Thirty-two leaders in the field of church planting, development and evangelism in the Episcopal Church assembled at the Intercontinental New Orleans Hotel to create and develop a network that listens to what is happening both in the world and church, and responds faithfully to the spirit's leading. The first-ever Network of Ministry Innovators Conference met in conjunction with the Black Ministries Conference October 19-23 in New Orleans, Louisiana, to allow practitioners to share their discoveries and best practices with the larger church in hopes of creating resources and support systems that will nurture a fresh spirit of leadership and vitality. "The Network of Ministry Innovators have listened deeply to participant's stories, discerning what it is that works, the challenges and the best practices of local innovative ministries," said the Rev. Thomas Brackett, the Episcopal Church's program officer for church planting and redevelopment, and conference co-facilitator. Brackett explained that after both conferences met for morning 'encounter with scripture and prayer,' participants of the innovators conference would break into self-selected groups to explore specific "next steps" toward expanding innovative ministry responses to a changing world. "The focus is evolving now and the group is asking, 'what are our next steps and what do we need for resources in order to make that happen,'" he said. Brackett said that conversations on the first and second day had participants exploring answers to questions such as: Why do you think the Pharisees and the Sadducees were continually upset on seeing Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners? Are there ways in which we mimic their behaviors? Are we really an open community? Do we really welcome all of God's children -- even the tax collectors and the lepers? Are there some who would not be invited to your church or who would feel unwelcome in your church? What kind of work must the Spirit do in our hearts to let go of the need to control who has access to God's Kin-dom and who can join?" Betsy DeRuff, a church planter from the Diocese of California said the conference has made known to her a community of people engaged in her work that she was unaware of. "It affirms and furthers the ministry," she said. "It has shown me that I have companions on this journey." In terms of practices she may implement, DeRuff said she may gather the pioneers of this work in her diocese and brainstorm with them. "Trying to lead a new community can be confusing," said Isaac Everett, of the Diocese of New York. "So finding others is really invaluable." Everett is co-founder of Transmission, an emerging liturgical community in New York City. He said hearing about the importance of having a "plan in place" to welcome the newcomer is something he will take with him. The October 22 morning plenary session invited participants of both conferences to hear from the Rev. Charles K. Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop and primate, who spoke about wrestling with change and cited recent changes at the Episcopal Church Center. His message, titled "Embracing God's Mission in the 21st Century," was grounded in the Acts of the Apostles, whom he described as being in "a comfort zone in the shadow of the Jerusalem Temple." "It took newcomers like Steven, Barnabas and Paul to break them out of that comfort zone," he explained. Robertson went on to say, "Our greatest obstacle to future growth is not our past failures, but our past successes." He said he hoped those who heard his message were "impressed and challenged" to embrace "God's mission." According to Brackett, after Robertson's presentation participants said it "placed their current conflicts in context," helping them "understand their local conflicts in the larger context." "I am delighted with the way our conversations turned toward implementing plans and agreeing on next steps," said Brackett. "This gathering has been intentional about enlarging its network and sharing our learning regarding church planting, redevelopment and evangelism." Brackett said that beginning tomorrow, a "public forum" will be made available for others in the church to "see how we are implementing our plan."