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Dreaming Big Dreams

The Once and Future Church:
The unlikely benefit of ‘unconferences’

By Derrick L. Weston

ConferenceMy typical conference experience has gone something like this: I pay a lot of money for registration, travel, and lodging to go stay in some posh hotel. When the conference begins, I and 1,000 of my closest friends flood into an auditorium. There’s music, a stirring, well-produced video, and a couple of presenters. All are nice, but they aren’t the reason I’ve come.

No, I’m here for BigName Speaker. BigName Speaker, whose books I’ve read and whose podcast I listen to religiously, is speaking on the second day of the conference. So in the meantime, I attend a few workshops on topics that sound mildly related to what I’m doing in my work. I take copious notes that I’ll never read again, and I add to my collection of business cards while optimistically distributing some of my own. (Seriously, why do business cards come in such large numbers?)

Anyway, BigName Speaker comes out on the second day, and although she is great, I’ve heard her say all of this stuff before. Still, I get to be in the same room as BigName Speaker, and that’s cool, right?

In between all of the programmed material, I meet up with a group of folks around my age who seem to be dealing with the same stuff that I’m dealing with. We meet up for drinks when all the conference events are done, and we form meaningful connections over our common struggles and challenges. We vow to keep in touch and we actually do.

In fact, what we get from that connection to each other is so much more valuable than anything BigName had to say, any of the notes that I’ve taken, or any of the books that I’ve purchased at the conference bookstore that will just end up on the pile of unread books accumulating in my office. Deep down, I secretly wish that the entire conference had been like that time of informally connecting between all of the conference’s scheduled activities.

I’m guessing that I’m not alone on this. While it’s easy to get wowed by the big-production values of the corporate-style event, what goes missing are the personal connections formed in down times and the ability to learn from the expertise of peers. Those are the things that I found when I went to UNCO the first time.

UNCO—which is short for “unconference”—is a gathering of PC(USA) leaders and friends that began in 2010. The guiding philosophy of UNCO is that God has placed the expertise that we need right there in the room. We—not BigName Speaker—are the experts. UNCO follows the format of an open meeting. This style of conference is participant driven and uses a bottom-up organizational structure rather than one that is top-down.

At UNCO we fill a whiteboard with topics we’d like to discuss while we’re gathered. The next morning, we create the agenda for the conference and then we have breakout groups based on what the group decides has a lot of energy. On the final morning, we revisit what “has legs” from the previous day’s conversation and then we begin figuring out what practical things can come out of our conversations.

This is what’s amazing about UNCO or any other unconference. Instead of leaving with a new book or a pocket full of business cards, people leave with the seeds of a new church development, an idea for a new book they’ll write themselves, a network of support, or a practical resource for improving their worship leadership.

The first UNCO I attended happened when I was serving a church that was in peril. I mentioned that I wanted to have a conversation about the ramifications of leading a church to close. About a dozen people gathered to talk about the effects that church closure has on both the ministry of the church and that of the pastor. While I didn’t leave that conversation with any particular “how-tos,” I did leave with a sense that I was not alone and I was not a failure—messages I desperately needed at the time.

An unconference like UNCO offers the opportunity not only to share best practices and resources, but also to dream about what the church may become and to see what God might do through us when we offer our whole selves to being part of God’s creative activity in the world.

Derrick L. Weston is a teaching elder, spiritual director, and cohost of the podcast God Complex Radio.

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