The blog below was written by Rev. Dr. C. Jeff Woods, associate general secretary for Regional Ministries, American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA). Blogs written by ABCUSA Leadership Team members will be published periodically on the website. Views expressed are the sole opinion of the author. (Interested in submitting a blog for publication? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The momentum from our first ever ABC Mission Summit Conversations continues. Last year, over 1,000 people participated in conversations around key topics that had been shown to be of importance to American Baptists. Our first American Baptist Mission Table event narrowed that list to ten topics – view them here. Since that event, Mission Summit Conversations have been held in the ABC regions of Maine, Vermont/NH, Connecticut, and Indianapolis and more are scheduled to take place this year.
Why do conversations matter to us? There are several answers to that question. First of all, we must remember that something significant can happen in the midst of conversation. When listening accompanies talking, and safety precedes conversation, people share passions and assess their beliefs. People often hear God’s call to the ministry through conversation. People hear new perspectives, share in one another’s stories, experience empathy, surface compassion, and even shed prejudices in the midst of genuine conversation. People attending Mission Summit Conversations have expressed…
- “The table discussions allowed a closer connection with ABC people. I gained from their knowledge and wisdom.”
- “Everything we discussed was so important for our ministries. I didn’t think we would have so many things in common.”
- “It was much better than I expected because everyone was so open.”
- “I became a part of a safe, awesome, searching small group.”
Secondly, we are told, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). People attending Mission Summit Conversations have also expressed…
- “God’s Spirit did abundantly more than we could ask or imagine! The Spirit moved me to pass the peace to a person who has spread untrue gossip about me; we were both surprised!”
- “It’s not about us or our congregations or institutions. It’s about seeking the heart of God.”
- “Even those who came to the table somewhat tentatively soon succumbed to the contagious enthusiasm inherent in any process where God reveals Himself to us through each other.”
- “I came back with some good ideas. In fact, I think I heard God speaking.”
Following a round of conversations, sometimes I think we can diminish the impact of what just happened by asking the “What’s next?” question too quickly. God may have already done something in the midst of the conversation that just occurred. Mission Summit Conversations surface perspectives as well as plant the seeds for future life changing and congregational changing conversations.
Recently, I was assisting with a regional Mission Summit Conversation and a woman came up to me and told me that she had attended the national Mission Summit Conversations in Overland Park. Upon her return, she discovered that her youth minister had resigned and that the church was moving quickly to call a new youth minister. She suggested that the congregation have a round of Mission Summit Conversations to explore this issue more deeply to see what God might be up to. The executive council of her church is now exploring a range of options and has become a learning community as a result of a Mission Summit Conversation that originally happened far away from them.
Hearing differing perspectives is one of the key ways that we grow and develop as leaders. Author Jennifer Garvey Berger in her book, Changing on the Job – Developing Leaders for a Complex World, says, “Having a conversation about a particular topic moves it from a subject to an object. Once it becomes an object in front of us, we can talk about it, walk around it, share perspectives about it, make decisions about it, and do something about it.” Having a conversation allows someone to talk about something that they may previously have only been able to muse, stew, or agitate about. Garvey-Berger adds that when people begin to talk, they “are able to see something about themselves that they were previously blind to – an assumption, a mental model, a role that they had been taking on.” Additional comments from attendees at Mission Summit Conversations include…
- “I heard people saying, “Wow, I’m glad you said that.” I’m starting to think about the issue very differently than before the conversations started.”
- “Upon arrival, I knew absolutely no one—my Executive Minister was ill. But I leave here feeling connected to so many American Baptists who share the same passions and struggles and commitments that I do. As a pastor, there are always areas where I sense God is moving at work. To have the chance to hear from others and feel the synergy and verve of others in ministry is a blessing and provides the affirmation and healthy discernment that only the Spirit can send. I leave here knowing more clearly that God is at work and guiding me. The Mission Table experience was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced at a conference. I leave here affirmed, connected, and assured of the work of American Baptists.”
Having conversation is also the Baptist way of doing things. You have heard the old adage that if two Baptists are in a room, there must be three opinions. My take on that is that the third opinion is something new that has not yet surfaced among them; something that may never have surfaced until the two persons put their own opinions on the table. The third opinion may come from the synergy that is created or it may come from God. Addressing common problems, issues, and opportunities is why we formed as Baptists. Conversations get us back to our Baptist roots. Some additional quotes from previous participants support this idea:
- “This has been one of the most encouraging and inspirational gatherings in my 25 years of Baptist leadership! I want to thank the leaders of American Baptist Churches for welcoming me to my first Biennial as a newer ABC’er and for making a place for me at the larger American Baptist table of fellowship and service. I am inspired by our common commitments to the centrality of Christ, our cherished Baptist distinctives and justice and ethics in the world.”
- “Finally, those conversations normally held on the parking lots have now been held in the church. The Mission Table experience was fantastic and fulfilling.”
Mission Summit Conversations also lead to new insights that people take back to their own settings. People are interested in what others have to say about the topics that matter to them. There have been over 8,000 hits on the Mission Summit website since the Mission Summit from over 2,000 “unique visitors.” Some additional quotes from previous participants are shown below:
- “I learned new approaches for how to reach the unreached.”
- “It made me think more about what I can do in our church to keep it alive for Christ.”
- “I was able to get a great deal of insight to take back to my church.”
- “One of the amazing things I took away from the Summit is that some of the things God seems to be doing in Rapid City are popping up in other churches too. And these other churches are filled with people I’ve never met before. I think God must be up to something and it’s exciting!”
A final reason that conversations matter is that they can lead to further action, innovation, and experimentation. I reserved this item for last because many of us are tempted to view it as the only reason for the conversations. While significant change can occur just from having conversation, we hope that some of these groups will continue to exchange ideas and engage in experiments beyond the life of the original conversation. Many of the conversations launched at the national Mission Summit, Mission Table, and regional Mission Summits have continued. There are currently ongoing conversations around the areas of new church planting, women in ministry, discipleship, pastoral attrition, and other topics.
Conversations matter to us as Christians, and particularly to us as Baptists. It seems that the world is discovering something that we have known for a long time. Conversations can change lives and congregations.
Dr. C. Jeff Woods
Associate General Secretary for Regional Ministries
American Baptist Churches, USA