My Takeaways from the Uncharted Gathering, 2019

The Rev. Susan Daughtry

The May 2019 Uncharted Gathering is almost three months behind us. In the days since, I’ve been formulating some thoughts about what I’m taking away from the event. Here they are.

There was real desire to gather. As we got closer to the event, we had to shut down registration and create a waiting list. Over 50 registrants gathered, representing all four orders of ministry from a diverse array of dioceses across the Episcopal Church. Support and attendance also came from seminaries, the Church of England, Lutheran and UCC programs, affiliates like Backstory Preaching, Forma, and more. I heard more than one person express profound relief at the chance to meet others doing the work of local formation.

Local formation leaders want to learn about pedagogy. In the event itself and in the survey results afterward, participants talked about the immediate impact of what they heard about learning goals, personalization and press, and student motivation. I heard one clergyperson say, “I’m going to start doing backwards design from learning objectives with everything I do in my faith community.” It’s no wonder: most of us were formed by graduate environments that emphasized competencies in the areas required by canon. That set of content doesn’t explicitly include teaching.  If we are to form disciples, we need to learn from our partners in the world of education about best practices for doing so.

The real goal of our work is not about repackaging the M.Div. experience; it’s about the future of the church as it relates to Beloved Community. We leaned in and listened hard to the wisdom in the room, especially from Dr. Catherine Meeks, Heidi Kim, and Rie Gilsdorf. I overheard excitement and urgency to work toward a church that reflects shalom, the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community. At the same time I heard participants reveal their own sense of unpreparedness to lead in this area. As it pertains to local formation, here’s what caught my attention:

  • Many of our conversations looked at the experience of racially and culturally based discrimination in the ordination process – and the desire of those present to help dioceses and Commissions on Ministry distinguish their biases from the requirements of formation.
  • Other conversations examined the way the requirements of formation, and the tools we have locally to offer formation, carry their own cultural biases that strategically exclude people whose experience doesn’t already reflect success in white culture.
  • We noted, but did not focus on, the challenge of formation in immigrant and culturally specific communities that are discerning how their own heritage might impact not just the language for formation, but the process and pedagogy.

In other words, there’s a massive learning curve here for the Episcopal Church. As we named these issues, participants and speakers voiced their concern that the gathering not be a chance to pat ourselves on the back for our progressive values. Instead, they challenged all of us to use the event as a springboard into new ways of being. Heidi Kim offered us the insight that this community has significant power to turn the ‘icing’ (nice-to-have, add-on content) of anti-racism training into the ‘cake’ (most important building blocks) of formation.

Some aspects of our event design reflected deeper challenges in Anglican leadership formation. One helpful critique of the event offered, “You wanted to cover a lot of material. But the design of the event itself reflected white/western values: speed, efficiency, data exchange.” This person noted that, had a broader group of stakeholders designed the event together, we might have left with different outcomes. This goes to the same question many of us brought to Uncharted: How do we teach emerging leaders to do things that we don’t possess the competency for? How can the experience of formation itself—not just the content – be an experience of Beloved Community and a chance to see those values in action?

Underneath all these conversations lies this uncomfortable truth: in some of our faith communities, Anglicanism functions as a social, racial, and cultural identity marker rather than a pathway into life as as baptized children of God, followers of the way of Jesus, the body of Christ. If that’s true, we need greater clarity about our theology and our understanding of what it looks like to practice the way of Jesus.  Local formation, since it asks us already to distill the content and try on new approaches to learning communities, is a venue for that theological and practical work.  “I wonder what it will take to let go of things that are no longer serving us well so we can embrace what is being born more fully,” one survey respondent wrote. I hear in that comment the trust that the Holy Spirit is offering us something beautiful in the massive cultural changes taking place around us. I hear too the desire to seek a life-giving way of being church, especially around racial and cultural diversity, as a pearl of great price. What of our Anglican inheritance is still serving God’s mission, and what is holding us back from joining in?

Mindfulness about the ecological and economic impact of the event was a big plus for some participants. We worked hard to source meals from vendors in our North Minneapolis neighborhood and/or vendors who would limit the waste stream from the event. From bringing their own water bottles to sorting their refuse into the compost/recycling/landfill bins, participants were enthusiastic in their support. Hosting conferences that bring care to the environmental and justice impacts of their gatherings is a learning goal for the whole church, and we in ECMN were so grateful for the positive response from our guests.

Collaboration is appealing but daunting. One respondent reflected, “I wonder when we might actually get to the place of talking about how to do online formation collaboratively. We are still a bunch of separate dioceses doing separate training programs.” With the amount of financial support and representation from Episcopal seminaries at the Uncharted Gathering, I am hopeful that those organizations will continue to see and respond to the desire for support in this area. And/but, I believe the drive for this work has to come from dioceses and leaders on the ground, not seminaries. For that to happen, we need attention and time for networking, organization, and coalition-building. One respondent wrote, “I think there is potential to actually create movement in the church — but we need to have better action plans and someone actually overseeing some of that. I don’t know who that is, but I think there needs to be a little more administration to get some of these things going.”

Next steps. Some of the attendees at the event self-organized into working groups that hope to follow up in the coming months. That included a working group that is interested in hosting the next Uncharted Gathering. I’ve heard from more than one Episcopal seminary interested in supporting that effort. One significant next step for me is to continue to invite colleagues into this network, and to work to create opportunities for the Holy Spirit’s creative work in partnerships.  I’m imagining building a contact list, sending quarterly emails that share resources, writing, and events from folks who are embedded in this work. We’re also announcing, soon, a chance for participants at the event to take advantage of some of our surplus funds in the form of equity coaching. So stay tuned.

Share your own takeaways. If you attended the event (and made it to the end of this long post!) I’d love to hear (and share if you wish) what takeaways you’re still wrestling with.