And then I changed my mind.
Envisioned by my friend, Jennie Allen, If wanted to gather, equip, and unleash women to live out their purpose. At first, when I heard about this, I was pretty excited. Part of her dream was to cross denominational and theological boundaries, to welcome in those of us who feel a bit on “the outside” of the mainstream, to build bridges instead of fences between women in the Church. The leadership team placed a value on authenticity, humility, diversity of experience, being Christ-centered, and even grassroots participation.
But when the initial conference plan hit the ground a few weeks ago, I admit, like many of you, I was disappointed. It seemed like all the other same-old conferences and, as we already established, I have All the Feelings about conferences. (And apparently a lot of words about them, too.) I felt like the initial product offering wasn’t lining up with Jennie’s grassroots vision that had so excited me. I had concerns about everything from the lack of diversity to the cost of the event to the same-old “build it and they will come” attractional model.
I kept quiet for a while and tried to discern if this was something in which I wanted to participate anymore. (Just because it wasn’t my thing didn’t mean it wasn’t a good thing in its own right though.) But as time went by, I was pretty sure If wasn’t for me – or people like me.
I planned on backing out quietly and respectfully. Best of luck to you ladies, I’m thankful for people like you doing what you do, hallelujah, I’m sure it’s great, but it’s not my thing, so peace out.
But I had already committed to planning/beta-group If gathering with a core group of other women - all of whom are currently leading a few of the discussion about women within the Church. I decided to honour that commitment at the least and withhold my final decision about my unlikely involvement until after that gathering. I flew to Austin on my own dime to spend a few days with a bunch of women who didn’t know me and, to be honest, some of whom are kind of a big deal in some circles. Sounds like fun to some of you, I know, but it was nerve-wracking, to be honest, I don’t do this kind of thing. I wondered if I was the token charismatic and progressive in the mix. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t fit in.
And then – well, I don’t know how else to say it really – the Holy Spirit showed up and called my bluff.
Forget the conference, I fell in love with these women. We talked and we laughed. We connected and told stories. We met at the table over good food and then we met again for the Eucharist. We gathered each other in close, we held on in the tensions, and we created a sisterhood.
I had been so worried about being the token feminist, the Progressive, the one who was always pushing-back against the status quo, the charismatic, the “outsider.” But these women welcomed me like I was one of their own. I felt like I belonged there, just as I am. I wasn’t tolerated, I wasn’t put at the “kid table” – I was part of the family.
I met a woman I’ve had on a ridiculous pedestal for years now – and I discovered a sister. I met another woman who was the complete theological opposite side of me - and I discovered a sister. I met a hero – and I discovered a sister. I met a supposed enemy – and I discovered a sister. I was sure that this woman disliked me or that one distrusted me or that one would be difficult – and over and over again, I learned how wrong I had been. I had conversations over those two days that profoundly changed me, ministered to me, healed me.
The Holy Spirit met us in that place and we experienced the power of unity without conformity.
We experienced the gathering together of women hungry for Jesus, women completely over the false boundaries and demarcations and divisions, women who love well, and women who want to live out their callings with purpose and passion and guts.
We encouraged and prophesied, worshipped and wept, talked and prayed, we laughed until we were crying.
And it was every bit as amazing as you could imagine.
So then we went home.
Suddenly, I didn’t want to quietly walk away from If. I still struggled with finding myself within the current plan, but now I had an idea of what Jennie’s vision had been – I had seen it in real life. And THAT is what I believe women in the Church are hungry for. Not another conference, not another Jesus-lady-camp, not even more preaching, not more impossible expectations and prescriptive one-size-fits-all version of womanhood with materials to sell and speakers to pay and worksheets to fill out.
No, women are hungry for Jesus! for a place of belonging, for freedom, for healing, for purpose, and for community.
Women in the church are wrestling right now – all ages, all traditions, all contexts. There is something stirring in the hearts of women all around the world, the Holy Spirit is moving across all traditions, whispering of freedom and wholeness. Women are rising up across the globe, and it’s glorious to behold.
