Unco: retreat and engagement

Two or three years ago now, I sat down with my newly consecrated suffragan bishop for my annual interview. He looked at my file and commented that I had kept up very well with my continuing education having attended conferences and courses regularly. More regularly than many of my colleagues. “But,” he asked, “when was the last time you went on retreat?” I had not attended a retreat since my ordination, in fact, I couldn’t remember when I had, aside from quiet days which were part of my formation.

I have a love hate relationship with retreats. I love the silence, just the time to think is great blessing. I often return to writing while on retreat. I have many half completed journals. I love to walk labyrinths and go for hikes. I also read books that have been sitting on my shelf since bought from the discount classic shelf at Chapters.

I’m less keen to participate in organized retreats. For one I am often the youngest there and, while I appreciate the wisdom of my “big sisters” there are realities of my generation that I often reflect on when I have the time. The main thing, though, is coming from PEI, silent meals are, to me, the most unnatural and rude way to spend an hour. I can’t actually eat without talking. My mouth does not work. I am probably also afraid of the imposed structure. What if I really just want to sleep and it is time for something or other? When I do retreat, I like to set my own framework.

Of course, that means actually committing to my own retreat which, for at least five years, I failed to do.

Last year, I started on twitter and, somehow, landed in with a bunch of PCUSA tweeps. They are still, by far, the most represented group on my feed. Unco10 was being organized and it sounded right up my alley. It was an “unconference”, an open space conference where the participants set the agenda. No workshop leaders were invited, no keynote speakers. I thought I would like to attend. I was also invited to Ask and Imagine around the same time. I was, however, in the process of being appointed to Trinity and, knowing my time at Three Harbours was short, could not take the time I wanted.

So, when twitter lit up again with that #unco11 tag, I got excited. Not only was I excited that it looked very much like I could attend, but my dear friends who I pray with every week via Skype but had never met were going to attend, too, so we would meet face to face for the first time.

As I was hitting the 8 or 9 month mark of my time at Trinity, it was Lent, Easter was coming, I had not been able to take a complete vacation before arriving, I was getting pretty tired. I had just begun a new relationship with a spiritual director and it was time to retreat.

But I began to wonder. I had come to know my tweeps, how dynamic, gregarious, hilarious and visionary they were. They could not wait to see one another again. They were brimming with creativity and, well, extroverted hilarity. I love extroverted hilarity as much as the next pastor, but I was also aware that the plan was to take my first retreat in over five years. Would this work? Would I be distracted by the conversations I love to have about the future of the church? Was this really the best place to retreat?

I asked if anyone else was retreating during Unco. I mean, it was a time for us to do what we each needed, right? So, I packed up a book, my journal, my trusty macbook, hopped on a plane to meet my ride at Newark airport, a tweep who offered me a ride through that marvelous hashtag.

In fact, Unco was exactly the place for me to have the retreat I needed. The days were rooted in worship, a critical piece of any retreat for me. The worship was dynamic, creative, intimate and intriguing while rooted in something historic, traditional and true. I prayed and ate with the group and, while I did not participate in as many conversations as others did, I joined in an affirming and honest conversation about vocation and learned something about reiki, all from the talented and gifted folks who found their way to Unco.

When others were gathering, I was walking and writing. The book I brought  ended up not what I had expected at all…and not in that Spirit surprise kinda way, either. It put me to sleep. Which actually gave me a little more time to spend with my dear friend.

At our opening worship, we were asked, “What are you giving up to be here?” I gave up my need to be part of the crowd, to contribute, and gave myself permission to make Unco what I needed…time to reflect on my journey, my next steps, to meet an old friend for the first time, and, when I had my fill of that, envisioning a church not bound by buildings or fear.

If you know you need something but aren’t sure what it is, you will find it at Unco. Plans for Unco 12 are in the works. In the meantime, go to the Unco website and get to know us. If you are on twitter, check out Christopher Harris’s Unco-participants list and follow along. The conversation continues, and most evenings someone is on there drinking some scotch, some wine, or smoking a cigar.



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