Monday, August 4, 2014

Starting a New Fire after #Kindling14

First thing in this post, let me admit that attending any given conference is still an enigma for me. What I mean by that is that I really enjoy conferences; there is usually a really good energy and dynamism when they're well-planned. But meanwhile, a conference is not my learning style. I do much better when I'm allowed to take hand-written notes on a topic and then allowed to take a day or two to digest and ruminate on the information before I take notes on a new topic (hmm... sounds an awful lot like my college schedule). At your typical conference, I have have had anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours to digest things before going onto the next workshop. And even then, the workshops and presentations may not be conducive to note-taking. So I have not been able to figure out what to do with myself at conferences, even though I think I have attended a fair number of them.

That being said, I attended this year's Episcopal conference on Young Adult and Campus Ministry. It happened at the University of Minnesota, out here in my neck of the woods. It was also dubbed Kindling '14 (because I assume we will be using the same title next year).

This is what was printed on all our itinerary and press releases

Last year, at the Shared Space conference (which was an ecumenical conference, but the Episcopal Young Adult and Campus Ministries conference was folded into it) I was nominated to be a provincial representative, so I was flown into Chicago and part of my role was to sit on a panel and talk about my experience as a young adult leader of these kinds of ministries. This year at Kindling, things were not so cut-and-dried (get it? It's a campfire metaphor...). So before I go on, here are my rapid fire, free association reactions:

  • The conference started off with two presenters who talked about principles of community organizing and it really set the tone for the rest of the conference
  • I felt like an equal participant from the get-go at this conference
  • Last year I felt like there was an invitation to conversation, this year I felt an invitation to vulnerability
  • Storytelling was a huge part of the this year's conference
  • We gave a lot of time to recognizing that each person's story is the narrative of their identity forming in their context (those are my words, not something we said at the conference)
  • I was a part of conversations with clergy and lay people alike, and I felt like my diaconal identity and diaconal explanations I offered in those conversations were not misplaced or unwelcome
  • I made a lot of new friends (and, of course, social media contacts, too)

Now, before I unpack some of those statements, let me also say that the basic format of Kindling '14 depended on Open Space technology... which makes me laugh because the "technology" of Open Space is definitely some of the most basic technology people have available, i.e., your voice and your ability to show up to a conversation. The best overview of this method of conversation I have found is provided here by the Association for Episcopal Deacons, who also used Open Space at the last Archdeacons' conference.

That Open Space model was definitely the key to me feeling like an equal participant at this conference. Truth be told, I feel like an impostor at conferences like this because I am not paid by any congregation or faith community to do young adult ministry, I have never held a job as a university chaplain, yet I kept getting asked to go to conferences. So I guess that someone values my voice and what I have to say. And at this conference, with the Open Space model, I had the ability to tell everyone that I wanted to start a conversation on any given topic. And after I told them where I would be located for the conversation, people would show up and we would talk for an hour about something that we all felt passionately about in some way, shape or form.

As the conference went on, we heard from some really fascinating presenters whose ideas we were able to use to convene Open Space meetings. The conference began with Bianca Vazquez and Kristen Kane-Orsoto, two fascinating women who spoke about community organizing. This was the most basic format that they provided us:
I would call this five step formula deceptively simple, but I can also see it being a huge part of my ministry, as I train to become a deacon, thus I am immensely grateful for everything Bianca and Kristen had to say, as well as their standing offer for me to contact them should I want to know add more depth to what they presented.

And as a bonus tweet, this was also said in relation to young leadership, specifically, but applies to all organizational leadership:

(I am so going to have to give Kyle a shout out for tweeting all this...)

The next presentation was another tag team effort between Tom Brackett and Ryan Marsh from Church of the Beloved. These were the two who had so many incredible statements about storytelling that I cannot fit them all here on my blog post (however, I think Kyle tweeted them...). However, some of what they had to say encouraged us, as conference attendees, to have the vulnerability to take a shot and try big, even if it turned out to be an epic fail. Even if it turned out to be a lot of epic fails, it still made a difference that the the effort was made. And in making the effort and trying to make things happen, they encouraged us to have the vulnerability to share the story of the journey, complete with attempts, failings, and all the feelings tied up in them. In the next breath, Tom encouraged us to not only be storytellers, but also storylisteners. Because hearing someone's story and really, authentically listening to it is also a vulnerable thing because, in listening, the story may change you.

That concept of story listening was one that we put to good use on the last full day of the conference. We heard stories about growing up Latino and what role the Church plays in that from Anthony Guillen, Chris Palma and Roberto Celis. We heard Portia Corbin's story about coming from South Dakota and going to Yale and how she shapes storytelling from that. Charlie Jackson told about being a student at his school and creating an Episcopal/Lutheran campus ministry in amongst the other, well established religious group voices. And there are plenty more stories that I'm forgetting (I sincerely apologize and please know that you may berate me in the comments below). But the upshot to this is that it demonstrated that each person has a rich story to tell and that, in listening to each story, I think we have the opportunity to take single threads and start weaving them into a tapestry.

Now, that being said, the theme was "kindling," as in "fire," and tapestries don't do well in fire. But nonetheless, I will leave you with a poem that was given to us to help elaborate on the theme of the conference. It was written by Judy Brown and can be found on her blog here (I highly suggest you read over her reflections on it, too).

What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.
When we are able to build
open spaces
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible
We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time.
A fire
simply because the space is there,
with openings
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.

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