We started to talk as a group about our dream to see this sort of gathering happen for other women. Not in a big slick performance of a conference, but instead, as an organic community gathered for the purpose of prayer, to be equipped for our unique callings and lives regardless of where we live or how much money we make, to cross boundaries and camps and truly unite as followers of Jesus, and then be unleashed. We imagined what it would look like if we did fling the doors wide open for the rest of us, ripped up the ticket price spreadsheets, poured out in the streets, scoured the city for anyone and everyone who wants to come, and danced in the neighbourhoods instead of the stadium aisles
And then something amazing happened: the leadership team listened to our collective heart-cry…and they did it.
They did it.
If you’ve been involved in a Christian institution for any length of time, you know how crazy and unprecedented this is. And you know how much courage and faith it took for the leadership team to basically burn down an entire conference, renegotiate with sponsors and vendors, and rebuild from scratch. The initial plan for If was on the paved road, well laid out by all the conference planners before them, it made sense to listen to all the “best practices” and join the parade.
Yet as we talked about Jennie’s vision and our collective experience combined with the deep hunger we all witnessed in our communities, we saw that this gathering was being called to the path less taken, to the grassroots, away from performance and production. It would be a bit messy, a bit wild, a bit loose, and that was okay.
And so, if you can believe it, they tore it down and then rebuilt the entire thing in just days with a focus on making it accessible to all incomes and neighbourhoods, with intention to include more diversity in the leadership team, with a strong connection to the local church, with a heart of humility and prayer, with real women in their real lives living out the hope of glory and the hope for sisterhood among us.
I need to just publicly say how much I honour these women – Jennie Allen and Lindsay Nobles in particular – but the entire leadership team. They are humble servant-leaders with guts and passion. They are warriors. They are listening. They are trouble-makers and peace-makers. They are taking a big holy risk.
They have earned my trust and my respect.
So. If has been re-imagined. And I’m in. I’m so totally, all-heart-in.
On February 7, 2014, we’re starting with The Call to Pray. In Austin, they plan to bring together all the voices, all the ideas, all the people, all the passions into one room – for FREE. It’s going to be pretty raw and vulnerable, I imagine, but as they said, “we believe God moves through weakness, imperfection, unknowns and faith…. expect all of that. And together we will dream and pray for God to move and unify us. This is a call to pray.” It will be simulcast to the rest of us so we’re part of the initial gathering, too.
So gather your people together in churches, in homes, in neutral places to take part in this call to prayer. But because of our limited time and resources to prepare, our advice to you is: keep it simple, keep it laid back, keep it loose.
There are so many unknowns we think it would be wise to keep February informal- we wouldn’t make a big production or plan your entire women’s retreat around this simulcast event. This is our launch team, our core group, and we want you to be a part of it. Just show up, gather friends, and watch with us what God wants to do as we pray and connect and dream.
Then in November 2014, it is a call to unity. We will prepare local leaders around the world to bring together rooms and churches full of women from diverse denominations and cultural backgrounds to pray and connect together for their cities and to dream of how they can better serve God together, unified on mission. This happened for us when we gathered diverse leaders in Austin and we believe the walls could fall down and women around the world could see the same walls fall down. Local leaders and churches will partner with us to unify women across all cultural and theological backgrounds to dream, pray, and talk about what we can each do in our time and place for His Kingdom.
Being a part of something like If not my usual thing, I know.
But I want to be a part of it. I want to show up. I want to make space for the conversation, I want to see our global girls as part of this, I want to see women like me there – the ones who don’t go to conferences or do the whole “church institution” thing very well. I want to see women who never feel welcome or like they belong to be welcomed here. I want it to resemble our diverse opinions and experiences and backgrounds. I want our often ignored or marginalized voices to join with our sisters around the world, learn from each other and listen and encourage.
I guess I have hope. Not in this little gathering, really – you don’t need an official gathering or anything, obviously, and this is just one little thing in God’s big global thing.
But this is a pretty amazing way for us global girls to come together, to do life together, to gather as the people of God and then scatter back out to our lives to make space for God in the world. For some of us, it’s an oasis in the desert, I know.
It gives me hope because I lived it for a few days, and it’s changed me.
We’re on the same team, and I love that we’re starting to act like it.
Of course, this bigger vision is even more expensive than before, and we need each of you to consider taking the next step and supporting our vision of gathering, equipping and unleashing women in this country and around the globe. Just because it’s free of charge doesn’t mean it’s free, right? If this resonates with you, please consider giving to IF : Gathering. Registration will open October 14th on www.ifgathering.com.
images courtesy of http://everestroadphotography.com/