“There and Back Again” – Adventures in Episcopal Communications

I’m not a “big crowds” person, generally. I don’t go to concerts, I skip school reunions, and I avoid the mall on Saturday afternoons as though my life depended on it. That being said, you can probably imagine my trepidation as I stood outside the airport waiting to catch the bus headed to the Episcopal Communicators conference in downtown Cincinnati. (I know, I know – a SHY communications person? We really do exist, I swear.) Talking back and forth with hundreds of people on Facebook and email is one thing, but meeting them in person is a somewhat more nerve-wracking experience, especially as a first-time conference attendee.

I sat at the bus stop nervously checking the conference and metro schedules on my phone, and whether it was the look on my face or the fact that I was obviously an out-of-towner, two young guys waiting for the same bus took pity on me. In the thirty minutes it took us to get from the airport to the hotel, they’d explained to me which stop was mine, gave me at least four recommendations on where to eat,  told me where they were staying in case I needed anything, and sent me off with wishes to “have a great time!”. Grace pops up in the oddest places, but it’s usually when we need it most.

There was just enough time after I’d checked in for me to drop my bags in my room and try to tame my humidity-frizzled hair before registration closed, so I did a quick check in the mirror and then made my way to the conference floor to pick up my nametag.  (There were a few large groups meeting in town that week, and for the first day and a half of the conference one would regularly see people looking around at other’s nametags to be sure they were heading towards the correct meeting room.  Several of us in the EpisComm group made conversation with the Tasters’ Conference people down the hall, though we never did figure out how to sneak in so we could be part of the vanilla bean tasting. Maybe next time!)

I suppose my initial worries about the conference were unfounded – in a room full of professional communicators, it’s almost impossible not to be drawn into conversation unless you’re actively working at it. There were roughly 150 people from all corners of the country in attendance, and the noise level in the room could be described as ‘lively’. I slipped into an empty seat about halfway between the door and the announcer’s podium, and within moments I’d been introduced to everyone at the table, and another first-time attendee from southern Florida (who was simultaneously updating his Facebook page in both English and Spanish) asked me which workshops I was planning to attend. I was in!

As we chatted I wondered how long it would take the EpisComm President to get everyone quiet so we could begin the plenary session – a minute? Two? Would she have to bang a gavel? My speculations were wildly off.  At three o’clock sharp she stepped up the microphone, coughed politely, and then said, “The Lord be with you.”

“AND ALSO WITH YOU!”  rang out from every corner of the room, and then there was silence. Amazing!

It’s even more amazing when you consider that this response, and the liturgy as a whole, is something we all share in spite of our manifold differences. The Episcopal Communicators are quite a mixed bunch. Over the course of the conference I met a delightful young lady from Oregon state and a gentleman from London, a woman who was the sole communicator for her small parish in Maryland and another who was head of communications for the entire state of Minnesota, men and women, baby boomers and millennials, Episcopalians, Catholics, and one woman who regularly attends a Quaker service (!). So many differences, but all united in their purpose of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.

The thing that really sold me on the greatness of conferences is that you have an incredible bank of talented people all within reach, sharing their ideas and resources freely. Jana Riess, the keynote speaker and author of The Twible, was a wealth of information during her addresses, and between times she made herself available to anyone who wanted to chat (or get their book copy signed).  As for workshops, there were at least two media teams that had tips on how to tailor your church’s social media presence; Scott Gunn of Forward Movement gave a tutorial on how to take pictures with basic point and shoot cameras; Episcopal Relief and Development had a highly interesting discussion on the Asset Map (which is a fabulous resource for churches) – and this was just from the professionals during formal workshop time. Conversations were happening EVERYWHERE – at the breakfast table, in the elevator, at the yarn store (knitters gotta knit!).  The spontaneous discussions were just as productive as the workshops, in some ways – comparing situations with others ‘on the ground’ and seeing what each of us does differently can be both eye-opening and instructive. As someone relatively new to diocesan communications I wasn’t sure that I would have much to offer others, but in the course of conversation it happened that we spawned some new ideas for reaching out to college students, and I had some input in a promotional video concept for Taize services. (Don’t discount your contributions out of hand – God may have plans you’re unaware of!) Plus, as a result of those spontaneous meetings we were all able to share contact information for continued collaboration outside conference time, so the fun didn’t end when we said goodbye Saturday morning.

No one, and no church, should be an island – if we want to share God’s story and be part of the Jesus Movement, we need to take a chance and come out of our shells a bit. So, from my shy self to you, a word of recommendation: communicate!

And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” Mark 16:15    I think you’ll be glad you did.

Megin Sewak is Communications Specialist for the Diocese of Northwestern PA. 

God Loves All Unconditionally (From Bishop Sean’s Article in this Saturday’s Erie Times News)

Reposted from GoErie.com: Reflections is a column in the Erie Times News by religious leaders in the region. The Right Rev. Sean Rowe is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, 145 W. Sixth St.

Bishop Rowe Nov 2014-93wtHow many times have we found ourselves engaged in arguments only to realize that whatever hot button issue we were arguing about wasn’t really the issue at all?

Time and again we turn against one another for superficial reasons that are symptoms of deeper issues that remain unaddressed. This is true in secular politics, and it is true in our faith communities as well.

We’re gearing up for what promises to be a long and painful political season. Already, candidates are using the poor for target practice in our ongoing cultural and ideological wars. Some aspirants to political power are even talking about massive deportations of people who live in grinding poverty and do work that many American citizens simply refuse to engage. The goal is to get “them” out.

We’ve walked a long way in the wrong direction since Jesus began his public ministry by announcing that he had come to preach “good news to the poor.” Today, the tenets of Christian and other faith traditions are used to bludgeon and exclude people created, as we are, in the image and likeness of God. Consider the ways in which issues regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are used to divide congregations and denominations. We create a righteous “in” and an unrighteous “out,” often under the cover of the old maxim “hate the sin and love the sinner.”

All of these issues seem, at some level, to involve determining who properly belongs within our communities and who should be kept out. We argue over and over again, down through the centuries, about which race, which religion, which sexual orientations are worthy of inclusion. We create wedge issues, and in doing so, we miss the deeper point.

Theologian James Alison points out that, for Christians, the real issue is that we simply cannot come to terms with the work that Christ has done for us through the cross and resurrection. This reality is quite simple: We are redeemed; anyone who wants to be “in” is “in.” We don’t have to get any better, go any deeper, or work any harder. God loves us for who we are and just as we are. But since we cannot really believe that this is true, since we cannot accept that our own merit played no role in our redemption, we develop standards that exalt ourselves and marginalize others. That’s the way we work out the truth that is so difficult for us to accept, that God loves all people unconditionally.

The good news is too good for us to accept: Through God’s grace — which, by definition is unearned and undeserved — we’re all “in.” Maybe we could work at living as though that was really true without any new terms or conditions.