Sound of the Genuine

Christian Leadership Forum Reflection

March 11, 2022 FTE Leaders Season 2 Episode 6
Sound of the Genuine
Christian Leadership Forum Reflection
Show Notes Transcript

This is a special episode of the Sound of the Genuine. Today we are going to look back at FTE’s signature event, the Christian Leadership Forum. FTE’s senior director of experience design, Christina Repoley, will be joining Dr. Reyes to talk about several speakers from the previous Forums: Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, Rev. Gail Song Bantum, and Dr. Bayo Akomolafe. These theologians, preachers, and teachers help the next generation of Christian leaders discern their next most faithful step. The episode previews what participants can expect at the upcoming Christian Leadership Forum to be held in Atlanta, Georgia, June 1-4, 2022. 

Sign up for the Christian Leadership Forum at fteleaders.org/events. Remember to follow FTE on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for alerts on new episodes.

Christina Repoley CLF Reflection

Patrick: Hey, what's going on it's Dr. Patrick Reyes here, and we have a special episode of the Sound of the Genuine podcast. Today we are going to look back at the Christian Leadership Forum which is FTE's central event of the year where we gather Christian leaders from across this country - pastors theologians, speakers - to reflect on what does it mean to be in leadership for the church and the academy today? 

We have our senior director of experience design, Christina Repoley joining us. And what I'm excited about this episode is you're going to walk us through some of that gathering and convening. And we're going to start at the beginning of this pandemic. 

March 13th is the last day FTEs in its offices. And you were thinking about pivoting what would have been our largest gathering of the year - first time back in a couple of years, Christian Leadership Forum. Tell us a little about what the Christian Leadership Forum is and what was the challenge you were facing at the beginning of this pandemic to really think about putting Reverend Dr. Elizabeth Conde Frazier in front of young people and partners?

Christina: Yeah, so the Christian Leadership Forum is traditionally one of FTE's large events where we have brought together in person, many of our different community members, constituencies. And so that's an event where we've brought together young adults, we brought together partners who work directly with young adults, and it's a time where we get to be with all of our people and where we get to have an intergenerational experience really, where young adults and partners who work with them all get to be together in the same space and learn, and be inspired and practice together around different models of ministry, different models of leadership. So my team started somewhat of an experiment inviting some of the speakers, some of the leaders, who would have been with us in keynote roles at the Christian Leadership Forum to provide a virtual experience for our constituents - a series that we called Discerning Our Way Forward which was what we were all doing right at that moment together.

Like, what does this mean? How do we move forward just in our lives and our work and our families? And then particularly for our young adults who we would have also brought together in person later that year for a discernment retreat that would have been a space that FTE curates specifically for young adults to be together with their peers, but also to be inspired by, learn from, grow with, other leaders and ministers who we invite. 

And so we had invited Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier to speak to our young adults. And that was actually at the national discernment retreat, which we also held virtually in 2020. So that's the context for inviting her into that space with our young adults.

Patrick: And tell us a little bit about Dr. Conde-Frazier. Who is she? Why did you invite her? Like, why is she the person, in this moment that so many of us were in deep turmoil, why was she the right speaker at the right time?

Christina: Dr. Conde-Frazier has been a board member of FTE. She's been a leader in theological education. She's been a mentor to many people on our staff and to our constituents, I know to you, Patrick, in particular. She's someone who we knew, from all kinds of experiences with her, that she was going to bring just the right combination of wisdom, inspiration, hopefulness, but not hope that is ungrounded, that comes from her deep lived experience of her life. And so we knew that in that moment our young adults, though we wanted them to also be exposed to people closer to their own age who were doing ministry who were doing all kinds of interesting things, we really needed an elder.

We really needed an elder in that space and time to push our young adults and hold them and support them. And that's one of the amazing qualities that Dr. Conde- Frazier brings. You know she just loves you very deeply, but so fiercely that she's not just going to let you sit there and not grow and not be pushed to be your very best self.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is hopefully a once in a lifetime experience that was very disorienting, unlike anything we've experienced, it's not to say that many people in our communities haven't been through all kinds of hard times, all kinds of difficult situations of suffering and disorientation.

