Reflections on the 2013 Anabaptist Communicators Conference

Guest post by Claire DeBerg, editor and social media manager for Mennonite Women USA

I travelled to beautiful Bluffton, Ohio where the annual Anabaptist Communicators Conference was held on the campus of Bluffton University. The theme of the conference was Telling Anabaptist Stories: tools for engagement with popular culture.

Re-entering the space of an academic landscape for this conference got me excited for gleaning anything and everything I could from the keynote sessions, the breakouts, the colloquium. It has been years (15?) since I sat in a stadium-seating lecture hall poised with a pen and a notepad. The days of graduate school thesis writing and late-night debates about the efficacy of grading rubrics flooded to the surface of my thinking. I remembered something: I love learning and if I don’t take anything from this conference but the deep-seated desire to study and learn and soak-up and wonder in the realm of academia than it was well worth the registration fee, the travel, and the necessity to be “on” amongst new friends. Oh, and the flat tire (more on that later).

In truth, I took much more from this conference than just the desire for further study. I’ve been energized with tools to inject into my work as manager of the online social presence for Mennonite Women USA as well as the editor to one of only three subscription-based periodicals serving people in the Mennonite church. That’s right. Timbrel, the beloved magazine that continues the conversation of women in the Mennonite church is a bit of a relic. Though I wasn’t the attendee who whipped out the slick iPads and tablets of my cohorts, I can see how a print magazine can seem archaic when so much of the media ingested in our culture is available at our fingertips.

But the problem is our fingertips…they don’t have brains and they don’t have scruples. Fingertips are lazy and they don’t want to scroll through information on the screen. They want to check the weather and go. They want to take a picture and leave. I can’t trust my fingertips to lead how I devour media. I like real books. I like real paper. I like writing real letters and notes and making real connections. I subscribe to print magazines: ImageThe SunCooking LightDwellPoets & WritersBrain, ChildSpirituality & HealthSojourners, The Mennonite, and I get the back issues of The SmithsonianNational GeographicTimeBackyard Poultry, and Mother Earth News when my parents are finished reading them. I like reading on my couch, turning pages, marking pages, smelling the paper, getting a paper cut. I’m uninspired by Newsweek having gone completely digital. It feels like a small failure announced in a grand way. And I don’t write that without realizing a purely digital format might be the future of magazines I work on and know and love. So while I’m a fierce proponent of real paper, I hold all things lightly (in all senses of the notion).

The biggest reason I love reading something I can hold in my hand that won’t lose power or need to be plugged in is I know how critical it is for my children to see me reading something that is not considered a “device” by popular culture. They already know how screens suck time and attention. The only time my son is googly-eyed is when he’s found my iPhone and is sucked in to the light and movement to the point where he can barely blink. He’s not allowed to play with my phone, so you can imagine how enrapt he is when he stumbles upon it. I mention this here because one of the subtitles of the presentation by the very engaging NOW Marketing Group was: “Relationships are More Powerful Then Marketing.” And I’d add: relationships absolutely must be more powerful than the marketing around us. This is a profound struggle because the pull of marketing is ever-present, but is the pull of a powerful relationship thus, too?

I understand Timbrel as behaving as a powerful platform for nurturing relationships amongst women. I can’t help but discuss the magazine and position that brought me to this conference. Timbrel is “Women in Conversation Together with God.” It is a touchpoint that connects women across the country. Can we make these same connections on Facebook? Sometimes. Can we express our prophetic voices as we seek to follow Christ in forms other than a print magazine? Certainly. But aside from a phone call and an in-person visit, Timbrel is the most tangible and frequent and accessible way Mennonite Women USA works to make a way for women to hear women.

It isn’t full of pics, fun snippets and anecdotes…let’s save those for a platform that can hold it and deliver it best: social media. It respects the intelligence of subscribers by saying, in effect, we’re here, we care, we’re listening. I’m not certain organizations and brands convey the kind of humanness so necessary for imparting this truth over social media channels…try as we might to remember there is a person behind the Facebook posts on Betty Crocker or Nike. And while I hope the messages the Mennonite Women USA staff create on our social media pages resonate, connect, engage and enlighten, I know it isn’t the number one feed followed by our followers. Facebook was created to bring people together disconnected by distance or time. Opening the doors to allow brands, products, businesses, companies, organizations and causes to interrupt your social connections with friends and family is a bold and serious move.

This leads me to another powerful truth I gleaned from this conference: if your organization is going to interrupt the people connected to you online…you’d better make it good. Make it real. Make it honest. Make it a consistent voice they can trust. These virtues I can definitely bring to the social media broadcasting I do for Mennonite Women USA.

