Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Anatomy of a mini-conference

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Peter Dula and Chris Haw field questions from participants. (Click for more photos.)
This past weekend, seven months of shared work between my friend, Aaron Kauffman, and I came to fruition. #Occupy Empire: Anabaptism in God's Misison was by most anecdotal accounts a great success. Around 60 people converged on the Discipleship Center, perched atop the campus of Eastern Mennonite University, for 24 hours of worship, academic presentations and responses, discussion, food, and fellowship. Aaron and I started working at 8:30am on Friday and didn't stop until 7:45pm on Saturday. Having never organized a conference before, I was simply floored (almost literally) by the amount of details entailed in conducting even a small conference like this.

So despite being exhausted from end-of-semester demands for my wife and I both, which resulted in me being unable to fully engage my intellectual faculties during the conference, I still sensed that things were going quite well throughout. Logistically, things flowed smoothly, and all the intentional ways in which Aaron and I structured the conference seemed to bear the kind of fruit we had hoped and prayed for. So this post is intended to be a post mortem of sorts, assessing how well our design held up.

Worshipful academics/Intellectually-engaged worship
One of the first things Aaron and I hoped for in this conference is that it would resist the problematic gap between church and academy. While each of us have been in the academic track at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, where the idea for this conference was born, it is our conviction the intellectual enterprise for committed Christians should never be divorced from the practices and aims of the worshiping community, the body of Christ.

Following learning from James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom, we recognize the formational power of practices, sacred and secular. So while the genre of academic presentation follows a particular embodied tradition, we integrated that practice with worship services throughout the conference, which included the ordinances (to use Brethren & Mennonite lingo) of celebrating communion at the Lord's table and the washing of feet, in addition to communal singing, reading Scripture, and prayer.

The worship practices engaged in the conference were actually what uplifted me most during our time together as an ad hoc "congregation." Since my brain was so fried from a stressful end-of-semester, I was able to more easily engage in worship, and I was also more free to wander around the worship/lecture space with my camera, soaking in the people as well as the physical and digital art on display.

Art was another important factor of the conference proceedings. On the worship planning team was one of our speakers, Bethany Tobin, who is a Mennonite artist with a theological education from Duke Divinity. She coordinated with other local artist friends, who contributed pieces of physical art which enveloped the circular space we "occupied" for the weekend. Artist and professor of art at EMU, Jerry Holsopple, also contributed digital art for the projection screen, which was never "dead space" during the conference. Jerry assembled very slow (non-distracting), shifting abstracts and photo collages with thematic ties to each of the worship services and presentation blocks. At a few moments, the visual transitions on the screen interacting with the worship services seemed to be timed perfectly.

Setting up a "big tent" conversation
One of my pet peeves about many kinds of special interest groups within the church is that they, like much of American society, turn into social clubs filled with people who already agree with each other. This is a problem. So in setting up this event, Aaron and I picked a provocative name which practically invites disagreement from the start. The occupy movement itself is a highly divergent and multi-faceted movement, with local particularities abounding in each community where a group forms. But only one of our speakers, Paulette Moore, was even speaking about the social movement itself. Rather, we were aiming for a provocative title to theologically re-interpret "occupy," crafting a double sense of the word: as faithful inhabitation of the world as Christians, and as the in-breaking kingdom of God working like leaven through bread, "occupying" us.

So we had an Evangelical-turned-Catholic telling Anabaptists not to make an idol out of rebellion, an Evangelical offering Anabaptists insights into the missional nature of their own ecclesiology, and a Mennonite anarchist warning of the dangers of being complicit in the inherently racist nation-state. In the last day or so I've described this "big tent" approach as an "equal opportunity to get pissed off" at something. Aaron and I began the conference with prefatory remarks to this effect, urging people to practice the Golden Rule, and to expect to be offended at some point during the weekend. "Count on it," Aaron quipped. And despite some open disagreement and concerns, this all seemed to be handled with humility, patience, and mutual respect.

