Why Conversations Matter

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Why Conversations Matter

Something significant happens at the table

For the past several years, American Baptists have been involved in conversations about how we can discern what God is up to in order to further advance God’s ministry among us. In 2013, these conversations were held on a formal basis at the 2013 Biennial Mission Summit in Overland Park, Kansas. For the last several Biennials, about 300 persons had chosen to participate in workshops and Bible studies during the morning and afternoon time slots at the Biennial. In 2013, over 1,000 people chose to participate in the formal Mission Summit Conversations that were held in this same time slot. God is up to something among American Baptists and one of the many ways that we are discovering what God is up to, is through conversation. This summary seeks to highlight some of the responses from the recent conversations that have been held among American Baptists.

The most significant learning from these conversations is that something significant can happen at the conversation table as evidenced from the quotes below from conversation participants.

These conversations normalize the struggle.  As Kelly said at the Maine Mission Table event, “I realized that it did not matter if you were from a large church or a small church, a country church or a town church, we all struggle with the same things.  It made me feel much better.”

Read some additional quotes from conversation participants:

• 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
• People were engaged and I brought back considerable reflections
• Everyone spoke up, shared, and had a passion for the subject
• We learned what others were doing and struggling with
• 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!
• Rev. Ted Chaffee, regional representative from American Baptist Church of Maine. “I leave these days at the Mission Table with a sense of accomplishment, of hope for the future, and of joy in being in the forward-looking will of God. These conversations blended warmth, intelligence, humor and the presence of the Spirit that lifted and carried us all. God is surely at work among us.”

Where two or three are gathered…

Ultimately, these conversations are about discovering what God is up to among us in ways that can shape, strengthen, and challenge our existing ministries. One of the key questions that we ask during the conversations is, “What is God up to on this topic?” Listen to some of the quotes that reveal God’s presence in the conversations:

• “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.”

Hearing one another’s perspectives is how we grow as people

Jennifer Garvey Berger, author of Changing on the Job – Developing Leaders for a Complex World writes, “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…People 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.”

Max Plank once said, “When we change the way we look at things, we change the things we look at.” Listen to some of the comments from the participants that disclose how perspectives are being challenged and expanded…

• 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.
– Cynthia Turner, local church representative from Washington, D.C.

Conversations are the Baptist way of doing things

Addressing common problems, issues, and opportunities is why we formed as Baptists. These conversations get us back to our Baptist roots. While assisting with the conversations at the ABC of Maine region, Al Fletcher said these words, “100 years ago, a group of people in Maine, gathered to have a conversation.  Those conversations led to planting over 100 churches over the next five years. Somewhere along the way, however, we began to think that only the experts could do things. We began to think that you had to be an expert to do something. It is time to engage in conversation again and remember that we ourselves are the region.”

A generation or two ago, we lived in an era when denominations produced one size fits all resources.  And we began to offer workshops everywhere that lifted up programs to renew, reenergize, and revitalize our congregations. Renewal still happens, but it seldom occurs as a result of a canned program. Conversations serve as a way of bringing people together to talk about what works and doesn’t work in ministry. Workshops can be helpful, but they have their limitations.  People come back from them and begin to think:

• This will not work in this context.
• I really need that expert beside me to help with this.
• I don’t have the same skills as the expert and could never do what they did.
• I’m the only one with this knowledge from the conference and don’t know what to do next.

Conversations take away all of those excuses.  We are all experts in the ABC conversations. At some point, experts can be brought in to assist. A group that began with a conversation may get to a point where they need to explore what others have done. But at that point, the help will come when they are ready and probably in the form of a group field trip to the place rather than the expert coming to them. Listen to some of the insights that have been shared as one “expert” talks to another “expert” at their table…

• Our youth in the group were excellent.  I learned a lot from them.
• 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,” said Dr. Paul M. Martin, president/CFO of American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley, California.

Conversations also lead to group action:

When the suggestion comes from someone who we view as an equal, we are more likely to implement that suggestion than if it comes from an expert, because we have a sense that anyone can make it happen.  It doesn’t take some special kind of expertise.

Here are some additional quotes from previous participants:

• 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!

Many of the conversations that started at the last Mission Summit have continued.  Some of the groups have continued to meet face to face, others have met online.  Other topics launched at the previous mission summit have been continued in new forms in family units, in local churches, in regions, in caucuses, and everywhere that two or three have gathered.  You will have an opportunity to hear more about how these conversations have made a difference during the report out session at this year’s Mission Summit.  But never under-estimate the power of God to work and change lives with as simple a thing as a conversation.

C. Jeff Woods
Mission Summit Conversation Coordinator