Reflections on the Generous Spaciousness Conference Retreat

It has already been a couple of weeks since our first Generous Spaciousness Conference Retreat – hard to believe how fast time goes.  I have been so busy with meetings and presentations that I haven’t had that much time to simply sit quietly and reflect.  But as Wes and I went through our lists of “celebrate” and “improve” it was really wonderful to see that all the things in the “improve” column were about behind the scenes administrative type details.  And all the things in the “celebrate” column were connected to our hopes and goals for the experience.  That is amazing – and I am humbled and grateful.

For those of you not able to attend, let me describe the design and intent behind the experience. Generous Spaciousness is a framework in which we hope that the Body of Christ can experience unity in diversity.  That means that we enter this space with the acknowledgement that Christians who love Jesus and who deeply care about the Scriptures come to differing conclusions on many controversial matters – including the questions that surround marriage equality.  Rather than focusing on boundary maintenance – that is trying to figure out who is “in” and who is “out” – generous spaciousness is centered around key core values.  Those values include:  humility, hospitality, mutuality and justice.

Our goal for the conference retreat, therefore, was to gather a diverse group of people, introduce them to the concept of generous spaciousness, and then invite them to spend time in the rhythms of worship, silence, and dialogue over a weekend together.  Our central common ground, for the majority of our participants, is our commitment to Jesus Christ.  We did gladly welcome individuals who do not identify with Christian faith or who are questioning their faith for a few reasons.  First, we believe that Jesus would welcome them.  His ministry modeled a radical hospitality – and we wanted to as well.  Second, we believe that non-Christians have much to offer this conversation – and in particular, may be well equipped to help Christians see their blind-spots.  So, if non-Christians were willing to participate within the parameters of generous spaciousness and to honour the reality that the conference retreat would be unapologetically Christian, we were glad to welcome them.  And for those who came, their presence did prove to be enriching and a gift.

Given this central focus on shared faith in Jesus Christ, worship was essential to our time together. We were grateful for the sensitivity of our worship leaders as they led us through carefully chosen songs, litanies, and Scripture readings.  We had times of corporate prayer together that centered us and prepared us to listen for God’s voice.

Worship was followed by keynote presentations that were prepared to catalyze the dialogue in small groups.  The first keynote introduced generous spaciousness and its core values.  It also laid out the parameters of dialogue so that all the participants could go into their groups with a common understanding and commitment to listen deeply, extend mutual respect, avoid arguments or trying to persuade one another, and works towards shared understanding and a deeper, rich and more robust understanding of the intersection of faith and sexuality by sharing in one another’s experiences.

We called our small groups “community groups”.  Our hope was that as each group had the opportunity to meet four times over the course of the weekend, that they would experience a sense of community together.  Based on our best knowledge of the background of the participants, we made the groups as diverse as possible.  Of the 60+ participants we had age differences, we came from different ethnic backgrounds, we worshipped in different traditions, we had different levels of theological education and had differing theological views, we had various ministry involvements, we had different relationship experiences, different sexual orientations, different gender identities, and we had different expectations coming in to the conference.  Groups were 6-7 people with one participant asked to give very basic facilitation simply to ensure that parameters were being honoured and participants were all having the opportunity to engage.

This rhythm of worship, silence and dialogue was followed by a very informal meet and greet over wine in a box and potato chips.  This seemed to be a big hit – and it was a delight to hear conversations springing up everywhere.  Hugs were plentiful.  Some people knew each other before coming – but a lot were making first-time connections.

The next day we again entered our rhythm of worship and silence.  We wanted to make space to hear from God prior to spending time listening to each other.  We wanted our hearts to be open to God first.  The second keynote was focused on Scripture.  But maybe not what some people expected.  We didn’t look at 6 or 7 verses that seem to deal with same-sex sexual behavior.  Rather, we spent time considering the complexity and variety of ways that we have learned to approach and interpret Scripture.  We considered the reality that no one is a perfect interpreter of Scripture and were again called to a posture of humility.

The community groups were then invited to reflect together on their journey with Scripture – what has influenced them, what questions they wrestle with, what fears and anxieties they bring to the text.  This was a real opportunity to listen, to encounter difference, and to resist the urge to correct or convince one another to see things the way we do.

In the afternoon we had time for what we loosely called affinity groups.  We wanted people to have the chance to connect with those whose journeys might be similar to theirs.  One was for family members and a lot of the parents who have gay children joined together for sharing and prayer.  Another was described as “discipleship” and in our preparations we thought this would be a good connection for those who were still trying to figure out how they were going to integrate their faith and their sexuality.  One was called a “couples” group – though we should have simply called it a relationships group.  And a final group was called “next steps”.  We figured this would be a good group for straight allies and those who were interested in possibly launching some kind of connection point in their own region.  What surprised us a bit was that people made unpredictable choices about which group they would participate in – but that was totally fine.  Later there was another community group time.

