In the strange world that was 2020 I had the pleasure of attending virtually the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES) biennial conference. For many people, the idea of attending a virtual conference run in another time zone may have been a bit daunting, but I am a night owl. Being online at a conference from 11:30pm to 5:30am and then heading to work at school for two nights and days in a row did not deter my interest or enthusiasm.
All conferences are like a book of short stories, full of potential and possibilities to learn new things and grow your knowledge base. Just as each chapter of a short story has its own fascinating insights and highlights, so do the keynotes and workshops in a conference. The NAES conference was no exception. Overall, I enjoyed the breath and variety of speakers and found the topics covered very relevant, with plenty to challenge me and make me think.
At the time of the conference in November 2020, the US was dealing with what it called a dual pandemic, COVID and the violence resulting from the death of George Floyd. As a conference participant living in Australia, I could well understand the COVID context. The riots and violence that the US participants in the conference were experiencing was not part of my context. However, I appreciated the opportunity provided by the speakers and other chaplains sharing in network breakout sessions to reflect upon issues of racism and discrimination.
Dr Scott Bader-Saye, the Academic Dean and professor of Christian Ethics and Morality at the Seminary of the Southwest, keynote session was on ‘Fear, Faith and Formation’. Dr Bader-Saye examined how fear is a natural part of being human, but when it is allowed to control us it can create negative outcomes such as the violence happening at the time in the US. In the Christian faith we are called to love and to give our fear to God so that we can form our faith into one of gospel love that can address the impact of fear in the lives of those we are called to care for. Dr Bader-Saye addressed how people’s fear is fed and manipulated by others and that God invites us to hand our fear over to him.
In terms of fear, faith and formation, Dr Bader-Saye discussed how we all come from diverse backgrounds and often our fear is that other peoples different backgrounds will threaten the foundations of our values and beliefs. Courage requires us to acknowledge and name our fear in particular when it comes to diverse ideas regarding faith understanding. It also takes courage to acknowledge our fears so that we can meet in the middle and explore our different backgrounds allowing God to work in those spaces and conversations.
Two other highlights from the conference. The first was the conference worship service. Despite getting very used to the world of online church in 2020, I was skeptical that the conference worship service would work online. However, it was a true highlight and an amazingly uplifting experience. To gather across the seas with people, who in some way or another work within my ministry context, also managing lockdowns, school closures and home learning, and the worry and fear of the COVID pandemic was a blessing. At a time when we were in many ways very isolated the conference worship service reminded me that God is present in our worship, no matter the context, our external worries and stresses and that when two or more are gathered, God richly blesses those involved. The different students involved in the service bringing the readings and prayers combined with the sermon by Rev Mark Andrew Jefferson came together to remind us of our ongoing hope in our God and his sustaining presence in the world.
The second highlight was the fellowship. For many people attending conferences, it is the fellowship and networking that is one of the main highlights. The question then is how can this be part of the experience of a virtual conference? It was a delight to have the opportunity to hear, share and network in sessions that had been specifically structured to facilitate this. Perhaps an element of the success of this was that we were in the middle of pandemic with great uncertainty and this gave participants a shared experience. There was a desire to enquire, learn and support each other that may not have been there in normal circumstances. The hosts of this conference made it easy for the networking and fellowship to happen, by putting into practice the ancient and biblical traditions of hospitality and welcome. There is an art and a beauty in being able to, despite, being scattered around the many states of America and other countries to make people feel valued and welcomed. The NAES team did that really well and it was a key element that contributed to the success of their conference.
The NAES conference was at times brain achingly stimulating. It was filled with warmth and hope and it was a timely reminder that God is present in our lives and in our ministry. To quote Ketch Secor (Old Man Medicine Man Founder, Head of Episcopal School of Nashville and speaker at the conference) we ‘continue to pivot seeing the endless possibilities God puts in our schools. As we constantly are called to reassess and sometimes reinvent ourselves and our ministry but at all times never alone for there are other schools to share with and there is always Gods presence both in our lives, the lives of our schools and in our ministries.’