We heard from two people who are doing some very successful work of communicating in the realm of social media: Hannah Heinzekehr’s blog The Femonite and Cody Litwiller’s work with the social media and online communications for Ten Thousand Villages. Their approaches to their tasks were varied but their goals similar–maintain relevant information and keep the conversation clipping. Hannah does this with insightful, frequent posting on emergent themes in her life and the public sphere and Cody does this with seasonally-focused content and careful planning using the Ten Thousand Villages blog, Mosaic as his starting point. I’ve always moved into marketing plans with the idea to: write once, broadcast widely. It makes my work singularly focused rather than haphazard and easy to unravel.

In the survey asking for reflections on the conference I made a point of relaying one of the most memorable events of the weekend…and it had nothing to do with the awesome presenters, the inspiring ideas, the good contacts I made or the planning committee’s great line-up of breakout sessions. It had to do with a very flat tire and a very good man. I travelled to this conference with my baby son, Harold, and my mother. Harold and I are nursing so we’ve not been apart since, well, ever, so my mother came to perform her most epic Grammy duties during the time I was in sessions. We’d driven the 200+ miles to Bluffton from Northern Kentucky singing songs with Harold, reading him 100s of nursery rhymes (this is likely an underestimate…he’s wild for Mother Goose right now), passing him nuts and raisins and generally creating a small circus in the car to stave off a sad streak.

On the first day of the conference my mom’s car had a flat tire in the parking lot outside Bluffton’s newest building. Here we were: me in heels and business attire, my senior citizen mom and my crying baby in the car seat. After we cleared the trunk of random sweatshirts that fell from the Goodwill bag, a broken umbrella, several black plastic pots spilling their dirt as well as blankets for picnics, we unearthed the spare tire and literally started reading the owner’s manual to ensure we had all the parts to jack up this 3,000-pound car. So, I’m jacking up the car to try and get the flat tire off and I’ve removed all the lug nuts (I lift weights) and…the car falls off the jack. Oiy. Not one, not two, not three, but four men pass right next to us and do not stop to offer help or assistance. One college girl said she’d help if we needed it but she wouldn’t know what to do. From where I was crouched next to the car she appeared to be the size of my baby so she said she was sorry and went on her way.

Finally a student named Perry André stopped, took off his backpack and started helping us. He jacked up the car for the second time, removed the flat tire…and the car fell off the jack AGAIN. Except this time it fell much farther since there was neither the flat nor the spare on the hub? the middle? the joist? (I’m sure there is a name for the center post but I don’t know what it is and I don’t think it was listed in the owner’s manual [which I read in-depth]). We were entranced with this problem car, to say the least.

All shenanigans with the tire aside, Perry, my mom and I were commenting on how blessed we were to have driven 3 hours the previous day with no problem on the interstate and how the weather Friday was beautiful and how kind it was Perry stopped. I let the officer know (who finally arrived but was actually no help, either) that my mom is a bit of a wild driver and prefers off-roading especially when her grandson is in the car, which probably explained the flat tire in the first place. All joking aside, this Perry waited with us for a full hour until a wrecker came and got our car jacked up (with a much better jack, I might add), got our spare on and directed us to where we could get our tire fixed. Perry did not have to stay. The wrecker arrived, got to work and waited for us to pay our bill, but there Perry stood, ensuring he didn’t leave a moment he chose to fully engage with his whole person (literally!). Perry was a dream. We’re so grateful to that young Bluffton student. He was kind, generous with his time, strong, and willing to interrupt his day to help two women and a baby he didn’t even know. He was a stranger-come-hero. Thank you, thank you to Perry André for taking action and being powerfully present. Bluffton is blessed with such a student.

Perry, for me, was that real paper…that tangible connection I so long for and humans absolutely need to thrive. We interrupted his day but I hope he feels it was worth it. I asked him about his major and what he wants to get from his college experience. It was definitely a conversation I was not planning on having and so happy I did. The tools I gleaned from this conference were put to work right there in the parking lot: we told each other stories, we engaged with a powerful moment, we played full-out. Nobody got hurt, no one’s day was ruined, nothing was lost and so much was gained.

This is how I want to move forward with Timbrel if I may be so bold to allow a young man to impress a vision on the editor of a women’s magazine. I want to show up for women in need. I want to hear their stories, understand their situation, share my own and then get down on my knees beside them and help them change a tire, puzzle through a thought, understand a memory, revision a hurt. I want to wait with them, walk beside them and make sure their tires are full for this journey called life. This is my takeaway at the Anabaptist Communicators Conference weekend.

Thanks Perry.




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