Shaky start, strong finish: Convo offers 'thinkers week' for pastors

Shaky start, strong finish: Convo offers 'thinkers week' for pastors

As dean for Ministers Convocation for the second consecutive year, the Rev. Darryll Rasnake thought he knew what to expect this year. He was wrong.

On Feb. 27, the day before Convocation started, Rasnake learned that his main speaker wouldn't be able to attend.

The Rev. Don Saliers, professor of theology and worship at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, had to stay in Atlanta to care for his gravely ill wife, Jane.

On Feb. 28, conference staff member Sue Weber was on her way to Lake Junaluska Conference Center to begin registration for Convocation when her car hydroplaned and flipped on Jonathan Creek Road.

Weber was uninjured -- except for a nick on her hand caused by broken glass -- and Rasnake was able to retrieve Convocation materials from her totaled 2000 Saturn.

But Weber was sent back home to Tennessee to rest and recuperate, and Convocation 2011 itself was looking kind of shaky.

"It was all real unfortunate," the Rev. Rasnake said, "but I'm so glad that Sue wasn't hurt."

Still, the design team pulled together, and with the help of co-speaker Rev. Edward Phillips, Holston's annual continuing education event for clergy was presented and attended by about 260 from Feb. 28 to March 4 in Lake Junakaluska, N.C.

Under the theme "Worship: Faithful and Relevant," the event departed from previous convocations because it was heavy on lectures and worship in Harrell Center auditorium and did not include assorted workshops in Terrace Hotel. The seminar was sponsored by the Wesley Leadership Institute.

"We wanted to challenge people to really learn and study -- to make it a 'thinker's week,' a real continuing education event," said Rasnake, associate pastor at Church Street UMC, Knoxville District.

Speakers included Phillips, associate professor of worship and liturgical theology at Candler School of Theology; the Rev. Heather Elkins, professor of worship, preaching, and the arts of the Theological School of Drew University; and the Rev. Dawn Chesser, associate pastor at Central UMC in Lenoir City and doctoral student in liturgical studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Phillips filled many of the gaps left by Saliers' absence, even reading a Saliers lecture aloud and leading a follow-up discussion on the final day.

Several common church practices and assumptions were challenged. Phillips cautioned against using sentimental, popular music or photos of third-world children to provoke an emotional response from would-be worshipers.

"For many of us, the notion of religion is to give us warm, fuzzy feelings rather than Christ's body in the world," Phillips said. "But just because you feel it, doesn't mean it's real ... Ninety percent of bulletin covers are Hallmark moments of spirituality."

Elkins amused her listeners when she burst out during a panel session, "What are you going to do about the vampires?"

Elkins observed that the nation's young are currently fascinated with vampire books, shows, and movies, "because why? Because life is the blood," she said. "Do we have nothing with which to resist this? Somebody needs to do some sacramental work on vampires."

Rasnake said he was most proud of the range of daily worship services, especially concluding worship and Holy Communion with Bishop James Swanson.

In a message titled, "OMG," Swanson asked listeners if their worship experiences led them or their flocks to respond, "Oh, my God."

"What is it about worship that makes you skip and jump and leap and run when you leave that place -- or makes you cry until you have no tears?" he said.

"There ought to be something on Sunday morning that makes a man want to stop squandering his money on alcohol when he has a family to take care of," Swanson said.

"There ought to be something on Sunday morning to make a person say, 'I shouldn't take the Lord's money and spend it to buy season tickets for Vols games.'"'

A few participants observed that although Convocation design teams strive to secure good speakers within budget, many Holston clergy don't attend primarily for the speakers, anyway, but to visit with other clergy.

"This was an opportunity for real community building," said the Rev. Joe-d DowlingSoka, pastor at First Bristol UMC in Abingdon District.



Saliers update: Holston Conference grieves the loss of Jane Firmin Saliers, who died Saturday, March 7, in Atlanta.

Next year: The Rev. Ann Robins, pastor at Ebenezer UMC in Knoxville District, will serve as dean for Ministers Convocation 2012.

Last year: "Clergy Land: Un-learning bad habits to reach the un-churched" (The Call, 2-8-10)

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