Reflections on the Christ & Cascadia 2024 Gathering with Dr. Kate Rae Davis | Podcast Season 06, Episode 06

by May 15, 2024Transforming Engagement: the Podcast

Join us for a special bonus episode as Dr. Kate Rae Davis reflects on the theme of the inaugural Christ & Cascadia Gathering held last month. Ministry leaders from diverse contexts across the Pacific Northwest convened to explore what makes ministry unique in the Cascadia region. 

Despite facing distinct challenges, there was a prevailing sense of hope and resilience—a shared belief that collaboration and innovation could spark new life even in the face of adversity.

One of the biggest takeaways was a collective desire for connection. Plans are already underway for the next gathering in 2025, where the focus will shift to meaningful engagement with scripture in community settings. 

If you’re looking for a place to connect, learn, and be inspired, sign up to receive emails when the date and location are announced at christandcascadia.com/newsletter .

Episode Transcript

Christian ministry has always been about responding to a particular place and time. At the incarnation – when Word became flesh and dwelled among us — when the holding power of the universe moved into town — it mattered where and when that body was. It mattered the social position that body held, the status the body conveyed, the region in which that body ate and breathed and moved.

We are called to ministry in this place and time. We are called to live our part as the body of Christ, right where our feet are. For me, that means here in Seattle — or, to use the watershed, here in Cascadia. And it is possible there has never been such a difficult time for ministry: from the epidemic of isolation, to increasing occurrences of “natural” disasters, to the decline of religious institutions, it is a challenging context. These problems are global, but they have particular manifestations in this region — because of our geography, our history, our culture. 

Many of our podcast conversations from this season so far were looking at our past formation of the present: the cultural influences and history that got us to where we are today. There have been some definite themes in these conversations: the role of nature in shaping Cascadians’ imagination; the culture of anti-institutionalism or individualism or general distrust; the  importance of context and its call for a different leadership style.

Last year, in early 2023, we at the Center for Transforming Engagement gathered leaders from denominations, nonprofits, and theological schools from across the region to ask: What do you need? And told through many experiences, the response was clear. Those leaders told us: We need to be gathered. We don’t need more content, we don’t need experts telling us theories of how we got here, we don’t need a five-point checklist telling us what to do differently to “fix” our ministries. We need to be with others who are living into the same challenges we are, who are asking the same questions.

So that is exactly what we did. In April 2024, just south of Seattle in Federal Way, Washington, we gathered lay and ordained ministry leaders; leaders from congregations, community groups, denominations, nonprofits, and the arts – we gathered them all together for conversation with one another. We didn’t have any keynotes or presentations; we just had facilitators who we invited to host breakout rooms on a variety of topics — topics we chose based on themes we learned from the over-ten years of content on our online journal, christandcascadia.com, and the conversations with leaders, including of this podcast season.

We had:

  • Mary DeJong lead a conversation on rewilding worship, about the connections between ecological wholeness and our internal spiritual lives.
  • Forrest Inslee discussed ecological leadership, creating new paradigms of leadership that respond to the ecological crisis.
  • Joel Kiekintveld’s hosted a session titled “Which way is Forward? Church in the age of decline,” about what church might look like into an unclear future.
  • Rose Madrid Swetman’s session was called “Ministry after Mars Hill,” on spiritual gatherings and leadership in the shadow of spiritual abuse.
  • Ron Ruthruff explored “How to Build Diverse Communities of Belonging” looking at racism in the region.
  • Seth Thomas’s session, “Evergreen Denominations,” explored how denominational structures inform rhythms of church as they it seek new life.
  • And my session: Breaking into Society, was on navigating the “Seattle freeze,” “Portland polite,” or “Vancouver chill,” navigating the context in which people are polite to one another but don’t necessarily include one another in intimate relationships.

This event was so rich and the conversations were so good. I was actually teary with gratitude leading this event. I had a vision that we would lead people to connect. And it was super risky to invite people to a thing that would be entirely co-created by them. And it was so beautiful and so connective.

Honestly, my only sadness about this event was that I only got to be in my own session – I wish I could have been in all of them. I did talk with a bunch of people at the happy hour at the end of the day to hear about what happened in other conversations, and I also talked with all the facilitators afterwards. From those, there were some themes I heard on repeat, that I want to share with you. Those themes are: an ecological sensibility, a feeling of openness, a focus on local, and addressing trauma.

First, it was striking, the loudest theme, it was striking as I listened to other facilitators share about their conversations, how often people used ecological metaphors. This included biodiversity as a metaphor for the gifts of faith communities and denominations; that these can be a big forest that hold together multiple types of plants, a big forest that holds together multiple types of faith communities, and that the variety of those plants actually means greater health for the forest. So actually wanting and cultivating different expressions of faith.

We also heard of people talking about “cutting back dead wood” or “culling” to reduce problematic over-abundance — So just like too many deer can mean that there aren’t enough predators, then the deer eat too many plants, that starts to harms the trees, and then the whole forest starts to die… and you get a negative spiraling ecosystem. Just as over-abundance can have negative impacts on an ecosystem, churches might have overabundance. They might have too much programming or too much property or too much square footage. So the conversation was: what if cutting back that over-abundance allowed ministry to thrive and have more health?