And so we really wanted to have someone with us who could speak to what does it take to be resilient at a time like this? How do you pull from the depths of your faith and your experience and your life to carry on, and to keep going and do that in a way that's so grounded in her love I think her deep love that she just conveys to everyone.

Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier: My grandmother always knew that God could hear her. A woman who was arthritic ridden, who stayed up at night because of the pain, praying for others to be healed, and they were. But when she asked God to heal her daughter's cancer, like God had done with others that she had prayed for, she told us that God would not come to her daughter. That she had fought with God all night, to which my grandfather commented, I pity God. Because, you know, he understood what it meant for my grandmother to fight with you. My grandmother could have a fight with you today and three weeks later you'd be sitting in her kitchen and she would say, "so like I was saying," and you're like, oh my God, this is going to start all over again!

Okay. She did not quit. She gathered the family the next morning and with pressed lips, like prunes - like when you have something that's really sour in your mouth - she told us God does not come to heal my daughter. My grandfather started to sob and he left the apartment and my grandmother said, don't worry, he'll be back, he's okay. 

And then she turned to us, it was my mother that she was talking about, and she said, while God will take her, God promised me that he will take care of us in the moment and the days to come. We will know sorrow. We will also know God's accompaniment. And then she began to sing in Spanish, why should I be discouraged?

And she sang it with her eyes closed. She forgot we were there. And that was her faith. Hope had crept in after lament. Disorientation, bewilderment is all about chaos, confusion, and uncertainty. And when we lament it's because we're in the midst of some kind of chaos, some kind of uncertainty, some kind of, "Oh my God, where's all of this going? Is this really happening?"

That's the same place…hello! Listen carefully! That disorientation is the same place where resurrection began. The disciples had lost Jesus, their friend, their buddy-buddy, the person that had given them a sense of who they were, had given them new names - some of them, so that they would remember that they were somebody different.

He brought them into being, into their fullness of who they were. And remember, disciples were teenagers. They're not these old men whose pictures we see as disciples. No, the disciples were not old people. Jesus was 30 to 33 during his ministry that he had disciples. And that meant that it was the teenagers that you were mentoring in that moment.

And so they had lost him! Now what do we do? He gave us a sense of mission. He gave us power for that mission. We saw great things happen - Poof - it's gone. What are we supposed to do? And then the resurrection. And the resurrection is so disorienting it's like this has gotta be a lie. As a matter of fact, in the book of Mark, the first version of Mark that comes out, it stops. And it stops right after the women say to the disciples that Jesus has risen.

Nobody goes out to say anything. They leave it there. It's like, they can't believe it. So let's stop this right now, it's not going anywhere. They're going to say we're crazy. That's where the resurrection takes place. It's something surprising. It's something crazy. It's something out of, out of this world, it just blows your mind!

It can't be! It is. It's resurrection. How shall we find our place in a world where everything is changing and the church is herself in the same confusion? Who are we? What is our vocation? Who will guide us? I'm a child of immigrants. Children of immigrants know this pathway well. You see, we learn the language and we learn to guide our parents, it's supposed to be the other way around. No.

I remember being seven years old and I'm translating for neighbors. Not only my parents, for neighbors, for a whole generation of people. I had to guide them in the new society. Really scary and you tremble! But our elders, while they know not how to move in this society, honey they taught us how to pray.

Your past generations built the pathways of hope where no one knew you could build. Have faith. And remember, faith is a two-way street. You have faith in God, but God has faith in you. And therefore God places the light of love in your hearts and callings. And God is now calling you out of that light of your calling to love, to bring light. You are the future that looks like it refuses to be born. You engender it by doing the work of hope. Well, what is this made of?

