By Tiffany Vail
Associate Conference Minister for Communication
Is this a burning bush moment for the Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island conferences?
This was the question posed by Connecticut Conference Minister The Rev. Kent Siladi at Super Saturday, during a lunchtime fireside chat where leaders of the three conferences discussed the possibility of a merger.
He was referring back to the message brought earlier in the day by The Rev. Traci Blackmon, Acting Executive of UCC Justice and Witness Ministries, who quoted the Bible as saying Saul "turned aside" on the road to Damascus to hear God. She said Moses also had to turn aside from tending his flock of sheep to see the burning bush.
"In my early days, I used to preach that text as if Moses was the answer. But life has taught me that it's quite possible that bush had been burning all along," she said. "We have no way of knowing how long the bush had been burning… We have no way of knowing whether others had passed this holy moment without a pause."
"New understandings of God require our attention," she said.
Blackmon went on to point out the bushes that were burning long before they caught our attention: in Ferguson, before Michael Brown was killed; in Baltimore, before police corruption was discovered; in Cleveland before Tamir Rice arrived at the playground where he was shot; in Flint, before the contaminated water became national news.
"Bushes are burning. God is as present in these places as God was with Moses. The question is: are we willing to turn aside?" she said. "The reality is, if you and I really listen to God's voice, we're not always going to like what we hear&hellp; but once we hear, we cannot un-hear."
While Blackmon was referring to larger issues than denominational structure, those speaking later in the day about the prospect of a conference merger kept coming back to the idea that God sometimes calls us to do the unexpected, and that we need to turn aside to listen to that call.
"We are encouraging churches, individuals, associations - all the settings of our conferences - into a time of discernment to ask the question: is this a burning bush moment? Is God calling us into some news ways of thinking together about the church and about our witness as the United Church of Christ here in southern New England?" Siladi asked.
The Boards of Directors and Conference Ministers of the Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island conferences have called for a Season of Discernment for people to consider how the conferences might do mission and ministry together, up to and including merging the three conferences. Discussions have been held in Rhode Island and are being planned for other settings. Resources for those wishing to lead conversations at churches and Association meetings are online at macucc.org/rimact, along with a survey that everyone is encouraged to take.
During the lunchtime "fireside chats" which focused on this topic, Siladi said other UCC conferences are having similar conversations. The Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa conferences will share a Conference Minister next year, he said, and two of the four conferences in Pennsylvania are exploring how to do more ministry together. He pointed out that the Conference structures in the UCC have not changed since the denomination was formed more than 50 years ago.
"What would it look like not to make a super conference, where we do the same things bigger and larger, but if we were to ask the question: if we begin anew, if God is in fact doing something new in this time and place, how could we make a conference different?" Siladi asked. "I think we need to ask the question: what is our witness and ministry and mission today and how can we make an impact together?"
The Rev. Angela Menke-Ballou, chair of the Massachusetts Conference Board of Directors, said the three boards feel "the Holy Spirit calling us as conferences into a new life, and that life looks like an interdependent ministry." She pointed out that is already happening, such as with youth from the three Conferences joining together to attend General Synod, and with the appointment of a shared communication staff person.
And The Rev. George Peters, President of the Rhode Island Conference Board of Directors, reminded those gathered of Blackmon's statement that when you listen to God, you may end up going somewhere you did not want to go. He then quoted theologian Walter Brueggemann as saying that humans have a tendency to make sacred boundaries of their own making.
"Maybe at some point having the boundaries along state lines made some kind of sense," he said. "But the boundaries we set are always a contrivance, and they cannot stand. That has nothing to do with us, friends. That has to do with the call of God.
More than 500 people from the three Conferences attended Super Saturday, which was co-sponsored by all three Conferences.
See photos from the event on Flickr.