I recently attended a very different kind of professional conference. Normally when I go to these kinds of things I go to hear someone speak, almost like taking a class at school. An organization pays someone (or a group) to share their expertise on a certain topic or topics, so I attend with the expectation of listening and taking lots of notes.
At the conference I attended last week, called an “UN”Conference – or UNCO – the model is the opposite. At this “unconference” the agenda is not known ahead of time (although there is a group of conveners who set a schedule and guide the participants in keeping to it (more or less) but grows organically from the people who are gathered. I showed up with a completely open mind, not knowing how I would participate or what I would learn, but I had been told by many people that it was a fantastic experience both professionally and personally. I trusted their word and opened my mind. Here’s how it went…
On the first afternoon/night of the UNCO, attendees are invited to share topics and/or struggles they’re interested in or wondering about. No topic is too “boring” or too “wild.” At the UNCO I attended there was a HUGE poster in the front of our large gathering room where people could write their ideas for topics. We had all afternoon and evening to do it. Once this is done, the conveners try to discern which of these topics they can “lump together” and which “have legs” (a popular phrase at this UNCO), because it’s hoped at the end that a few of these topics will “have legs” and lead to further online discussion or even a tangible resource that can be shared.
The next morning the ideas are discussed by everyone and broken down into a manageable number of categories that become small group “breakout sessions.” People are then free to choose which sessions to attend depending on their interest. The UNCO I attended had 15 (1 empty slot) sessions across an afternoon, 4 sessions meeting at a time. There is a facilitator at each session – someone to take notes, keep the conversation going, and to make sure that no one person dominates the discussion. Each of these breakout sessions are an hour(ish) long, with space built into the schedule if people feel like they need more time. At this UNCO there was free time built into the schedule in the late afternoon before dinner. People were free to nap, have informal conversation, explore the retreat center (including a wonderful labyrinth), or gather to continue any discussions from earlier in the day.
On day three we began once more gathered as a whole. A very brief summary of each breakout session was given by those who were part of the discussion, and answered the question, “does this have legs?” Sometimes the answer was, “We had a wonderful discussion and shared a lot of thoughts/ideas, but that’s about it.” Other times the answer was, “We came up with some ideas on how to take this topic farther, so YES!” Out of the 15 breakout sessions at my UNCO, there were four groups that felt their topic might have legs. After we whittled the 15 down to four, we had one more breakout session – with each of us having the chance to chose one of those four groups to attend, in which we would figure out how to give the topic legs.
The question, “does this have legs?” is crucial to the whole UNCO idea. The purpose of the gathering is not just for people to sit around and talk – it’s for people to talk, but then figure out what they can DO. The idea is to leave UNCO with homework, both individually and as a group. The idea is for something to come out of the time that has been spent together.
After this final breakout session, and after lunch, the whole group meets again to discuss the “legs” – the ideas for how to carry the topics into the future in concrete ways. The UNCO group is pretty organized online, and much of the “concrete way” is a continued conversation, gathering of resources and SHARING resources online since most of the participants are coming from different parts of the county (at the UNCO I attended outside of New York City, people came from as far away as Minnesota and Texas!). One of the ideas at the UNCO I attended has already taken shape, and that is a support network for clergy. The other will be a resource for rituals of transition for different parts of life, a way for the Church to acknowledge “secular” personal life events of people within the community of faith – events like the first cell phone, getting a drivers’ license, relinquishing a drivers’ license, moving to assisted living etc…
At the UNCO I attended worship always began our work together – at the first gathering and welcome and in the next two mornings before our work began. Worship was also born organically from the participants. At registration we indicated if we’d be willing to help with worship, and once there we brought whatever instruments we could play and planned worship with one another. My UNCO had wonderful people who played piano, guitar, ukulele, clarinet and saxophone, as well as a professional gospel singer! But worship also concluded our time together – prayer for the work accomplished, the work still before us, for the new friendships made and for safe travels as we departed.
It really was a wonderful experience. I met a lot of new colleagues in ministry, almost ALL of whom were from different denominations than mine. It was good to support, share and learn with colleagues from the United Methodist, Presbyterian, UCC and Baptist traditions, as well as meeting a fellow Lutheran from Minnesota! It was profound to cross these boundaries, share common joys and fears, and work together.
This model of conference (or “UNconference”), while respecting each person’s right NOT to talk, does a good job at opening up even pretty strong introverts, so that people don’t spend three days with their heads down, pen to paper – but looking up and talking and listening as other participants share. The UNCO assumes that we all have knowledge and expertise to share with one another, and that from interacting with each other we can come up with ideas for specific situations we’re concerned about or in which we find ourselves. The free time built in the schedule is helpful for continuing conversation, but also for making new friends as we bond around our love for Jesus and our desire to serve. Well worth the time and effort. I hope to be back next year!
Click here if you would like more information about UNCO. They hold two gatherings a year – one on the east coast and one on the west…