It is made out of vision, but also my longtime dreams - your vision and my longtime dreams. Why is that? Because the spirit of God has come upon us, whether or not you have noticed it. And young persons, it says, will have visions and old persons like me, we will have dreams. I stretch my hands out to you - I stretch them out to you.

Let us form relationships, let us covenant together to organize and advance the project of hope. Break the boxes because they separate us, they no longer work. They create illusions and pretenses without realistic possibilities. It is time to work in partnership with one another, with values, with a mission, with commitment, with the courage to do a work of ingenuity...the construction of hope. Again, I stretch my hands out to you, together let's do this in Jesus name. I'm an old person. You may think that we're not around and that we don't care, that's not true. You got to find us. You may not find us where you're used to looking!

We are here and we want to do the work with you because you have visions and we have dreams. Let us pray without ceasing. Lament. Wait on God. Timing is important. When you wait, you renew your strength, such strength that you can mount up above the storm clouds like eagles and sing. Oh beloved community, let's do the work of hope together.

Patrick: All right Christina, so we just heard Elizabeth Conde-Frazier tell us about disorientation as youth and how Jesus and his people, all teenagers, are disoriented in their call. And how do we find a way forward in the midst of all that? I want to fast forward us a little bit, not just a little bit, a year, a full year from that moment that Elizabeth Conde-Frazier is preaching. The murder of George Floyd sets off social unrest, Vanessa Guillén, all of these young, black and brown folks who are dying and we are having this moment where it's no longer just about this global virus, but we also have the social unrest. What does it mean to be a person of color in this country in this moment? And we've invited to the Christian Leadership Forum a year later, Reverend Gail Song Bantum out of Seattle to really help us make sense of this disorientation.

Tell us a little bit about what's changed in FTE's work in a year? Tell us a little bit about Gail. Why did you invite Reverend Gail Song Bantum to preach at this Christian Leadership Forum?

Christina: Yeah, a year later, we're still in this virtual space, we've learned a lot about how to convene virtually how to do that well and what it takes to create the kind of space that the so loved and in person events, and try to do some of that virtually. Reverend Gail Song Bantum was going to be our closing preacher for the Christian Leadership Forum in 2020 so we wanted to invite her back because we didn't get to have that opportunity from her in 2020.

And in fact, you know, it couldn't have been a better choice. Given all of what had transpired during the year. Pastor Gail is someone who has been in leadership in pastoral leadership for a long time. And leading her congregation in ways that are always pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable in her denomination and within the larger church body to be a more welcoming, open affirming, diverse congregation that's really speaking out for the marginalized. And she's just such an inspiring leader. And again, like Dr. Conde-Frazier, can just bring the scripture and enliven it and open it in a way that you're like, what? I didn't know that's what that was saying. I didn't know that was there. And so that's what she did for us as the closing preacher of this year's virtual Christian Leadership Forum.

Rev. Gail Song Bantum: It's not just a little battle over a plot of land, but we have the kingdom of bondage against the kingdom of liberation. A kingdom of lies against the kingdom of truth, a kingdom of greed against the kingdom of generosity, a kingdom of self-sustaining power against the kingdom of inheritance and shared community. Ahab is saying, I want to take that which God has given you and I want to have dominion over it. This is Ahab's sinfulness against God and Naboth. This is our nation's sinfulness against black and indigenous and immigrant and refugee bodies. This is many of our major institutions’ sinfulness against the LGBTQ+ community.

But in the midst of Ahab's sinfulness, I want you to notice Naboth's righteousness. Naboth doesn't actually say a lot of words in this whole chapter. All he gets to say in the whole story is, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Naboth right here is theologically motivated. Not whatever would have been the easiest way.

He's communally driven, not moved by fear or enticed by personal gain. His spirituality, as Bayo [Akomolafe] would say, is place-making work. In fact, it could have been a really good deal for him. He could have cashed out and retired early and actually survived to tell the story. But Naboth knew that the land ultimately belonged to God, who gave it to his ancestor.

