News & Announcements

How We Gather in the Summer: Past, Present, and Future

A Message from the President

Still basking from our annual denominational convention at Bridgewater State University, I’m in a reflective mood about our tradition of our large denominational gathering every summer. Especially I’ve been musing about how we gather. Save for 1984 when we met at a large church camp owned by the National Council of Churches, we have gathered on college campuses for fifty-seven years.
There’s scarcely anyone still active who remembers any other way that we’ve had convention, but there was a very long time before a college campus was ever thought of as the site for our summer convention. Starting in 1817 with our very first convention, and continuing for 150 years, we gathered at our largest churches. People apparently stayed with folks whom they knew or in hotels, and the convention gathering did not last as many days as it does now. A small shift in this pattern began in the 1940s that concentrated out-of-town convention goers in one large hotel that could also be the site for many of the meetings. The sites still concentrated where we had our largest urban churches to accommodate some of the services and meetings and to provide a church setting.
Our recent pattern of college campuses began in 1966 when a smaller town church, Church of the New Jerusalem in Urbana, Ohio, hosted the summer convention using Urbana College as the hotel, so to speak. That college campus experiment performed beautifully in terms of cost and convenience of ample meeting spaces, and a game changer had been born. While in Urbana, the convention accepted the invitation from Rev. Dick Tafel, Jr., for the next year to be in the new suburban Cincinnati church (the classic former church with the famed Tiffany angel windows had been taken by eminent domain for a freeway). With enormous, large tents set up around its spacious acreage for meetings and using local hotels for hospitality, 1967 would be the last convention before the new pattern would become set. In 1968 the Detroit church hosted convention at nearby University of Windsor, and we were off and running.

I first attended convention in 1982 following my first year in seminary and have never missed one. Being on so many college campuses over time bestows a certain distinctive “Convention convention” experience, to be sure. Though the convenient advantages provide solid reasons for this way of gathering, I’ve often been in earnest conversations discussing the pros and cons around the way we “do convention.”

Our convention at Bridgewater State University deepened two further trends of summer gatherings that seem paramount: the increasing popularity of our spiritual education program (our Mini Courses) and our commitment to virtual participation at a full level with high-level tech support. Emphasizing these two foundations will ensure that our summer conventions are useful, meaningful, and fun for the largest number possible whether hanging out in an entertaining local setting or from the comfort of one’s living room.
But there’s still the challenge of quality control for our physical gathering space. With General Council’s support, I’m working with Central Office manager, Brittany Price, in researching and creative alternative options, such as hotels, camps, retreat centers, and university campuses with hotels on campus adjacent to their conference centers, like this summer. We’re confident enjoyable options will continue to emerge for future conventions. So, stay tuned: a new half-century trend is about to emerge.

—Rev. Dr. Jim Lawrence

Read the full issue of the Fall 2023 Messenger

Meet Jim Lawrence

Rev. Dr. Jim Lawrence is the president of the Swedenborgian Church of North America. He was the dean of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies for 21 years prior to being elected President in 2022.