Nation's Oldest Clergy Gathering Focuses on the New

Nation's Oldest Clergy Gathering Focuses on the New

The Rev. Dr. Katherine Henderson, President of Auburn Seminary
By Tiffany Vail
Associate Conference Minister for Communications

It may have been the nation’s oldest continuing gathering of clergy. But it was full of new ideas, new perspectives and new imaginings.

The 310th General Association – an annual Connecticut Conference tradition of bringing together clergy and other leaders – was focused on innovation. The 80 participants heard from the president of Auburn Seminary about remarkable changes that have taken place there, heard about a new evening worship service at a local church and tried games and exercises designed to get them thinking about how to take their own new ideas for ministry and make them happen.

The Rev. Dr. Katherine Henderson, President of Auburn Seminary, began the gathering with what she called a “romp through the texts” of the Bible that connect with innovation.

“The very nature of God is held up by the prophets as having to do with newness,” she said. “Prophetic imagination is at the heart of the Biblical story and faith.”

“Part of the genius of religious traditions is their conserving function. They hold fast and in their best moments hold up what is good,” she said. “But there is a downside. Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Traditionalism, not tradition, gives faith a bad name.”

Henderson called Jesus “the great disrupter of the status quo, the resister of empires, who in his very identity as God and human epitomizes innovation.”
One of the small group discussions
Henderson went on to describe the journey taken at Auburn, where the school has worked to embrace a new mission: “Trouble the waters, heal the world.”  The school, she said, has transformed itself as a leadership development and research institute that takes seriously a commitment to working with partners to do justice in the world.

“We realized that multi-faith work is not just about getting along together, it’s about doing something together. To heal the world together. To equip leaders to build movements together,” she said. “It is more about partnership than individual leaders.”

The school has transformed, she said, from a strictly Presbyterian institution to “a more multifaith institution with Christian roots.”

This past year, she said, the Presbysterians on the school’s Board of Directors deliberately changed the bylaws to put themselves in the minority on the board, thereby opening the board up to more people of color, people from other faiths, and younger people.

“They gave up their majority status to live into this new world,” she said.

Henderson then went on to lift up six “bright spots” in ministry.

“This is not about best practices or extracting recipes for success,” she said. “This is about giving fresh consideration to one’s own circumstances by being exposed to what’s working elsewhere.”

Those bright spots:
  • Beacon Unitarian Church in Summit, NJ, where she said the congregation decided to call three equal co-pastors: one dedicated to outreach, one to congregational life, and one as executive director.
  • Tri-Faith Initiative: Omaha, Nebraska, where a UCC church, Reform Jewish temple and Islamic institute are sharing land and ministries.
  • Trinity Lutheran church – Minneapolis, which has  reached out to the large number of Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants in the neighborhood to do mission together and to learn from one another.
  • Trinity UCC, Chicago, kept hearing from parents that their children were having difficulty paying attention in school. That led to them working on addressing the neighborhood’s food oasis: bringing in a farmer’s market, then a good garden, then working with neighborhood store owners to put healthy food out front and attach exercise bicycles to slushy machines.
  • St. Lydia’s Dinner Church, New York City, where everyone works together to create the big meal while sharing stories of Jesus.
  • Big Table – a portable church founded by a pastor and restaurant critic that aims to serve those in the restaurant and hospitality industry by building community around shared meals and caring for those in crisis and transition.
“Each of these bright spots has realized we need a new architecture for a new world,” Henderson said. “In each case leaders have used particular strengths and assets to read the signs of the times, to adapt, to innovate – to live into the future story of a more just and generous America.”

The General Association gathering, held at the Heritage Hotel and Conference Center in Southbury on Monday and Tuesday, also featured worship anchored by the music of Katie Nelson Troyer and Scott Troyer, who are the music leaders at the Evensong Saturday worship service at Second Congregational Church in Greenwich.  Shawn Garan, the Associate Pastor who founded that service, spoke to the gathering about his process for getting that service started – including some false starts.

Conference Minister the Rev. Kent Siladi preached during the evening worship, and called on church leaders to get out of their buildings and into their communities.

"How on earth can we widen the circle if we put ourselves at the center of it?" he asked. "I think Jesus points to outside of the circle, and asks us:  wouldn’t the circle be wider and more inclusive if you were willing to step outside of your circle to those out there?"

Siladi said that while our church buildings may be at the center of our communities, our churches are no longer seen as being of central importance.

"None of those things are forever: being great, being large, being rich, being important,” he said. “The faith that Jesus calls us to – the life and light of Christ – that is forever.”

The gathering also featured some “blue sky conversation” led by Suzi Townsley, the Associate Conference Minister for Innovation, Leadership and Change.  She used exercises that encouraged participants to look at pictures and objects as jumping off points for new ideas.

Townsley will be leading similar conversations online this fall – forty minute Zoom Conversations called “Zip Equp” and “InnoJazz.”  Learn more here.
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