Every Israelite family was given a piece of property as part of God's covenantal promise. So laws were established to keep the land within the families as their inheritance. I wonder what your vineyard is?

I've been thinking about some words that the Reverend Dr. Renita Weems shared with me and our church almost two years ago during my installation service. It was a reminder to us that what we build today - how much generosity we offer today, when we extend the leaf in the table today, how we sacrifice some things today, will determine everything for our children and our children's children, tomorrow.

It was a word that pointed to a reality beyond ourselves. Listen, anything worthwhile ought to cost us something. That's the conviction David had as well in second Samuel, right? “I will not offer sacrifices to my God of that which costs me nothing.”

I wonder if Fannie Lou Hamer also had this truth in mind when she said “Nobody's free until everybody's free.” Anything worthwhile ought to cost us something.

Sometimes faithfulness looks like a rupturing - saying no to an easier way or a more tempting path. Those in power may have to scheme and execute a plan and make up new rules to bring charges, to kill your call, to take your vineyard. But this vineyard...this vineyard is not for sale. The truth of who you are, the call of God on your life, that beloved community that the spirit of God has shown you in your mind's eye, that vineyard is not for sale.

What house are we going to build today beloveds? What legacy are we gonna leave as leaders? What we build today, and I'll leave you with this word again: What we build today, how much generosity we offer today, as we crack open this table and unearth the leaf today, how we sacrifice some things today will determine everything for our children's children, tomorrow. 

Patrick: So Christina, we just heard this great preaching from Reverend Gail Song Bantam, who is trying to make sense of navigating these systems, about placing young people and partners and reforming them, changing them to work on behalf of our people, but the Christian Leadership Forum didn't just have a closing preacher. We had a bunch of workshop leaders, we had speakers, and one of the folks you brought in was kind of our keynote, our theologian, our thought leader who is going to challenge us to think a little differently about this Design Our Way Forward, and that was Bayo Akomolafe, who I don't think is part of the formal church structures - is not a Reverend, and not a Reverend Doctor. Tell us a little about who Bayo is and give us some context for what the invitation was for him to join us to at the Christian Leadership Forum.

Christina: So Bayo Akomolafe is Nigerian. He lives in India. And he describes himself as a recovering academic. Bayo we decided to invite because we really wanted someone who could turn all of our ideas a little bit upside down. What we were hoping to do in that Christian Leadership Forum was expand imagination.

We knew he was going to be someone who could do that. Part of how we knew this is because many of our staff participated in a course that he led earlier in the year, last year called We Will Dance with Mountains where we engaged with him and his team over the course of many weeks to really expand our thinking about basically, what it means to be human in this time on this earth.

And how we redefine and expand our categories and our thinking about the world. And so we thought who better than Bayo Akomolafe to help us think about what designing our way forward after these multiple crises in our world could look like in a very different way than we maybe had imagined before.

Dr. Bayo Akomolafe: This is not just a viral age, this is also a theological moment with theological imperatives and invitations to revisit our notions of what it means to be in faith, what it means to be alive, what it means to be God's creature. 

I grew up in a heavily Christian home. we used to call it Bible chasing devil thumping, speaking in tongues, that kind of thing. I grew up in that kind of home. We went to church every Sunday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, and all the services in between.

I remember listening to one of my pastors say that I am made in the image of God, I'm made in the image of God. Don't you know, you're made in the image of God? Don’t you know, you're made in the image of God? It was something of...it was something of a shock. I'd grown up feeling a sense of inadequacy.

That's a larger story, but the idea that I was made in the image of God was liberating. It felt that my inadequacy could be explained by a larger template that I was made to fit a purpose that was divine and sacred and beyond my immediacy, my immediate circumstances. And so I trusted that idea and I was made in the image of God. But as I started to grow in that idea, the image started to look more and more foreign and strange and exterior.

