Be Still and Grow

“He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’” Psalm 46:10

Driving into the tranquil Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina, I strained my neck to see where the giant treetops touched the pale sky. Stepping out of the car, I inhaled the fresh mountain air and looked eagerly toward the famous Kanuga Lake, but was told, to my disappointment, that it had just been drained for maintenance purposes. In the distance, across the shallow lake, stood Kanuga’s unmistakable white cross.

The 2016 Church Leadership Conference took place February 19-21 and is an annual event organized and hosted collaboratively by the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) and Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Created as a retreat to bring together vestries and church leaders for a time of reflection, learning and sharing, the conference features exceptional speakers and workshop presenters who are among the best in their area of expertise. Popular for its balanced mix of inspirational ideas and practical tools, participants always return to their home church better equipped than when they arrive.

[Save the date! The 2017 Church Leadership Conference will take place February 17-19, 2017]

Typically a smaller, local affair, this year participants numbered over 110 and many came from places as far as Los Angeles and New Jersey. Since I am new to the ECF family, I was asked to attend the conference to handle communications and social media, and more importantly, to learn first-hand how ECF works with local church communities.

“The Lord be with you.” And the room replied in unison: “And also with you.”

With these eternal words, the conference began.

Looking across the room, my eyes met with several people I would get to know more over the course of the next couple of days. There were vestry members and clergy, small parishes and large parishes, first time attendees and longtime participants, old and young(er), men and women, excited and calm. And each one had a story.

There was in that room a beautiful gray-haired lady from New Hampshire who drove to Kanuga herself in a borrowed car and regaled me over breakfast with a story of how she was almost run over by a bull in India. Another asked me to show her how to send out her first tweet while we bonded over Kanuga toast that she “loved for its strangeness”. And a really fun gentleman, who was inspired to begin his Instagram account, was promptly “followed” by his niece on it, and ended up taking some beautiful photographs of the conference over the weekend.

Participants discussing the practical next steps they would take over the next six months.

In this wonderfully varied group, there was one clear point of similarity. They were all church leaders and they all wanted to do the work that God had called them to do, better. Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, one of the keynote speakers, addressed this desire and said most church leaders struggle with the “and/but philosophy”. Church leaders today are weary from performing innumerable activities and trying to keep up with changes and circumstances they often have little or no control over.

A typical church leader may have to think about youth ministry and social media and fund-raising and endowment planning and Spanish ministry and while doing all that also immediately fix the leaky roof.

It is easy to avoid an “and”, instead replacing it with a “but”. But there aren’t that many young people, but very few members use social media anyway, but we simply don’t have the money to do that now. It is a struggle to say yes to the incessant “ands” that church life sends our way – yet this room was filled with those who wanted to meet every impossible and with an unwavering yes.

This room believed, quite plainly, that God would provide the solutions. They believed in a different set of “ands”: God’s patience and love and strength and resilience and victory. They believed that every task, large or small, was a calling from God. As Neal Michell, another keynote speaker observed, “Our goal is to transform church work to kingdom work.”

Workshop attendees learning about team leadership essentials.

Each conference day began with quiet prayer and music for focus, direction and a deliberate meditation on the theme Be still and grow, and ended in the beautiful, stained-glass lit Chapel of the Transfiguration, where everyone worshipped together, reflected on the learnings of the day, and thanked God for his never-ending grace. A collective pause and conscious stillness was the soul of this gathering, and it was experienced both inside the chapel and out of it.

Workshops led by ECF staff at the conference addressed several common concerns for church leaders in a practical way – vestry orientation, building and leading effective teams, managing parish finances and endowment management among others. Workshops were interspersed with breakout periods of quiet time or small group meetings in the quaint cottage porches. In between workshops, ECF staff met with individuals and groups to address specific areas of concern as well as ways to work together in the future.

Meal times were a community affair with several opportunities to hear and learn from others in similar situations over hearty food. Some small groups went on walks around the beautiful Kanuga property, swapping stories and making new friends. In those simple moments, all traces of anxiety seemed to melt away – it became instead, a time of finding joy in shared experiences.

The Church Leadership Conference, as I learned, is a time of community and friendship; a time of meeting old friends again and making new ones; a time of sharing anxieties and joys, of learning the significance of a valuable stillness, but most importantly, learning that we are not alone.

I realized I had come for the tweets and the networking, but I was leaving with a profound understanding of our Church and what it means to be an Episcopalian today.

Charis Bhagianathan joined ECF in November 2015 as Communications Coordinator. Before moving to New York, Charis worked at Council for World Mission in Singapore as Communications Manager and at Dorling Kindersley Publishers in New Delhi as Senior Editor. At ECF, she focuses on strategic internal and external communications. While Charis has always enjoyed working in marketing and communications, her heart lies in social/new media and writing.