The evening session brought us back to worship and silence.  This keynote focused on embodiment.  Gay or straight or cisgender or transgender or queer, many of us who have grown up in the church have been affected by an unbiblical dualism that pits our mind and spirit against our physical body.  Many of us have been deeply socialized in our Christian communities to feel anxious and ashamed of our sexuality.  In this keynote, we wanted to find common ground, in our diversity, in celebrating the good gift of our bodies and of our sexuality.  In an unplanned response to the nudging of the Holy Spirit, we called up several people to offer prayer for others.  Many came forward, some with tears, receiving blessing and encouragement to love their bodies and to be grateful for God’s good gifts to them.  Some who had been deeply wounded by years of self-loathing heard prayerful words of affirmation that they are God’s Beloved Child.

After this session we had a sharing circle where the whole group had the opportunity to share what this experience was like for them.  This was a beautiful time of connecting together as a whole group.

Our meal times were shared in the dining room where we ate family style – close enough together to share stories and laughter.  The rain held off, and people had opportunity to go on the trails in the beautiful surroundings of the retreat center.

The final morning we shared in worship, inviting God to again center us in his presence as we had done all weekend.  We waited in silence.  And we had the opportunity to break the bread and drink the wine (well, ok, grape juice) by serving one another in our community groups.  We closed off our experience with a final community group session and lunch.

No event is ever perfect – and I would be the first to say that there are always things to improve on and learn from.  But having said that, I can also assert that God showed up and the experience of many of the participants was beyond our imagination and expectation.  Personally, I was struggling physically with the pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia.  It had not been a good week.  And yet, with every hug, every conversation, every bit of shared laughter, every tear shed, every honest word, vulnerable sharing, and authentic owning of each person’s own space …. There was wonder and joy at the incredible experience of being the Body of Christ together.  Messy, diverse, challenging – but gentle and sensitive to one another, kindness and compassion flowing.  I am so very grateful!

These are some of the comments that were shared about the conference retreat – and we hope to have a future blog with more personal reflections:

[quote]The interactions and stories I heard blessed me more than anything.  I thought I would meet a few people to interact, but the community groups broke and healed my heart.[/quote]

[quote]The highlight for me was meeting people with same sexual orientation, connecting with others, stressing that we are beautiful people, and being in a non-labeling environment.[/quote]

[quote]The loving community fellowship that permeated the entire weekend was incredibly healing and empowered me with a real sense of purpose going forward in my life.[/quote]

[quote]This weekend has given me a glimpse of what the church can be at its best.[/quote]

[quote]The highlight was being able to connect, make friendships and rediscover my place in the family and kingdom of God.  Also, rediscovering my self-worth and value in  Christ.[/quote]

[quote]Blessing came from hearing everyone’s stories.  We truly are not alone.[/quote]

[quote]I was feeling very down, overwhelmed with life and the weekend has encouraged me and reminded me of the abundance of God’s grace.[/quote]

[quote]I came with very little expectations as to what the Lord would do to me or through me.  I’ve experienced authenticity in sharing with people and grace, encouragement and empowerment from the Holy Spirit.[/quote]

[quote]The healing release of emotion and prayer as I owned the hatred I feel for my body, confessed it as sin, and then released it at the foot of the cross.[/quote]

[quote]Worshipping and sharing Communion with my community group.[/quote]

[quote]My highlight was feeling the presence and love of God and breaking down barriers.[/quote]

[quote]I have been surprised and amazed that generous spaciousness is being provided far more by the LGBTQ group than by the church.  Duh.[/quote]

[quote]Being in a place where I am not the minority.[/quote]

[quote]What an incredible outpouring of love and compassion.[/quote]

[quote]Connected with people in a way I did not expect.  I was able to speak openly and honestly.[/quote]

Since this was such an amazing experience, we plan on following up in a couple of ways.  We hope to hold another conference retreat next spring.  The content will be fresh and new but the rhythm of worship, silence, and dialogue will remain.

But we also are in the planning stages of using the content from this experience to host a conference in September.  It will not be in retreat format – it will simply be a Friday night and then all day Saturday conference.  But we will cover the same material in the rhythm of worship, silence, and dialogue.  And we are quietly expectant that God will again to immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.  If you are interested in participating in either of these opportunities, feel free to let us know: