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In which I want to talk about the If: Gathering with you

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A few months ago, I mentioned that I was throwing my hat in the ring with a women’s conference called “If.”

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 respectfullyBest 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.

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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.

Seriously.

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.

Whoa. 

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/

church, community, If, women
  • http://lindseynobles.com Lindsey Nobles

    Love this Sarah!

    • http://inspiredrd.com InspiredRD

      In which I am thankful for women who are leaders who listen to each other and pray and search and ACT.

  • http://annieblogs.com AnnieBlogs

    I love you like whoa.

  • http://sayable.net/ Lore Ferguson

    YOU SAID ALL THE WORDS. Perfectly.

  • Bianca_J

    Yes and amen.

  • http://www.twitter.com/teenbug Tina Francis/ @teenbug

    Love the collaborative process and the shape it’s taking. Yum.

  • http://www.eloranicole.com/ elora nicole ramirez

    You said everything here. I love it. I love you.

  • http://somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | the smitten word

    amen.

  • http://www.throughaglass.net Kari

    Thanks for your honesty.

  • http://simplemom.net/ Tsh Oxenreider

    Yep. Thanks for saying what I’m thinking, what I thought back then a month ago and six months ago and also think now. Love you.

  • pastordt

    Sounds amazing. Sounds like it’s pretty much for ‘this generation.’ I’ll be praying for you all.

    • http://www.emergingmummy.com/ Sarah Bessey

      I didn’t get that feeling at all, Diana. I’m pretty sure they look at “this generation” as “all of us right now living” so that would include you.

      • pastordt

        Thank you for that clarification, Sarah. But it’s a bit of a catch phrase that shows up a lot. And generally, it means those below a certain age, or within a certain demographic. It probably feels picky to you, but using that very phrase you’ve highlighted would have broken code and gotten through on a different level than the use of ‘this generation.’ Does that make sense?

        • Mark Loeffler

          Ran across this and so excited for my wife to participate. Also, on their website is says the following under the ‘Who Is Invited’ section. Seems pretty inclusive to me…

          Women of all ages are welcome! We exist to gather, equip and unleash the next generation of women to live out their purpose.

          Whatever your age, whatever your place- let’s do this arm and arm while we all live here for just a little while.

          • pastordt

            Thanks, Mark. I will visit the website. I was responding to the language of the video. I appreciate your taking the time to respond.

        • Marilyn Gardner

          I agree Diana – I looked at this, looked at the website and came away feeling sad. The Leadership page is from a certain demographic and can only be described as beautiful people. They don’t look any thing like the Christians I grew up with in Pakistan, they don’t look like the Christians I then met in Egypt, they don’t look anything like women of a certain age, and to say they want this to be ‘global’ seems disingenuous. If global is the goal, you get global involved from Lebanon to Nigeria to Kenya to Djibouti to the slums of India and Detroit. At the same time, my prayer is that it is as Sarah describes – a gathering that will bring glory and honor to God.

  • Amanda O’Brien McKelvie

    This is wonderful! I am hoping to take part in some way – probably from home. I think God is really moving in his church in a very special way. I see it everywhere – it’s one Spirit!

    • http://www.emergingmummy.com/ Sarah Bessey

      I’ll probably be from home as well.

  • Laura_InTheBackyard

    Thank you for this, Sarah! This gathering is the only conference-y thing that has sparked my intrigue and lit something in my heart, but then I also have the feelings about conferences. ;) After the update last week though, I was sold. Four friends and I are road-tripping to Austin. No idea what to expect, but we just think we’re supposed to be there. Your backing of it is a confirmation for me!

  • jessica

    Thankful for you Sarah – love this!

  • http://www.caramichelestrickland.wordpress.com/ Cara Strickland

    Sarah, I went through this same thing. Such excitement when it all came down, and then, hearing about the cost, feeling poor and like summer camp all over again. Thinking that I would go and sit in a corner and not fit in (if I could scrape the money together). A dear friend and I have been talking and praying and hoping. I’m so excited now, and I’ll see you there. I definitely need to give you a hug!

  • estherhavens

    Most beautiful words. Thank you for writing this!

  • Kristina Skepton

    So inspiring to hear about people willing to bend and flex, even if it means a major change in the agenda. Maybe you all should run the government ;)

    Kristina Skepton
    Founder, SeeingGod Ministries
    http://www.Facebook.com/SeeingGod

  • Miranda Jones

    I’m so glad I found this and thank you for sharing this! I’m so glad I’m not the only progressive! It kind of confirms the dream God recently put in me, although I’m still seeking his direction! I hope our paths meet at Allume! I’m new to blogging and writer conferences, but I am so excited to learn and meet new people!

  • Cara

    Wow. Tears in my eyes while I read this. That’s amazing. I’m going to let this percolate a bit instead of writing it off. Thanks for sharing with such honesty.

  • http://www.taylorbaker.com/ Taylor Baker

    THANK YOU so much for your honesty! I often feel like the “token” progressive, feminist… then I throw in “anabaptist” and all bets are off!! I’m glad to hear I’m not the only person who can feel like a misfit… and I’m appreciative for the reminder to show up anyway! Thank you!

