by Jered Weber-Johnson and Emily Wachner
Jered: The genesis for Gathering2013 came in 1997 at Gathering the Next Generation (GTNG), the first national convening of GenX clergy in the Episcopal Church. One of the original conveners, Christopher Martin, invited the then almost 300 GenX Episcopal priests. More than half of them accepted, connections were created, and the church changed. Over 20 years later, Christopher invited four more of us to plan and convene a new gathering, one that would include both GenX and Millennial priests. Our goal: invite bright, entrepreneurial, and interesting individuals from these two generations for a four-day peer-led gathering in the Rockies. In addition to Christopher, the team of conveners included Amy McCreath, Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Emily Wachner, and me, Jered Weber-Johnson. With a generous grant from Trinity Wall Street, we were able to invite over a hundred GenX and Millennial priests and bishops – eighty-seven came.
Emily and I were tasked with facilitation, and, we can assure you, few things are more terrifying than leading a cohort of your peers – particularly when those peers are priests (priests being notorious conference connoisseurs and fussy about facilitation).
Emily: Jered and I felt deeply that, like most other priests, GenXers and Millennials were hungry for inspiration and connection; we trusted that, if we could achieve those goals, some kind of movement towards change would naturally emerge, but we weren’t sure what kind of change – we had no agenda other than leading the group to where its heart already wanted to go.
We were aware that conversations centered around dissatisfaction could easily lead a group of church-nerds to sink down into an unproductive week of complaining, and we knew that the success of the conference hinged upon our ability to facilitate a hopeful conversation that was also introspective for each attendee.
Back in 1997, when the GenXers first gathered, they were a marginalized group that was (and still is) statistically underrepresented in the church. The cohort that emerged from that first gathering sought to change the church from without – and, as Jered noted, successfully did so. A surge in young vocations followed that gathering, and movements like The Micah Project were a direct result of GTNG.
That said, Jered and I both felt it was important that, if we were going to talk about changing the church at this conference, we had to do so from an insider’s perspective. Our attendees included bishops, cathedral deans, many rectors of prominent Episcopal parishes, and leaders of major church institutions. This time, as we said, the call (for change) was coming from inside the house.
Jered: We strongly believed that we needed a process which would enable us to find a common voice. I was sure Public Narrative could get us there. Emily and I and our co-conveners listened carefully to the stories being told. Through those stories we heard that, far more than demographics, what clearly connected us and powerfully bound us together were a common set of values. As we look back at the conversation started at GTNG in 1997, the values bear a striking resemblance – the centrality of connection and community through the body of Christ, the importance of confronting culture as a part of Christian witness, the desire to live and minister without fear, the yearning to live faithfully within and out of brokenness, as well as a hunger for personal and corporate transformation rooted in the gospel. And, above and over all of this, the abiding sense that what most unites us is the work of witnessing Jesus, of being connected and connecting others in this sinful and broken world, to a life-giving relationship with Jesus.
They say there’s nothing new under the sun. These were nearly the same common values that GenXers articulated over two decades prior at GTNG, and if we are honest, these are the same values that have kept the church true to the mission of God in every generation. Yet, here we were, a cohort of young priests sharing how much we felt like these powerful and commonly held values were often shelved in our own ministries. The lament was echoed over and again that we often felt like we were tending to the church like a palliative patient instead of using our positions and ministries to bring about the new life of the spirit of Jesus. Something had to change.
Emily: What made this different than any other gathering of clergy focused on changing the church? Good priests (and bishops, and deacons, and lay people) have gathered before in the name of bringing about the Kingdom of God, and have frequently failed. Having some familiarity with Kagan’s brilliant book Immunity to Change, as facilitated by Hugh O’Doherty through the Clergy Leadership Project, I was convinced that small-group work focused on the values and fears that govern our own behavior would be absolutely necessary – an abstract goal would get us nowhere.
Jered: The change we were looking for was internal and specific (concrete even), and yet in order to work we had to endeavor to face that change together. Personal change is all well and good unless it loses the thread of common and shared responsibility. In Christian language, we were asking the group to undertake a general confession – we had to trust that we meant it when we named the things done and left undone, which were undermining our ability to partner in the mission of God. We had to trust together that we were willing, with God’s help, to repent, to change, and to grow in real and tangible ways.
As such, it was also appropriate that we would connect, at the end of our time together, around five very practical conversations. How could we better support one another in 1) deepening our prayer lives, 2) disentangling ourselves from careerism and striving for success, 3) confessing our faults and fears and flaws, 4) proclaiming Jesus to a our own culture, and in 5) finding and being found by Jesus all over again? Real solutions were discussed. Real test cases were proposed. At the end, bubbling underneath our excitement at having been together was the sense that, in the best possible way, we were powerful. We had discovered what needed changing, and it was within us, it was us! And, we had discovered the means of changing. As St. Paul writes to the church in Ephesus:
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever.
To that we can only add, amen, and amen!