Fanning the Flame – Reflections

I got mugged by a New Yorker...

Well, I’m safely home after Fanning the Flame 2010. I thought I’d share some thoughts about the conference before I completely slack off for the next 3 days.

First, the staff of ABCNJ is one of the most encouraging groups of people I’ve every had the blessing to know. They are universally fun, reflective, and intelligent (yes, Smitty, even you – don’t laugh). I have encountered so many “drones” wearing clergy colors in my pastoral life, you have no idea how wonderful it is to be with a group of people who know how to think and are willing to learn. Even though most of them aren’t geeks, I still feel like I’m among my own kind when I’m with them. This makes travel very easy.

I also want to note that the tone of this conference seemed to be much less “negative” than at the last conference. Last time the programming wasn’t negative, but many of the people I met just seemed to have an “in your face” attitude towards people who weren’t on their “team” in general, and towards the denomination in general. Not being an Evangelical™, I found myself often sliding away from conversations because I simply didn’t feel safe. When I brought this up in 2008 I was told, “Well, that’s what’s been done to us over the years.” It didn’t help. In 2010, however, the conversations seemed to have a lot less underlying hostility about them. I felt more comfortable staying in conversations with people, and where I found points of disagreement they were well-spoken and humbly put forward. There were a couple of times where the old Baptist anti-Catholic prejudice popped up but even that was muted. The best way for me to put it was that I felt safe to be challenged at Fanning the Flame 2010.

As far as the structure of the conference goes, you could tell that it was put together by a committee. Everyone who had any finger in making the conference “go” was given time on the main platform. I know that all the sponsoring groups need to be highlighted during the main sessions – that’s part of the deal of sponsorship. When you have a committee, however, the ability to be creative dies – even when the opportunity to be creative is offered. Several regions were supposed to bring “ministry success videos,” but they opted to just get up and talk. Other sponsoring organizations did the same thing. Two things bothered me about this. First, time had to be made for these groups to show their colors – this made the program to be completely inflexible. We would have all been better served with 2 minute videos that said more and blathered less. Second I heard several times, “Well you can’t expect a Baptist pastor to get up and only speak for two minutes.” All I could think is, “That’s right, which is why we didn’t expect you to get up.” We need an independent team to plan these things, who have the authority to crack the whip when necessary.

As for the track I led I have to say that I came away encouraged. Neither Stan nor I had any clue as to what to do with the rubric that was handed to us (another sign of preparation by committee), and a lot of the responses people left to our pre-conference questions left me quite disheartened. It seemed as though the people coming were there to be talked to, rather than work. When we sent out a second poll to see what technology people were bringing I began to suspect that my first impressions were wrong. People were bringing laptops and smart phones, which made me suspect that we could have some fun together. When the group finally got together, I realized that these were people who were absolutely willing to learn, think, grow, be challenged, and who would challenge me with intelligent questions. I had an absolute blast being with them – and I repent of my earlier negativity. Thank you to everyone who participated, and I hope you let me know what you’re doing in the future!

The biggest question for me is, “Am I refreshed?” That answer is, “No.” Not because the conference was bad or wasn’t refreshing, but because I never stopped. I taught my sessions, helped people with computer questions, dealt with several “muggings” by people who brought slides to give me even though I told them not to, coordinated with the song-leader (who was so easy to work with, thanks Hannah), and put together multi-media presentations to keep the main sessions lively. I was up early, always on call, left meals (and conversations) early to see that the main sessions would look right, and just generally worked my tail off. I had a good time, but I’m the opposite of refreshed. I think a nice gift to Central Baptist would have been money to cover an extra week of vacation upon my return that way I could experience the same refreshment that I helped other pastors receive and Central would have been appropriately thanked for making the space for me to go.

Am I glad I went? Absolutely. Teaching and assisting others to teach exhausts me, but it’s what I’m called to do. So even with my feeling of weariness the experience was worth it.