Report from Acts 8 Gathering in the Diocese of Indianapolis … by Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale

The Acts 8 gathering at the convention of the Diocese of Indianapolis this past Friday is a textbook example of how not to plan just about anything.

Due to various distractions, I secured a spot on the convention’s calendar only 10 days before convention started. A comprehensive list of publicity efforts includes: a post on my blog, a mention in a diocesan e-mail, a post in the diocesan Facebook group, two tweets, a paragraph in the listing of events during the convention’s lunch break, and a sad little sign deposited on a table.

I arrived at convention, mildly catatonic and completely unprepared, two hours after a long flight home from Southeast Asia. Formal planning for the gathering included a brief conversation with my co-faciliator, the Rev. Suzanne Wille, who picked me up from the airport, and cribbing the outline from Susan Snook’s report on the Acts 8 gathering in Arizona┬áduring boring parts of the morning’s legislative session.

My slipshod organization should have doomed this to failure, but the room was soon full with 39 people from endowed program parishes and rural missions. The laypeople present were about the same age as the convention at large; the clergy skewed young. Most had not heard of the Acts 8 Moment.

We introduced ourselves, we prayed, and before long, the book of Acts was speaking to the people in the room. People talked about being prepared to listen for the spirit. They talked about being called to serve the Gospel, not the institutional church. They reflected on the spontaneity of both Philip and the eunuch, noting that Philip did not require the eunuch to take a class before baptizing him. One person, responding to the “wilderness road”, told a story of her parish opening its doors for a community meal with no agenda other than to see who would come in.

We dreamed of a church together. One person dreamed of a church that believes in its faith, instead of fear. An African-American layperson dreamed of a church with more people who look like her. A white priest dreamed of a church with more people who don’t look like him. One person dreamed of a church that is full, while another dreamed of a church that is empty because its members are doing God’s work outside its doors.

Afterwards I talked to participants who expressed appreciation for the workshop, particularly for the inherent optimism of the Acts 8 message. Most were surprised by the format – they were expecting a lecture, not an intimate encounter with scripture, the Holy Spirit, and each other. A priest consulting with four mission churches in a rural deanery approached me about using the Acts 8 model to help discern a new way forward. A parishioner at my church who wasn’t present but heard about it later, asked me for resources to help her deploy this workshop at her new post after she is ordained a deacon next weekend. Some people asked, “What now?” I had to be honest: I don’t know yet.

I do not recommend my disorganized approach to this. Its unlikely success is evidence of the hunger the members of our church have for this kind of conversation. They know the days of the institution we once knew are past, and are eager to discern what is next. May the Holy Spirit guide us.

Some notes on the format:

Susan Snook noted in her report from Arizona that the workshop practically runs itself. She is correct – if you’re interested in trying this out, don’t be anxious. Just take the outline and run with it.

The role of the facilitator is primarily to be a timekeeper and get out of the way. As far as division of labor, Suzanne thought it was simplest if one person had primary responsibility for the workshop. I ran most of it, but she did one of the scripture readings, and took notes on what people were saying. This turned out to be pretty comfortable, but other models would work just as well.

We followed the General Convention/Arizona outline almost exactly, with only two exceptions worth noting: 1) observing the demographics of the room, I decided that the “Generational Perspective” discussion could turn people off before we even got started and omitted it; 2) we did not record or use a microphone for the “I dream of a church…” segment, asking people to stand and speak from their seats instead. This section started very slow, but I just pretended it was a Quaker meeting and waited. It worked.

Breaking the participants into small groups is vital. There was lots of active conversation during the group discussion segment, but many people were shy about sharing with the full group. Acts 8 may have planted some seeds among these participants we’ll never know about.

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