Another ecological metaphor people talked about “nurse logs,” which are fallen trees that, as they decay, they facilitate the growth of seedlings. Sometimes if you see a row of trees or plants all perfectly in a line, that’s because they all started on a nurse log. It’s a metaphor of regeneration, something old  to resource the new life. This gets to the heart of Christian faith — that from death is the possibility of new life, that after death there is resurrection. There was a feeling, in many of these conversations, that it might be okay if the church is dying, because death will lead to resurrection — to healthy expressions of spirituality and faith. To a next iteration that death won’t be the final word – which I think it so beautiful and so in line with how I understand the life of Jesus and his relationship with institutions.

Which gets to that second theme that I heard, that feels very distinct to Cascdia, which is this immense openness. People here are just very open to possibilities, to innovations, to non-traditional structures. No one seemed to be defensive of the status quo — even in these conversations about ministry, often about church. There wasn’t anyone coming to defend denominations, or theologies, or congregations. There’s no sense of “but this is the way we’ve always done it,” just an immense openness to “but what might we do next to love and serve our neighbors?” 

It reminded me of some of the conversations in this season of the podcast — Forrest talked about how it’s a gift of this region’s spirit to embrace uncertainty, to throw off expectations of what church would be. And similarly, Tim Soerens said that one of the gifts of the area is a  “willingness to entertain new ideas” and to be constantly reinventing ourselves — which means we can also be reinventing our churches, our faith communities. That ethos felt very present at the conversations at the Christ & Cascadia Gathering.

The third theme that I noticed was the emphasis on local, should have been unsurprising since we are gathering people from this local-ish region; it’s a large region. Still, there were a lot of conversations about how cookie-cutter programming, and especially ones transplanted, ones sent from national offices of denominations (which are almost always on the eastern half of the continent) – there are conversations about how those programs aren’t working; don’t work — but very interestingly, there’s not a whole lot of ability to diagnose why they don’t work in this context. Instead, the emphasis was more on looking at local spaces as a source of potential — looking at what do we cultivate in the absence of resourcing? Looking at conversations like: What’s unique in a 5-block radius for urban churches?  Or what’s unique in the land or the industry or the gifts of a certain people in more rural places? One woman’s focus was not just local, it was like hyper-local, that it is confined to her 5 acre property, where she’s attempting to eradicate invasive species and is teaching others to do the same. Hyper local. And there’s a real spirit of can-do attitude in that, and in many ministries that we’re not trying to fix the whole system. We’re not trying to invent a new type of denomination, a new type of Christian gathering. We’re just trying to do what we can, right where we are.

Finally, the fourth theme that I noticed was around safety and trauma sensitivity. This one wasn’t as prevalent as others, but it’s so important, and part of what we heard again and again from clergy is some variation on the sentence: Seminary did not train me to care for people who are coming out of church trauma or spiritual abuse. And for me, I went to The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, where the Center is housed, where I still work. I had entire classes on this. I wrote a 20 page paper on Eucharist as a healing trauma reenactment. For me, like, well of course this should be part of the conversation. People come to church in the wake of trauma or grief. So that sentence to me is always so striking: “Seminary did not train me for this.”

We also kind of as a subtheme heard from multiple mainline pastors were saying they were getting a lot of ex-evangelicals coming into their congregations. Some from Mars Hill, some from other places, and like, “We don’t even know what Mars Hill is, we don’t know what those churches are doing, we don’t know what that culture is.” But they’re having to learn, just to understand the challenges being presented to them and trauma responses that get activated in community that they don’t understand. So they’re learning about church abuse, spiritual abuse, and are working to learn how to rebuild trust and safety for those congregants, those people coming in. More broadly, trauma sensitivity in liturgical practices is something that more pastors and artists talked about learning about and incorporating into their ministries and gatherings.

We learned so, so much in these conversations. That’s really just the broadest strokes I can give you for the sake of time and trying to coalesce a whole lot of really particular conversations. A lot of them turned to application: What does this mean for my ministry, for how I live, for how I incorporate this? 

Even beyond the content, it was clear that people – myself included – are hungry for connection and conversation, hungry for a place to process the shared challenges of ministry and to be encouraged in our experiments and with others’ innovative ideas. After years of pandemic-era webinars with little opportunity for interaction, it felt like spring awakening to be able to discuss and ideate together and move between conversations. There was such active energy there. It was really, really delightful.

I hope that next year, you’re able to join us. We are planning Christ & Cascadia Gathering 2025. We are still working on venue and dates. It will be probably somewhere in Western Washington, probably north of Seattle – Seattle through Bellingham, somewhere in there. And we’re looking at dates about 3-6 weeks after Easter so that everyone can get past Lent and recover from Resurrection celebrations. 

We will be asking questions about how we in Cascadia engage scripture for meaningful engagement in community. This might include preaching, but we’re also very interested in other formats — what formats are people using, what kind of conversational structures, what texts even, if people are using things other than just scripture, whether that’s like a Bible study resource, or a book, or poetry. What texts are people using to make meaning? What practices? Looking at the artists in our community who come up with other ways to engage things. We want to hear about innovations and re-imagined traditions that are catalyzing life and cultivating the healing of communities through using scripture. If you’d like to know about that right when it’s announced, make sure you’re signed up for our newsletters at ChristAndCascadia.com/newsletter and follow us on Facebook at Christ & Cascadia. Hope to see you there.