Welcome to Biennial!
As a somewhat new member of the Episcopal school family, the much-anticipated attendance at NAES Biennial Conference in person had arrived. Upon my journey up the escalator of the hotel for registration, I realized that there was something different and refreshing about this conference. It is always a pleasure to see familiar faces, reconnect with old friends, and put faces to names, even if every two years. While my name tag may have helped, I was greeted with several smiles and hugs as if I were a longtime friend.
I was blessed to kick off the Thursday morning like I do every morning with our St. Luke’s Chaplain and students leading morning worship. Seeing the many faces of early risers joining us brought joy to our students, who had thought no one would attend that early, and to me. But this was just the beginning of a unique family of fellowship. Throughout the day, colleagues from across the country shared their appreciation of the service. The hallways were filled with a buzz of consistent chatter and laughter. Making eye contact followed by a smile or conversation was common.
While I know I have a seat at the proverbial table at my school, it made my heart happy to be invited to join a table of previous strangers for lunch. They welcomed me to sit and engaged in a laughter-filled conversation as if we had been friends before that moment. I felt like I was a part of something special and meaningful within our larger school community.
Beyond the intentional times to network and collaborate with colleagues, the best moments were when I engaged in organic, authentic interactions. Standing in the hallway, remaining after a workshop, sitting in the lounges, and waiting for an elevator or valet all proved to be times during which I had delightful conversations, exchanged contact information, or laid the foundation for a budding relationship in the future.
NAES Biennial Conference provided a venue for us to pause and reflect on the intentionality of our work. It served as a reminder that what we are doing is not just vital for the souls of our students but the soul of our country. From the opening session—in which Jon Meacham encouraged us to be curious, candid, and empathetic—the vast array of workshops presented learning as a precious gift shared to foster growth in ourselves and others. Facilitated conversation topics on servant leadership, Episcopal identity, and equity and inclusion within our schools sparked follow-up conversations and opportunities to reconnect. Each of the workshop presenters I approached afterward was welcoming of follow-up communications and gracious in sharing their experience and insight. It is evident that much is going on within NAES schools, and the business of educating our youth is still thriving! Witnessing the many contributions and recognition of colleagues in NAES schools, including Karan Merry and Rob Devlin, encourages me to get busy as there is still much to be done.
The conference was like a rite of passage back into a friendly and welcoming community. My joy may have always rung true for Biennial Conference attendees, but it stood out as a sacred highlight for us newcomers. And while I should not have been surprised, it reaffirms what we know about NAES, to be a place where all are welcome to be their unique, unapologetic selves. As the Rev. Dorothy White reminded us during the follow-up discussion for Jon Meacham, “Life is a gift. Open it. Quitting is not an option.” Until we meet again in 2024, we, the people of NAES, must be a mirror for the reflections we hope to achieve, and remain strong and courageous!
Chelsea Collins is Head of School at St. Luke’s Episcopal School in San Antonio, TX.