3 min read

The Christian philanthropist, author, blogger, and Sunday-school teacher talks to Michael E. Hartmann and Daniel P. Schmidt about The Gathering’s beginnings and learning in the context of a relationship.

Fred Smith and some others wanted to get to know and learn from each other—to share friendship and their common interest in Christian philanthropy, and to nurture and improve both. The five first met over dinner in 1985, and thus began The Gathering.

The Gathering has since grown into an annual conference featuring hundreds of evangelical Christian attendees every September, to discuss the animating ideas underlying and the everyday practicalities of their giving, and everything in between. Smith retired as its president at the end of 2018, and its president is now Josh Kwan.

In retirement, the personable and approachable Smith continues to work hard on, as he has throughout his life and career, building friendship and trust with others, on learning by intensely listening—and, thankfully for all of us, on teaching, by word and deed.

Smith also founded Fourth Partner, a local foundation focused on philanthropy and community development in Tyler, Tex. With Bob Buford, he founded the Leadership Network, as well—and of which he was president, as well, for 12 years.

Smith previously was a teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School in North Carolina and The Stony Brook School in New York. He says his true vocation is that of a Sunday-school teacher, the role in his life for which he would most like to be remembered.

He is the author of Where the Light Divides—a collection of essays on the life of faith from which we have benefited, and on which we rely for continuing insight—and his blog at The Gathering website is always worth the read, too.

Smith was kind enough to speak with us last week. The 13-minute video below is the first of two parts of our discussion; the second is here. In the first part, we talk about The Gathering’s beginnings and learning in the context of a relationship.

When The Gathering incorporated as its own nonprofit organization in 1996, it “was basically people who didn’t have peers, or felt they didn't have peers, coming together to talk to each other,” Smith tells us. “It was very informal. Once we got into it, I mean it became an annual conference … but the original group was just very casual, informal, no agenda.” It was “people who wanted to educate each other, what we call learning in the context of a relationship. And that’s basically what it’s remained over the years.” While it now includes hundreds, “it’s still a place where people come to learn in the context of a relationship.
“I think one of the roles that The Gathering played,” he continues,

was giving people a place to stretch. In fact, that was part of the mission statement … to stretch people, not to harm them, not to frighten them .… I'm an old schoolteacher, and so that’s the kind of environment that I really wanted to create.

Smith says “I consider The Gathering sort of my particular piece of art. I would see things and I would put them together into a program and if people liked it, they could come. If they didn't like it, they could go find another artist. … A lot of times, there was never a plan, there was never a vision for The Gathering in that sense. It was, let’s just respond to what’s going.” Let’s “provide a place for trust and respect and give people time to build those relationships over, frankly, over generations.”

In the conversation’s second part, Smith talks about the state of public discourse in America today, religion and philanthropy, friendship, and C. S. Lewis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *