blogs and Web sites. In addition to the ideas and action plans generated, important friendships were born, renewed and strengthened.
Ministries sparked by Unco11 include:
» A collaborative space for developing liturgy: http://liturgylink.wordpress.com
» A nonprofit helping to start unique ministries: search “mercypercolator” on Facebook
» A synchroblog (a group of bloggers all writing about the same topic) to raise social justice awareness: http://Unconditionalblog.wordpress.com
» A site for generational and intergenerational ministry discussions: http://www.Unconformers.com
» A Presbyterian women’s online circle on Facebook: www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_1
» An open space for conversations about these and other ministries: http://Uncospace.com
So there you have it: real ministries, being created and developed by real people drawn together by their faith journeys and their love. Some are passionate about the church’s potential, some are frustrated by it, but all are looking for a faithful way forward.
CHRIS JOHNSON (@pastor4you on Twitter) is a general associate pastor in Estes Park, Colo.
MARY BETH MCCANDLESS (@mbmccandless on Twitter) is ministry coordinator for families at First Church in Elizabethtown, Ky.