The image didn't look like me anymore. And it represented a new dynamic of inadequacy. Like I was trying to catch up with an image that was increasingly elite and distant. You know, evading my grasp, this image. So I started to learn about the historicity of this image. The idea that this image was not just an image that appeared out of pure innocence or some objective universal reality, this image had a troubling historicity. 

It was embodied and materialized in the advent of the interventions and the interruptions of colonial empires. I understood the image as, as the white man showing up on our shores and basically saying all your histories, all your educations, all your knowledges, all your traditions, all your rituals are for naught, nonsense.

So that to say that I'm made in the image of God is to suggest that I'm un-made in the image of God. To be made is to be un -made in the self-same moment because I'm constantly becoming. Then colonization becomes the practices, the globalizing practices, of trapping me in a state of being and cutting away my becomingness.

There is therefore something to be said about a theology of the broken image of God that speaks to our moment, these moments, these moments when things get confusing, when the world ends in a pandemic and space-time is frozen. And we're not exactly sure where to go. 

There is something to be said about the broken image of God. There's something soft about that. Something lonely and in our chemical and amniotic and emergent about the idea that also God is figuring things out and we're in this together. There is a certain tradition that is often not spoken about. I definitely didn't learn this as a child, of a panentheism.

There's pantheism. You've probably heard of pantheism. Pantheism is the idea that God is the world and the world is God. Panentheism is slightly different. It's the idea that God is the world, but slightly exceeds it. That God is a fugitive bit of errancy that just drifts away from totalization. That the world is open and God is open so that you cannot name a thing that is sure and true as the world. In a sense that the Genesis story is still going on right now. The creative moment is still going on right now. We're finding ourselves in the book of Genesis, not just the book of revelations, maybe the book of revelations is already implied in the book of Genesis, but we're in a moment of endings and radical new beginnings.

And this is the moment we're being called to stay with the idea of brokenness. If the image of God has been captured by colonial enterprises. And if this image powered the slave plantation, then we need to become fugitive. We need to steal away from the cracks or through the cracks to other worlds. And this is where designing our way forward comes into being. What does it mean to design one's way forward when we don't even know exactly what forward means? What does it mean to stay with the unknowingness of becoming, what does it mean to acclimatize to a world that exceeds our imaginations?

I feel that these times call for us to run, to steal away in the dead of night, like fugitives through cracks. And maybe I'll end with speaking about cracks. Cracks have a prestigious history in the scriptures. Every time it seems something monumental happens, a crack shows up. A crack showed up when Moses broke open the mountain for water to quench the thirst of the Israelites. A crack opened up when Jesus died, splitting the curtain into two. It seems a crack is the inauguration of unspeakable moments.

This is what you do here, you stay with the crack. Don't cover it up. Don't cover the crack-up, just stay with the crack and see what happens with this opening. The world is proliferating cracks, like I said earlier on. 

What are the cracks? The places of failure, the places of inadequacy, the places where we're not good enough, the places of shadows and darkness. I feel we're being invited to go through those cracks and treat them as sites of study. To recalibrate our notions of leadership in times of trouble, to make sanctuary together, to perform exile through cracks. The time of covering cracks is done. The time of thinking about the world as a smooth sailing is done.

Now we need to shape shift. I feel we need to perform a descending, the kind of descending that Christ performed on holy Saturday. Right? Not running away from the tomb, but actually descending into hell as a response of death.

In these times of demise and dying, where do we go? In the times of George Floyd in the times of racial fires, in the times when justice doesn't seem to be doing its work, injustice kneels on our necks, and it seems like the nation state is increasingly the enemy, increasingly a villain. This is a time for leaders who are curating cracks, who are inviting us to stay with the cracks.

And I think that is the subtle voice of God, the whispered voice of God in these valleys saying in order to find me, you need to lose your way. In order to find me you need to hold on to new questions. In order to find me you need to treat faith, not as certitude, but as rewilding new coalitions with the more than human world.

