At breakfast the morning the conference started, those of us who had arrived the day before gathered at tables and began the joy of what I call ‘Episcopal Tag’, our version of the Kevin Bacon game, but with usually no more than two degrees of separation. When Presiding Bishop Curry came into the dining area one of my new friends said, ‘I saw his name on the schedule, but I thought he would be video-ed in. I guess not!’ I had run into him the night before and wasn’t as surprised (however I was when I ran into him). This was my first Gathering of Leaders, and it was also his. I had been trying to make the journey since the end of 2019, and we all know how that went. So a few weeks ago I headed towards the green foliage of the legendary Kanuga (near Asheville, North Carolina) expecting to see an old classmate and others I knew from earlier stages of my journey. I was looking forward to making new ‘comrades’: and this is certainly what I found. Or perhaps I should say new teammates – because we are all on the same team from the PB to the volunteer youth minister and the multi-vocational rural cleric.
We don’t always practice this mission (of union with God and all others in Christ) like we are on the same team. We may play it like a sport, but it is more like platform diving: one vs all the others including your fellow citizens; it is immensely judgy, and all about the spin, and splash, or lack thereof. What would it look and feel like if the clerical and lay leaders of this tradition lived and served as one huge and talented team? The approach of the Gathering of Leaders is peer-to-peer learning, teammates to teammates. None of us can figure out how to do this on our own, particularly in this post-Christendom and late-pandemic moment. Those old dive sequences that looked like a good score in the past, maybe even got cheers from the cheap seats, they may no longer even hit the water. I was reading about Regency England Christianity last year and the quip that echoed strongly was ‘we (the author was English) have never been as Christian as we claimed to be.’ An accurate truth-telling that Bishop Curry reminded us saying that there was never a golden age, no matter how we try to paint (and whitewash) the pool of any bygone era in our storytelling. What are we to do, emerging from the pool right now, washed of illusions and nonsense, and even ways we were comfortable with? How do people who are absolutely deeply called to be the agents of good news, and to enable the proclamation of the real presence of Jesus – how do we swim in open waters? We quit diving alone, that is what we do. We find our teammates – like the colleagues I met at GOL.
Peer-to-peer means telling each other about successes and failures in the love of Jesus. It isn’t a one-method suggestion, an accurate analysis of the waters we are in with no real plan to swim, nor is it a program to subscribe to in the hope that it will keep you afloat. At this most recent GOL we heard from Professor Jason Fout about research emerging from the experiences of some London Fresh Expression efforts, and we learned more about ‘coming out of the pool’, the loss of the cultural immanent frame, sometimes articulated as remixing and secularism. Another guest offered a lovely framework for evangelism in language and practices that we already embrace. One teammate reminded us that buildings make us lazy, and God is already at work in the rivers and streams and lakes beyond our ‘pools’.Another new friend loves data and analytics more than I could ever have even begun to think about – and TBTG for them!! We have teammates that are pursuing extraordinary interfaith neighborliness, we have neighbors that are throwing all the creative energetic toys in the pool: and telling about the ‘belly flops’- and that is awesome. Just because an idea that embodies the healing and the love of God didn’t work in their context doesn’t mean it won’t be life-giving somewhere else. This is the heart of the peer-to-peer value of a gathering like this one – the streams of fresh hope are all around us. As long as we are standing alone on the edge of that dive platform, standing in our fear and the deafening roar of the crowds, we will never become who we need to be as leaders in the missionary church for whatever era comes next.
If you have ever been on a team you may know that some of the most lasting memories are not of the competitions, but the bus rides and downtime enjoyments. Each night we gathered in the fireplace room, some of us enjoying the delight of burning real wood in a huge fireplace on a cool night (it was chilly for mountain NC in April the whole time). We sat on in soft chairs late into the night. We sat in beside the fire on the floor and made each other laugh. One participant had her young children with her – we welcomed them and gave our arms and attention to making that work well. We toasted mocktails over what we share, even as we know we all have different stories and liturgical leanings. The value of continuing education cannot be measured by notes and texts and PowerPoint alone. An incarnation-centered faith learns from the time together and the feasting too. The blessing of the Gathering of Leaders is truly living into being teammates, as players who do not know it all, who know we cannot do it all, who need each other, and the power of the sacraments to guide Jesus’ people right now. This is the treasure I left the Carolina mountains with – new friends, fresh ideas, and once more being reminded that none of us are standing alone on a high dive above an unknown pool. My first GOL offered a beautiful and deep embrace of connection and mutuality – which embodies the very name of this network: a gathering of leaders.
The Reverend Jane Gober is the Rector at Christ Church in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania. For two decades before ordination, she served as a lay leader in lifelong formation across the Episcopal Church. She is a fan of college baseball, professional soccer, and excellent espresso.