“Learning to Play with Fire” was the theme of the 2018 Clergy Conference at the St. Francis Retreat Center in San Juan Bautista on February 6-8. The annual conference enjoyed its largest attendance yet of canonically resident clergy, who gathered for three days of worship, sharing and learning. Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves set the theme and led the conference, exploring the 2018 diocesan theme of “Identity” — both personal and spiritual identities, as well as in a ministry context – and exploring ways that clergy need to grow as leaders.

Bishop Mary opened the conference by explaining the markers of a learning community, the guidelines for effective communication, and the key messages of the diocesan vision to “be a resilient and dynamic Gospel presence, empowering people to lead faithful lives in a rapidly changing world.” The group examined the strategic objectives to changing the diocese’s culture: building leadership for the future, cultivating the treasures within local neighborhoods, and strengthening connection the church’s connections with the outside world.

From there the conference shifted to conversations about authority: how clergy experience their spiritual practice of authority, identifying their most important values, and how those values are present in everyday ministry. Also discussed was the changing impact of spiritual authority as the church’s influence has shifted in local communities. A key element of the discussion was the “Spectra for the Spiritual Practice of Authority,” which compared the qualities of discipleship – such as management, emotional tension, welcome, and passive – with the qualities of apostleship: leadership, creative tension, invitation, proactive, and more.

With the beautiful campus of St. Francis nestled in the San Juan Bautista hills, the conference enjoyed a natural setting for reflection and inspiration, and Bishop Mary ensured an atmosphere of creativity, playfulness, and community with the presence of beach balls, crayons, and Play-Doh.

3 people having fun at Clergy Conference at St. Francis Retreat in San Juan Bautista, CA

The diverse group, from those relatively new to the diocese to veteran clergy, spoke warmly about the retreat experience.

The Rev. John Buenz (retired) noted that Bishop Mary “moved gracefully between her roles as warm, approachable and clear conference leader while maintaining her role as the ecclesiastical authority of the diocese. That’s quite a balance and a fine model of how clergy might work in their situations.” He also praised the discussion of how the Holy Spirit was working in terms of personal authority in the areas of individual life, corporate life, and the Episcopal Church.

“Bishop Mary’s presentation at the clergy conference was especially helpful when discussing the Spectra for the Spiritual Practice of Authority,” said The Rev. Ricardo Avila, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Los Gatos. “Viewed through these lenses, I gained valuable insights into how our parishioners manifest anxiety or hope based on their perspective on scarcity vs. abundance, welcome vs. invitation, and self vs. common interest in our church.”

“This was my first clergy conference in El Camino Real and I was totally blown away at the level of trust and collegiality that our clergy share,” said The Rev. George Anne McDonnell, priest at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Santa Clara. “What a rare gift and privilege it is to have a culture of such genuine care.”

“Bishop Mary shined with wisdom and is a profoundly good teacher, giving proper attention to the balance of large group, small groups, and time to digest what we learned,” McDonnell added. “Being newer, I feel like I was given a bit of an overview of the prior work done before my call.”

Buenz noted that he would welcome more conversation about the lessened status of institutional religion in the region served by our diocese and the factors that have reduced clerical authority in recent decades – such the deconstruction of traditional theological and scriptural thinking, suspicion of institutions and authority, cultural shifts, and more. “Lacking awareness of the causal factors in the problems renders changes in how the church looks and works impossible,” he said.

Beyond the conversation themes, McDonnell and Avila added that they were grateful for a conference that was welcoming and meaningful.

“What a blessing it’s been to be so warmly embraced by my clergy colleagues!” added Avila. “Throughout the conference, new faces sought me out and asked how I was settling in at St. Luke’s, offering their support and prayers for our ministry.”

“The work we did together in the short time of our conference was incredibly meaty,” said McDonnell. “I walked away with a wonderful sense of fortune and blessing that I have been called to such a healthy, insightful, and fun diocese.”