So let me end with this saying that I'm usually known for, that in times of urgency let us slow down. Because the anthropos, the human, the colonial enterprise that is gripping the world and trying to totalize everything in this rationalistic, Eurocentric, Euro American enlightenment grip - that if emancipation means anything, it must mean stealing away from this plantation that enlists our bodies in the labor and the production, the ongoing production of speed.

The ongoing production of the familiar. Slowing down is not about reducing ones speed, slowing down is about noticing the others in the room. I cannot help but imagine that noticing God is part of this noticing we're being invited to. But it's not the noticing of a static image again, it's noticing a vibrant, vital, humanist wild man dancing in the weird distance, beyond our fences, asking us to come play, asking us to come up with new names.

Patrick: Christina, we just heard from Bayo about exploring the fissures, the fractions lifting them up as leaders and being able to address them. So we've gone from Elizabeth Conde Frazier who has talked about being disoriented and the role that plays in finding our call.

And we've heard from Pastor Gail about how we sacrifice for our children's children's children. Thinking about this vineyard actually belongs to God, it belongs to the descendants of our people. Now with Bayo been really challenged [with] maybe that's not even the thing we need to do. Maybe we need to run from them and create something new altogether

So this, I can imagine for a young adult or even a partner who's working with young adults, can be a lot. That's a pretty broad spectrum of how to address leadership today. From FTE's perspective, from your perspective, what is it that if I'm a young adult I'm coming to a Christian leadership forum, what can I expect to have happen to me as I hear these great speakers as I engage with my peers, what can I expect?

Christina: [In] all of our experiences, our events, our learning communities, we hope that we've created a hospitable space for you, that you've been welcomed and celebrated and grounded in the space that we've created, whether virtually or in person. And then that you will be asking self-awakening questions. That you're not going to get a lot of answers as you might be able to tell from some of our speakers, but you're going to be given a lot of questions that really help you discern your deepest, passion and purpose.

You're going to have the opportunity at all of our events to reflect theologically on these questions, on the state of the world, on the things that you care about, there's going to be an element of theological reflection. And finally, we don't want you to ever leave one of our experiences just feeling like, oh my gosh, Bayo's just turned everything upside down on its head and I have no idea what to do next, but we are always going to walk you through a process of helping you think about enacting your next most faithful step. These are big ideas. These are big questions. 

And some people do feel like I leave an FTE experience and everything has changed, my life has changed, but you also have to be able to take a very practical next step. So what is the practical next step that you're going to take? So that's always something that is really important in these FTE experiences that we want to expand your imagination. We want to ask big questions, think theologically together, and we want to help you think about what's the next step, the one right next step to take, to get to ultimately where you might want to be going.

Patrick: If someone wanted to take their next most faithful step to learn more about, attending and discern event or the Christian Leadership Forum, where might they find more information? 

Christina: I hope you will visit our website, fteleaders.org, and on our website, there's all kinds of resources. We've got a section for our events, typically always have experiences coming up, discernment retreats, partner events, and Christian Leadership Forum kinds of experiences.

There's also great resources there that you might want to look more into - books that our staff have published, and our partners have published that are great resources for continuing this kind of exploration and work. Of course, if you haven't listened to other episodes of the Sound of the Genuine Podcast that would also be a great way to learn about some of our amazing partners and then be linked to the resources that they recommend as well. 

Patrick: Christina, thank you so much for sharing your reflections on these great speakers and a lot of gratitude for Reverend Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, Reverend Gail Song Bantum and Dr. Bayo Akomolafe for offering their wisdom. We are grateful that they are part of this great cloud of witnesses. And don't forget that you can register for the Christian leadership Forum in 2022 by visiting our website fteleaders.org. Sign up today and reserve your spot. We hope to see you in Atlanta. 

And as always, I want to say thank you to my team Elsie Barnhart, Heather Wallace, Diva Morgan Hicks and @siryalibeats for putting together this great episode.  And if you can do us a favor and subscribe and rate this podcast so others might find it. We'll see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.