An overview of responses from the Together conversation process has been collated and will be published in the form of a book and study guide from Brethren Press. Earlier this month an initial report of responses from the Together process was discussed in a meeting of the Council of District Executives, and in the final meeting of the Together steering committee on Feb. 14-15.
The Together conversation was initiated in 2003 by a statement from the district executives identifying fragmentation in the Church of the Brethren and calling for conversation "concerning who, whose, and what we are." Since then, a group of leaders and staff of Annual Conference agencies and representatives of the district executives have planned and promoted Together as a denomination-wide discussion. From its beginning, the broad intent of the work has been to help bring about a renewal of the church. Together conversations were launched at a gathering of district representatives in Feb. 2006, and has continued with small group gatherings in many venues across the denomination.
An initial overview of responses and observations from Together was prepared by Steve Clapp, president of Christian Community Inc., author or coauthor of more than 30 books on congregational life, and a member of Lincolnshire Church of the Brethren in Fort Wayne, Ind.
"The last time the Church of the Brethren engaged in such a study was almost 50 years ago, close to the 250th anniversary of the denomination," Clapp observed. "This time, on the eve of our 300th anniversary, the hope has been to involve as many people as possible in the conversation."
The initial overview was received by the Together steering committee at a meeting in Nov. 2007, where the group also heard from the Together Listening Team that helped monitor the process. In February at the last meeting of the group, the committee discussed the publication of the Together responses as a book that also will include material to encourage further study and discussion across the church.
As it disbands, the steering committee feels good about Together, said chair Mark Flory Steury, executive minister for Southern Ohio District. He added that the committee does not want to institutionalize the Together discussion. "Our hope is that the conversations will continue in new ways."
Clapp estimated that close to 20,000 people were involved in Together conversations. The steering committee identified this as a significant achievement, but also noted that it is still important for the church to continue to be in conversation.
In presenting the overview of responses to the committee, Clapp said that working with the data from Together conversations was difficult because of the variety of ways in which it was received. The conversation process included small group gatherings in a wide variety of settings--congregations, district conferences and other district meetings, Annual Conference, National Older Adult Conference (NOAC), National Youth Conference (NYC), and gatherings of other groups like district clergy, the On Earth Peace board, and other Brethren organizations, as well as Igreja da Irmandade (the Church of the Brethren in Brazil).
Responses came in the form of reports from these small group meetings, as well as from the Together Listening Team. Trained Listening Teams in districts also provided notes on the topics, themes, and examples shared in district events.
Many congregations used the Together study guide written by Jim Benedict and published by Brethren Press. "The hope was to have all the congregations in the denomination take part in this conversation, and all congregations were asked to share a summary of their thoughts," Clapp reported. "While not every congregation shared a report, many did so. Some congregations had virtually every active member participate in the study and conversation held in their local church." His report added that almost every church in the denomination had at least one person who took part in Together conversations in at least one setting.
"It’s important to remember that the primary purpose of the Together conversations was to engage people across the denomination in talking about the nature of the church. The Together initiative was not designed to provide the kind of sociological look at the church that Carl Bowman offers in the Brethren Member Profile 2006," Clapp said. "It was also not designed to produce data to assess congregational health."
Main observations that Clapp shared in the initial overview included:
- "Together participants talked often about the importance of the acceptance and the caring that they have experienced within their local congregations. That acceptance and caring have indeed been life-transforming for many persons.... Not everyone has experienced that same caring. Some people shared disappointment."
- "Together participants have strongly affirmed many of the traditional practices and values of the Church of the Brethren. Love Feast, the ordinance of anointing, service, and the commitment to peace have been repeatedly emphasized in conversations at NOAC, at NYC, in districts, and in local congregations.... The emphasis on service was lifted up with appreciation."
- "The strongest statements about the peace position of the denomination were made by participants at NYC and at NOAC. While most of the comments about the peace emphasis of the denomination were extremely positive, there were a few exceptions. Reports from congregations were not as likely to emphasize the importance of work for peace as were reports from regional (district) and national gatherings. There also appear to be some differing opinions on what it means to be a peace church.... Being a peace church is central to the identity of many of the congregations that responded, but there are some that did not mention the topic in their responses and others that seem to equate a strong stance for peace as being unsupportive of people in the military. Yet there are also churches for whom a peace position is very important who have people in the military who are active members."
- "Several talked about changes that have happened within congregations and within the denomination. They affirmed that change is a part of the church’s life, and that we have gone through significant changes in the past. Some talked about the importance of change for the future, and others lamented some of the changes that have happened."
- "People also expressed their concerns and their hopes about the state of the church today and about the future. Many people are concerned about the future of the denomination and have strong feelings on some issues.... The topics of biblical interpretation and homosexuality were the ones over which differences of opinion were most apparent."
- "There were several who voiced their concern about membership decline in the denomination and over the need to reach out more effectively to people who are not in the church. A majority of the summary statements about the nature of the church included words about evangelism or outreach to those outside the church. Our continued decline, however, suggests that we are not putting those good intentions into action. Comments were also made about the authority of Annual Conference, about our denominational name, and about decisions that have been made at the denominational level."