- By Nicole Villalpando American-Statesman Staff
Three years ago, Austinite Jennie Allen brought together women of different Christian denominations for a weekend of inspiration and conversation. She called it IF: Gathering, to answer the question: If God is real, then what?
It was a leap of faith that different women would want to come together and talk openly about their faith. The event sold out in 42 minutes.
Each subsequent year, the event has sold out in less and less time. This year, the fourth IF: Gathering, which is Feb. 3-4 at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, sold out in three minutes. “It’s crazy,” she says. “We keep thinking it can’t go any lower.”
More than 2,000 IF groups will gather around the world and live stream the Austin gathering and have their own discussions alongside the women at the main Austin event.
“What we found and what we believe is that the biggest need we all have right now is connection,” she says. IF: Gathering, she says, works because people sit eye to eye and talk about what they care about: their connection to God and their struggles with that.
There are groups in homeless shelters, in prisons, in Chicago, in Ecuador, in Rwanda, she says. Each group has a leader who gathers women together over a meal to talk about God and what they grapple with in their lives. “Part of the power of this giant sisterhood is the visible leaders,” she says. “They are the ones that built this.”
Yet it is Allen, 40, who is at the center of IF: Gathering, who has had to figure out how to carefully grow an organization that grew bigger than she could have ever imagined from the beginning. IF: Gathering is funded by individual donations of $20 to $30 from 10,000 people, Allen says, rather than by a few donors with big purse strings. It runs with nine staff members and five interns.
“Every single one of us is overworked by the nature of how fast it’s grown,” she says. “It’s hard to keep up.”
Allen could be feeling confident, settled and like the role model she is, but she struggles with perfection, with measuring up, with her relationship with God.
“For me as a leader, I could be miserable for the rest of my life doing the things I felt I was supposed to do and never feel peaceful about them,” she says. “I was leading all right, but inwardly I was slowly losing heart in it all.”
She spent a year and a half studying the life of Jesus, how he lived and how he loved people. “He walked with a lot of peace and a lot of lightness even when he had difficulties in his own life,” she says. She began to see patterns in his life and began to recognize the biggest point of tension she was experiencing in her life.
“I was living as if all of this was a performance for God or for people,” she says, “rather than living and enjoying the difficulty of life.”
On Tuesday, she releases her latest book, “Nothing to Prove: Why We Can Stop Trying So Hard.” The book reflects on how impossible it is to be perfect, and the emptiness that can be felt as we compare ourselves to those around us and feel inadequate.
“These moments have been coming since I was young,” Allen says. “As women, we often feel like not we’re not hitting the mark. Even if we could hit the mark, the mark moves as we get close.”
In addition to IF: Gathering founder, author and a leader of women’s ministry, Allen also has the title of wife to Zac and mother of four: Conner, 17, Kate, 15, Caroline, 11, and Cooper, 9.
Like all of Allen’s books, “Nothing to Prove” is about her own struggles as well as serves as a thoughtful guide with exercises to help work through that need for perfection.
Allen knows the danger of trying to achieve perfection. In this book, she opens up about her eating disorder that followed her days as a college cheerleader.
She’s already heard from some of the earlier readers who have shared their own stories. “We are in a culture of striving,” she says, where our self-worth gets tied up in how we appear to other people.
Allen’s biggest truth in this book is the idea that we as people will never be “enough.” Instead, she writes: “God knew we would never be enough. So He became enough for us. Jesus is our enough.”
It’s very freeing, she says, when you stop trying to be enough and turn to God for the enough.
That doesn’t mean that you get to be complacent or not try hard. Instead, she says, it’s about “loving bigger. It becomes less about my own goals and more about the good of others. That’s a lot more fun.”
That also makes leading a team easier, she says, because it’s not about maintaining her reputation, it’s about helping others.
Allen, of course, is human and says she fights the need to be perfect 10 times a day. “I feel myself getting a bit anxious,” she says.
Now, she pauses, looks at what is happening around her and focuses on learning to trust that it will be alright. “I can worry and lose a lot of sleep, but I say, ‘God, I trust you. I’m in.’ Someone said, ‘God gets a lot more done when we’re asleep than we can imagine.’”
One of the things Allen tries to do is to be more intentional about what she focuses on and the people around her. That means putting the phone away, limiting distractions and really focusing on the needs around her and celebrating the good things. It’s about focusing on the right things: our relationships and our relationship with God.
Losing the need for perfection, to be “enough,” has allowed Allen to focus on growing IF: Gathering and providing more online tools for women to help them do more in their communities.
That’s not to say that Allen has her life all figured out. She knows it would be hypocritical to say she never judges people, never has doubts about her abilities, never gets down on herself when things don’t go exactly as planned.
“All of us are pretty messed up,” she says. “We’re prone to wander. That’s all of us.”