Sensitivity to the "white dude" factor
Aaron and I are both well-educated, middle class, white, male, American Christians. It doesn't get much more privileged than that. So we tried to be sensitive to a number of factors: race, gender, and age especially.

One label that the co-sponsoring Anabaptist Missional Project tries to avoid is "young." It's nearly impossible not to have it drawn sometimes, since the leadership of AMP is primarily in their early 30s. But the events AMP organizes attempt to reach a broad spectrum of people in the church with its vision of being "a network of emerging leaders who love Jesus, care about the church, and seek to be part of God's mission in the world." When a few older EMU profs heard about the conference, they asked me if they could register, since they thought they might be too old. No way! Present at the conference was a presenter in his early 20s, with a response from a man who was 93, and plenty of folks in between. Plus our conference respondents were university professors, and our listening/response team was comprised of two local Mennonite pastors.

While participation at the conference was nearly 3:1 male to female, our keynote presenters there 2:1 female to male. And while traditional ethnic Mennonite folks (Swiss-South German) ruled the roost, we recognize that the growing edge of Anabaptism today is in the global south, so the complexion of Anabaptists around the world is becoming darker. Fittingly, to a room of mostly-white people, Trinidad-born, Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, gave us a crucial history lesson on race, racism, and the nation-state with the intent to develop sharper racial sensitivities in church life.

Another dimension of keeping power dynamics in view was in moderating conversation in the large group response time. After letting Q&A run freely the first night, Nekeisha helpfully pointed out to me that in such an arrangement, the folks who often speak first are the ones most used to speaking first. In our case, the white extrovert dudes (of which I am one). So over the course of the next day, I attempted to keep a closer eye on the flow of conversation, trying a few different techniques suggested by Nekeisha in order to do so, including encouraging folks to self-moderate to provide space for all the different voices to be heard.

Conclusion and thanks
While I await the audio podcasts for the presentations and responses (sometime this week!), I'm finding it helpful to reflect here on how the conference went in relation to how Aaron and I were attempting to frame it. It's helpful mostly because the conference felt like my wedding day: it went by in such a flash, that I hardly remember it! (Although when I related this analogy to my wife, she humbled me by saying, "But you didn't plan anything for our wedding!" Touché.)

For those who were at the conference as participants and not organizers: How did all this flow for you? Were the things I mentioned above evident in the actual experience as a participant? If not, what might have helped?

I'm deeply grateful to my co-organizer, Aaron, for carrying me at times in moments of exhaustion and anguish. Also, a huge thanks to our speakers and respondents: Isaac Villegas, Chris Haw, Peter Dula, Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, Carl Stauffer, Janna Hunter-Bowman, Mark Thiessen Nation, Bethany Tobin, Paulette Moore, JR Rozko, Matthew Krabill, David Stutzman (on Skype from Cali!), and Nathan Hershberger. And all the worship planners, servers, readers, artists, and musicians: Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard, Matt Hunsberger, Carmen Horst, Lee Martin, Jamie Ross, Carol Tobin, Jerry Holsopple, Ruth Jost. And our listening/responders, pastors Jennifer Davis Sensenig and Phil Kniss. Our sponsors: the Anabaptist Missional Project, Virginia Mennonite Missions, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, and the Orie Miller Center at EMU. Thanks to A Bowl of Good for amazing local food with veggie and vegan options. And of course, thanks to all participants who came from near and far to engage the conference activities!

Wow, what a way to end my four years in grad school. Seven months went by in a flash, especially the final week of planning, and the crazy two days of doing the conference. But it was a wonderful learning experience and one which, if I do again, I'll know more viscerally how much work these things can be! Career conference planners certainly have my sympathy now...

7:45pm on Saturday. Happy and ready to sleep.

Fun facts about the conference:
  • Idea birth date: Oct. 12, 2011
  • First e-mail: Oct. 16, 2011
  • E-mail threads: 129 (661 individual messages)
[Also cross-posted at the Anabaptist Missional Project blog.]

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