A lot of continuing education workshops end up being boring. You might get something out of the keynote, but a lot of it is note taking, sitting around, and not often opportunities to share your experience or learn from the experiences of others.


UNCO has no keynote speaker. UNCO uses an Open Space format. On the first day, we gather, get to know one another, worship together, and “brain dump.” We have a big whiteboard in which we write down what is going on, what our questions are, what our concerns are for ministry and church leadership. We write down what is on our hearts and minds.

The facilitator (so we have a facilitator, not a keynote speaker!) then weaves threads that they notice together. On the second morning, we begin with a brief worship service, then these threads are acknowledged and discussed briefly, so participants get an idea of where conversations may be headed. It’s up to those who have come to take the lead, or to follow.

We set up a grid with classrooms and time slots on the white board. Someone might say, “Hey, I see a thread involving stewardship and fear. Let’s call it ‘Show Me The Money’ and we’ll meet at 11 a.m. in The Dark Room.” Hopefully you’ll be more clever than that. We often come up with clever room names and topic names, but the conversations that happen are thoughtful and engaging. I always tell people I learned more in the first fifteen minutes in a session that was really called “Show Me The Money,” led by Derrick Weston, than I did in the entire stewardship course that was a requirement of my seminary.

We have four one-hour blocks (we take a break for lunch, and have free time on the second afternoon) to talk about these issues, concerns, and questions we have. Topics have ranged from stewardship and fundraising, starting new ministries/new worshipping communities and how to support them, self-care, transitioning out of pastoral ministry into something new, white privilege, writing, blogging, creative worship, and many more.

The fun part of the second night is often “The Not-So-Silent Auction.” Participants are invited to bring something with them for the auction, and at the end of the night, proceeds support one of the new worshipping communities or ministries that have begun or have been encouraged by UNCO. Both nights are times for fellowship and relaxation, or what we call, “UNCO After Dark.”

The third morning we again begin with worship, and we launch into a segment called, “What Has Legs?” What has emerged from our conversations that is worth further conversation, and how can we keep these conversations going beyond this particular UNCO? From these conversations IMP (Innovative Ministry Percolator, a support group and conversation about financial sustainability for new ministries), was formed, along with UnBurdened (support and encouragement for pastors), UnShelved (a small publishing wing of UNCO that produced Faithful Resistance), and conversations on progressive Christian resources during these political times as well as support for pastors who are finding new ways of doing ministry and finding work outside of the church.

UNCO is affordable: $350 per person, and that includes your lodging and meals (if you want a private room it’s a bit more). There’s KidUNCO, in which kids can participate in UNCO and we provide kid activities that are UNCO-like during the breakout sessions. Kids are welcome throughout the UnConference, and because we stay in the dorms at San Francisco Theological Seminary, families with younger children are often able to participate and relax with others since we are all in the same space.

UNCO has been life-giving and life-sustaining to me as a pastor. It is also one of the few ecumenical opportunities to share across denominational lines and learn from one another. I hope you will consider coming to UNCO this year, and there are scholarships available. www.unco.us to register and for more information.

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