After a challenging 2022, the Covenant church community started off 2023 in illustrious fashion as folks gathered for another Midwinter conference. Registered attendees gathered remotely via the online platform Brushfire and in person at the Hyatt Regency Riverfront in downtown Jacksonville, Florida. The theme was “Draw Near,” exhorting attendees to draw near both to God and to each other as Covenant mission friends.
And Midwinter week actually started on…
Saturday through Monday was the NextGen Conference, a gathering of leaders who minister to people in the emerging generations—children and family pastors, youth pastors, and young adult ministry leaders. Veteran North Park worship leader Steve Kelly and his band led worship in song for those gathered, who also were able to hear from outstanding speakers throughout the weekend. Joseph “Sojo” Sojourner told a funny story about a dog, encouraging people to be alert and attentive to God’s activity and movement. Clay Scroggins talked about the challenges of self-awareness and self-leadership. And Sarah Cowan Johnson talked about changing the culture of children’s ministry toward activating and equipping parents to take the lead in their children’s spiritual formation.
And then the Midwinter Conference began on…
Monday evening began with dinner offered through a variety of buffet options and a unique worship service from longtime Covenanter Matt Lundgren and his assembled band, who crafted a series of worship medleys from historical Covenant hymnody and broader evangelical culture, themed to span several eras in our denominational history, entitled “The Songs That Made Us.” Starting with the nineteenth-century Swedish hymn “Children of the Heavenly Father” and ending with “What a Beautiful Name” from Hillsong Worship, people across the room lifted their voices in praise to God.
After the worship set, North Park Theological Seminary recognized Debbie Blue as their distinguished alumnus of the year. Blue was appointed in 2007 to lead the department of Compassion, Mercy, and Justice, which has since been renamed Love Mercy Do Justice (LMDJ), and she has since served in a variety of leadership roles, using her loving influence as a non-anxious presence to advocate for righteousness and shalom.
And then it was onto…
Tuesday morning we heard from our president, Tammy Swanson-Draheim, who shared a word from Mark 4, likening our current cultural and political moment to the storm that Jesus’s disciples encountered in the boat while Jesus slept. She outlined the mission priorities that guide our ministry, outlined a series of principles and ideas to guide us in the execution of those mission priorities, and encouraged all of us to remain together in the boat. When it came time to address the mandate she was given at last June’s Annual Meeting regarding the topic of human sexuality, President Swanson-Draheim encouraged the leaders present to lead from a posture of humility. Then executive ministers Paul Robinson (Love Mercy Do Justice) and Grace Shim (Serve Globally) walked congregants through an exercise of silent prayer and contemplative reflection.
Tuesday evening we heard from pastor Peter Ahn of Metro Community Church in Englewood, New Jersey, who talked about drawing near to God from a place of weakness. He shared powerfully about how the hypercompetent entrepreneurialism that drives many pastors and church planters can be a Trojan horse for hubris, a works-based, outcome-driven identity and mentality, and ultimately, burnout. We ended the evening by observing the Eucharist, and Pastor Ahn spoke the words of institution that resonated even more powerfully than usual, starting with the often-quoted beginning: “Come [to the Lord’s table], not because you must, but because you may.”
After that it was…
Wednesday morning’s worship service featured a panel of pastors discussing what it means to draw near to others in community. Each one shared stories, ideas, and testimonies on effective partnership with organizations and community stakeholders outside the walls of the church. The panel was moderated by David Swanson, and included Benny Amaya, Andrew Morrell, Sanetta Ponton, Drew Williams, Kimberly Wright, and Cindy Wu. Wednesday evening ALIPE, the Asociación Latina de la Iglesia del Pacto Evangélico, sponsored a prayer and worship service en español. (There were even rumors of a dance party afterward!)
Then it was on to …
Thursday morning’s session featured a highly anticipated address from attorney Bryan Stevenson, whose organization Equal Justice Initiative, advocates on behalf of those mistreated by the American criminal justice system, including clients unjustly incarcerated on death row. For intellectual property reasons his address is not available on our online channels, but he gave an impassioned speech (or sermon!), framing his advocacy work as part of his calling as a Christian. Stevenson told the audience that for justice to prevail, good people must be willing to be proximate (or nearby) to people suffering, they must be willing to be uncomfortable, they must tell the truth about the American narrative of racial difference, and they must remain hopeful.
Thursday evening, we heard from Pastor Jeanne Stevens, co-pastor of Soul City Church in Chicago. Stevens shared about what it means to draw near in true vulnerability and transparency. She asked all the pastors in the room a pointed question: “Who really knows you—and doesn’t need something from you?” After her talk, she encouraged listeners to practice transparency by asking and answering honest questions with those who have no other agenda but to know and be known.
And then finally, it was…
Friday morning was our final session, a group address featuring faculty and staff from North Park Theological Seminary, including introductory remarks from seminary dean Dennis Edwards, and more from Rob Peterson, Paul De Neui, Cheryl Lynn Cain, and Bret Widman. Through the narrative of Moses and the burning bush from Exodus 3, and following the Ignatian prayer of Examen, each speaker walked us through exercises and touchpoints around the themes of awareness, intimacy, identity, and empowerment.
I gotta say, I had a great experience at my first Midwinter conference in my current role as missional storyteller. I experienced some fun reunions with friends I don’t get to see very often and heard some great stories, a few of which may make their way onto this website.
But as I think about the theme of drawing near, it occurred to me just how much work was involved to make this happen. Money needed to be spent. Plans needed to be made. Logistics needed to be worked out. And shout-out to Erik Anderson, Jorden Meyers, and Jill Ulven from the Events office, because they did a ton of work to help plan the Midwinter and NextGen conferences.
And all that work was just as true for people attending. Flights had to be scheduled. Clothes had to be packed. Errands needed to be run beforehand. Phones needed to be charged…and charged again. Even for people who attended virtually, emails needed to be read, links needed to be clicked, and perhaps even someone’s software or firmware needed to be updated.
If you’re anything like me, these potential barriers have the potential to dominate our attention and sap our energy, perhaps leaving us feeling further away from God than we might have otherwise felt. Like the disciples in the boat, or Moses before the Exodus, we might be tempted to second-guess whether God is truly with us.
And if these dynamics are true on an individual basis, they’re even more true corporately. As a church, we are still dealing with the effects of mass trauma, attention fragmentation, organizational upheaval, and political polarization. In such environments, drawing near may seem like a luxury during tough times.
But the Scriptures teach us that we are made for community and connection. If you’re in a moment where drawing near to God or to others feels particularly difficult, that difficulty may be evidence of just how badly you need it. Emotional or spiritual sickness should not keep us away from drawing near any more than physical sickness would keep us from seeing a doctor.
So as Covenant people, I echo the call of President Swanson-Draheim. Let’s stay in the boat, and draw near to God.
And who knows? There might just be miracles in our future.