  • Debra Westbrook

    Okay, if this is for women of all ages and backgrounds, then why is it when I looked at the web site, it seemed to be young women only? As a woman in her 50’s my heart lept when I looked at the info about this gathering. I believe it is a wonderful thing yet I hesitated to go because of what I said above. Just being honest, okay? Having been a charismatic pastor for many years, I consistently heard prophetically over and over and over about the release of the younger generation, the breakthrough of the under 30’s and so much more. Yet there are so many in my generation waiting for things and we are looking for that breakthrough into a new place also. Please hear my heart. Not at all trying to be divisive. But I think that the gathering is great but it is sending out a message geared to only a certain type of woman and by that message something in me would hesitate to come thinking it was just the same ole rhetoric. God is crossing generational lines but it takes action. So that’s my heart today. Love love your posts Sarah. Just some thoughts for today.

    • pastordt

      Thank you, Debra. I am praying that something truly wonderful happens as a result of this gathering, but, like you, I feel very much outside the parameters of this event. And the last thing I want to be is divisive – so I will pray and I will celebrate and I will look for the Spirit’s movement. And I will say again and again that Sarah Bessey and others like her are breaking wonderful new ground and I am thrilled to see it. I will also say that women like you and even like me have been doing this for a long time now, this breaking new ground thing. So now it’s time for those younger than we to do their own soil-tilling. I look forward to reading more about all of it.

      • Debra Westbrook

        Have not been online for a few days so thank you for your response. We walk alongside many of the young generation and love it. They keep us quite young and we love that even more. :) The only thing I am seeing is that we have to shift to a multi-generational mindset to see God move effectively. That requires change on all of our parts. As someone over 50, my responsibility is to shift into a new life lens to hear and see what those younger than me are feeling. But, their responsibility is to also walk alongside us. It’s a two way street that I know God is walking on with us and changes will come in time. I will admit though, when I read the web site I was disappointed because i felt limited and left out, even though it may have been not intentional. So I look to where I am celebrated and go that way. The passion is me is to see this all come together multiculturally, across generations, and gender equality. Thank you Sarah, for your heart, your passion AND I already ordered your book for its November release on Amazon. :)

        • Brenna

          I’m not sure if either of you have seen this blog post: http://jennieallen.com/blog/if-to-the-generation-above-us/

          But I think you might find that interesting to read at least! It was definitely a concern for many people at first, and as a young 20-something I am so grateful to hear of a movement that recognizes me and wants to include me – but I think IF has also made it so clear now that they want to welcome those with more years and wisdom as well! I think this is just something that has really grown past the original “vision” and idea they had.

          • pastordt

            Thank you so much, Brenna. No, I had not seen that blog post and I’m grateful to read it. I joined the IF:Church FB group – so thanks for the lead.

  • Jana Burson

    This is beautiful Sarah!

  • http://alliworthington.com/ Alli Worthington

    Oh Sara this is just amazing. Love to you, Lady!

  • Heather King

    Sarah, I’m glad your experience was so good. I have a lot of questions. I always have so many questions. It’s who I am. I wish we could go out for coffee.

  • http://antwuanmalone.com/ Antwuan Malone

    Interesting. I have a similar hear for young adults. And what you said is so right (about “them doing it”). I love that you are all being empowered to lead in such a way. So much trust in what God has said through you. I picked up your book a bit ago (though, I confess, I have not read a page yet) because I was working on a paper about women in ministry. I’ve blogged a couple times about it, but I admit I haven’t landed yet.

    Nonetheless, It’s good to watch a movement of God happen. Some ladies from my church are going to be there in February, and I think I know one of the girls that work with you guys (if you see Paige Dillon, give her a “whazzup” from me). Thank you for your ministry. Be blessed.

  • http://www.giraffesandladybugs.blogspot.com/ Grace Elizabeth

    I can’t even put into words. I am a conference goer – I have been to like 6 conference/festival/gatherings in the past year. And something in me was taking this shift – I saw all the shining lights and the putting of people onto pedestals and the qualified standing at the front with the unqualified standing at the back. I saw names in shining lights and I saw pretty women belting out big tunes to open up the service. I saw it all, from all different angles – and I just wasn’t sure if I could say yes anymore. The spending of huge amounts of money to go {&ultimately} meet with God. He gives Himself freely – it doesn’t make sense. 1 conference, just 1, held by WEC the missions organisation didn’t charge and they gave their talks away freely as downloads and they charged cost price for a cup of tea – something clicked. And my view of conferences got reimagined – and then I heard of If. And I feel like If is going to catch this disillusioned, confused mess and let her be okay. The gathering together and rising and empowerment of women. Oh boy. How completely Beautiful. Love your unending honesty and openness Sarah Bessey.

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  • http://thedramatic.com sarabeth

    I, too, have had many thoughts, fears, hope, and doubts about IF. So glad to read about it from your perspective, Sarah. Thank you.

  • http://www.angelhaynes.com Angel Haynes

    I confess I still have some of the posture you started this process with. I’m praying and working to uncross my arms and fully engage. My clan in Tucson, AZ will be participating in IF:Local, but to lead out in this with my group is a little scary because I have no idea what I’m leading them in. In all of the unknown, and big language, and tons of people, and some hype, I’m choosing to trust the promptings of the Spirit in my life to have God lead us and reveal to us how to affect change right where we are that will also lead to change in other parts of the world.

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