by Joe Smith
In the days of yore attending church conferences, one of the most curious handouts I received in a packet included a participant list.
The participant list provided a deluge of contact information: name, home address, church address, home phone, work phone, cell phone, home email, work email, and website (whew!). I remember thinking the compilation of these lists represented good networking theory. I have a list of new colleagues, and possibly friends. If I had a question of praxis, boom! I could write, call, email and I had a colleague with a shared language. We drank deeply from the well of shared experience with hope of transformation.Â We were gifted with a quiver of learning arrows ready to target the ministry ogres that we had jousted before and lost.
Attending an average of 2-3 conferences a year for 14 years, I think I used the total of all participant lists 3-4 times. The well of shared experience ran dry and the arrows lost their sharpness. Ongoing opportunities for connection are easily parched and difficult to preserve.Â Although the conferences are still valuable, the value of the material quickly diminishes without collegial connections. Ye Olde Participante Liste is no longer effective, and it may never have been effective in the first place.
For some people who work in ministry, newer means of connecting are not news. The innovators and early adapters have found new ways to connect, catapulting over Ye Olde Participante Liste and moving into Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other means of connecting and sharing valuable information. In over 2 years of weaving social media and ministry, I daily seek ministry connections across the theological and denominational pantheon. These connections occur at far greater speed than a phone call, an email, or snail mail. The shift is not so much about speed/efficiency (yet still important), but something educators and learners have known for years: follow up and reinforcement is necessary in order for the content to have lasting effect.
Enter UNCO (Unconference). Human life in this age places value on experience. Social media drives the conversation about the shared experience, even a church conference. Many conferences miss the shared experience component.Â In many of the continuing education events I have attended, a speaker/teacher of great repute travels and meets traveling participants for a provision of information. I pay money. I receive information. I go home with a binder or folder full of notes and handouts and Ye Old Participante Liste. But though the intake at a conference may hold nutritive qualities, the information isn’t sticky. The typical workshop/conference/symposium in church circles fails the stickiness test. My library and of unused binders and obsolete participant lists is a testimony to this observation. This failure doesn’t speak to the quality of the information, but rather, to the context in which it was delivered.
Unconference is a powerful experience for me on many levels mostly because there is something incarnational, fleshy, and sticky about it.Â Not only is information shared, but relationships are graciously hosted with God and others. Every participant is given the opportunity to contribute and be respected.
A year after my first UNCO, I can thankfully say that UNCO passes the sticky test. UNCO people are my go-to colleagues for ministry questions. Not only do we share a common language and experience, but also a method of connecting I have not seen in 14 years of ministry. The challenge of UNCO will not be whether I can share what exactly I learned and experienced among friends. I was respected. I was valued. I was given the opportunity to contribute both truth and beauty. I was healed and loved. No “conference” I have ever attended has done that. My inclination is that though my work and life in the church looks a lot like the conferences I have attended for 20 years–a lot of vitamins, but no nourishment. The interpretive challenge is not that I can replicate Unco11 in my context, but whether in my context I can share in the work of healing, respect, love and creativity. This sounds a lot like Jesus to me.
Joe Smith serves as a pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Lakewood, WA, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). He is a native Washingtonian, with 20 years in the Midwest sandwiched in midlife. He blogs regularly at http://www.youraveragepastor.blogspot.com/.