As hundreds of women searched the convention center for the right breakout room, it became apparent that Room B9 was a hot ticket. A crowd packed into the room for Stephanie Shouse’s session on strengthening personal Bible study. It was 10:30 on a Friday morning, but not too early to dig into a spiritual discipline.
“When I go to Priority, I feel like I’m being mentored,” said Lisa Tennyson from Immanuel Baptist Church in Benton. She and her daughter, April, have attended the conference together for several years. The wisdom she’s heard there, Tennyson said, has guided her through circumstances she couldn’t have imagined.
Priority 2023, held April 28-29 at the Bank of Springfield Convention Center, invited women to hear God’s word, learn from ministry practitioners, and leave equipped to “represent hope” in their own context. Just over 700 people participated in this year’s conference, including those who watched from churches serving as simulcast locations.
For Tennyson and others, the invitation to “Come thirsty. Leave refreshed. Live differently,” is an ongoing result of participating in the annual conference. “I always come back just so energized and hopeful and excited after a Priority,” she said.
Wisdom for the moment
Tennyson and her daughter were new to a Baptist church when they first heard about Priority. They weren’t women’s ministry leaders, she said, so they called IBSA to ask if they could attend. After hearing a welcoming yes, they went to their first Priority, where Tennyson said their minds were blown. Mother and daughter went back to
their hotel after the first day, talking about what they’d heard and how God was speaking to them in a different way.
“We both said we could go home right now, our cup was so full,” said Tennyson, who works as a development officer for Illinois Baptist Children’s Home and Family Services.
Over the years at Priority, Tennyson heard a few women speak about the tragedy of losing a spouse and how God carried them through. “At that time, I didn’t know that was going to be my story to be a widow,” she said. “But those ladies, I clung to their words and I saw their faith.”
She lost her husband, Bob, to cancer last year. At the most recent Priority, she was still soaking up counsel from women who walked that road before her. Kathy Litton, who spoke in one of the main sessions, said she wanted to steward her pain from losing a spouse for God’s glory. “That was very powerful to me and that sums up the way I do want to walk through this season of my life,” Tennyson said.
“If you talked to a hundred women, they would all have a different story. But it just shows me how Priority has spoken to me in my mountaintops and in my valleys. Some of it’s what I need in the moment, and some of it’s what I need in the future.”
Heather Marshall described Priority as an opportunity to “take things in and take things back.” Alongside fellow youth leader Cami Motl, Marshall helped lead the charge in promoting Priority 2023 to others at their church, Bethel Baptist in Troy. Jill Finley, women’s minister at Bethel, said she didn’t even have to promote the event because of these “Priority ambassadors.”
“It’s kind of one of those things I don’t want to keep it to myself,” Marshall said. “If I have a good thing, I want others to be able to experience it as well.”
Marshall and Motl have both benefitted from breakout sessions on connecting with a Gen Z audience, their primary ministry area at church. This year’s slate of Priority breakouts included practical advice for a variety of ministries, plus wisdom for drawing closer to Christ in different seasons of life. For example, Motl said she wasn’t sure why she was drawn to Amy Richards’s breakout “Clean Your Plate”—until she attended the session.
“It was just what I needed,” said the mom of three about the session focused on Psalm 119. “It made me get a new perspective on changing the way I see being a stay-at-home mom.”
Marshall served as a room host, assisting different breakout teachers and attenders as they rotated in and out. She didn’t choose her sessions this year, she said, but felt like God still orchestrated what she was in the room to hear. Priority is a valuable time for women at their church to worship together, build each other up, and get to know each other better, Marshall said.
“I keep coming back, and I want to bring others with me.”
Hope for each season
Ida Mae Leach was at a low point when God used a speaker at Priority to give her a new sense of purpose. “I was feeling like I was useless,” said Leach, a member of Charity Baptist Church in Carlinville. She had recently moved into an assisted living apartment. Her new living arrangement coincided with the pandemic to create a lonely season for the 87-year-old.
At Priority a few years ago, Leach heard Richard Blackaby speak about how God works in different seasons in a person’s life. When she got home, she ordered his book, “The Seasons of God.”
“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I thought I was in the autumn season and the winter season of my life,” Leach said. Right in front of her, though, was an opportunity for a new start. She went back to her community and asked the staff if she could bring in her pastor’s wife and others from her church to have a “Cookies & Devotions” time one afternoon each month.
“She told me to go for it,” Leach said. “I had been scared to ask and now I was filled with excitement I had not felt for a long time.”
That spark of courage ignited by the Holy Spirit at Priority helped Leach launch a lasting outreach to her community. The group meets on the second Wednesday of the month for devotions led by her pastor, John Truax. At a recent meeting, Leach said, “They started asking questions, and he did a wonderful job explaining what the Bible said about certain things they wondered about.
“It just blesses my heart to be able to reach out to these people, and it gives me hope. It gives me something to live for.”
The next Priority Women’s Conference is April 26-27, 2024.