UNCO Your Church, Presbytery, and Denomination

Originally posted on The Presbyterian Leader on August 9, 2012 . . . 

I recently wrote a blog post about age and power which seemed to have touched a nerve. First, let me clarify and reiterate what the blog post was about and what it wasn’t about.

  • “young” – again, I wasn’t just referring to age, but those new to the faith and denomination. Also, if I was to put an age category to who I was referring to, I wasn’t referring to teenagers. You know those who are actually in high school. 23-35 year olds are not “youth,” they are adults and that’s who I am mostly talking about.
  • I also want to say once again that I never said for the “old” to step aside. I merely suggest to add a couple table leaves to the dinner table so that more can be invited to the discussion.
  • I do not buy into the following equation: young = innovative, old = habitual & uncreative. I know young people who are stuck in their ways and old people who inspire and challenge me.
  • The Open Letter was every much for those in the “middle” as it was for the “old.” I feel a sense from those in my age bracket beginning to dig their heels in as ‘our time to rule’ is approaching.

Now that I’ve cleared some of that up. I wanted to give an actual example of how we can share power and ideas across the ages and what that could look like. I just returned from Unco. For those who do not know what Unco is it is an Unconference, meaning there aren’t speakers, workshops, and leaders like a traditional conference would have. At Unco, those coming are the experts, the learners, the participants, the celebrants, and leaders depending on how they choose to participate, what they bring to the table in experience, and how they feel. How is this possible you may ask. Great question. I wondered that too, which is why when they held a location practically in my backyard, I had to go and see this for myself.

For those who have heard of Unco, there is a sense that it is a conference for those who are more liberal, funky in their thinking, young, and untraditional. There is some of that, but to stop there would do Unco a disservice. There were people there of all ages, different denominations, different ministry contexts, some with children, some without, and some whose kids are long gone. Some came from large churches, small churches, churches in between, and retired. Some, well most, have Twitter accounts, but some do not. Not all were pastors. This was truly a ragtag bunch. The other important thing to note about this conference is that you didn’t have to be physically present. There were plenty online who could chime in and participate with their thoughts and questions who used the hashtag #ununco on Twitter.

Although there were fascinating topics discussed and ideas shared, what impressed me the most was the process. The process is modeled after Open Space. I have used Open Space before in local church-wide gatherings and even presbytery meetings, but in reality it is Open Space-lite, meaning they are more like workshops and seminars than truly an Open Space topic. At Unco, we set the conference agenda; we chose what we wanted to discuss; we decided what we wanted to focus on; and we came up with the ideas to work on.

Here were the important elements of the conference:

  • Worship
  • Hangout
  • Brainstorming what topics and breakout groups we would have and when we would have them
  • Four different breakout hours. Each hour had four different breakouts to choose from.
  • Hangout some more
  • Sharing what has been discussed in the different breakouts and choosing 3 or 4 of those breakouts to focus on
  • Last breakout on those 3 or 4 topics – coming up with some ideas on how to move forward
  • Wrapping it up
  • Worship

Three things that made this conference what it is: 1) started and ended with worship; 2) lots of hangout time, recognizing that down time is when the networking and meaningful parts of the conference happen; and 3) being open to the spirit in what was planned, discussed, and executed.

What if presbytery meetings were structured more like this? What if our church sessions spent more time on dreaming, planning, and executing? That is what I’m wondering and asking myself. For the past couple years, I have been a part of an Urban Legacy Project in San Francisco that gathers all 22 Presbyterian churches together to discover ways to partner, help one another, and address some immediate needs and concerns. You can read about our journey on our blog. One of the challenges is realizing there are no experts to call upon to help our struggling churches or mastermind a plan to move our congregations into the 21st century. It is up to us, but how do we do that?

I believe the Unco model may be the answer. I am excited to see what would happen at our next Urban Legacy Gathering if we spent significant amount of time brainstorming topics and issues that are relevant to our context, discussed them in small groups, decided 2 or 3 things to focus on collectively; and spent time brainstorming ways to move forward. At the least, we would actually be working together. At the most, some awesome partnerships and ministries could be taking place.

I’m excited to also try this in my presbytery – gather leaders and interested folks to talk about ways to better how we relate as a presbytery. WE ARE the presbytery, so it is up to us to provide input, action, and participation. So many presbyteries are looking at changing presbytery meetings and finding ways for congregations to connect. WE ARE the presbytery, so let’s not blame or leave it up to leadership and staff. Let us get involved, pitch in, and experiment.

What topics are you passionate about? What would you like to discuss? What is on your heart and mind?

One thought on “UNCO Your Church, Presbytery, and Denomination

  1. Greetings from Halifax, Nova Scotia. I applaud the wisdom, passion, and courage you demonstrate not only in what you think and write, but also in what you are doing in the several contexts of your ministry. One of the things on my heart and mind is the matter of reclaiming our identities as “teaching elders.” Last Sunday we worshipped in a Congregational Church in Bangor, Maine. In the bulletin the head of staff was identified as their “pastor and teacher.” I like that. But, if we are to take serious our identities as teaching elders we must be more intentional about developing the skills involved in teaching in order to live into the role of teacher. Our seminaries should be leading the way, but they aren’t.

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