|Raising hands in worship at the Spring Meeting of the Conference.|
2011 was a year of storms in Connecticut: Record-breaking snowfalls in January, more snow and ice in February, tornadoes just north of the border in June, the second warmest summer on record, and then the one-two punch of Tropical Storm Irene in August and the “Halloween snowstorm” of October, both of which left thousands of people without electric power for days at a time. A volatile economy took its toll on church members’ lives and livelihoods, and on the value of local churches’ investment portfolios, before coming back more or less to where it all started by the end of the year. In cities around the United States, including Hartford and New Haven, the protests of the Arab Spring found an echo in the Occupy movement, raising awareness of economic disparities.
Despite it all, members of UCC churches continued to give. They gave thousands of dollars to aid survivors of the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan, then those flooded or wind-struck by spring storms in the U.S. Through the First Congregational Church UCC in Wallingford, New England recipient of the “Imagine What’s Possible” award from the United Church of Christ, they sent tons of coffee to U.S. military chaplains overseas for their Holy Joe’s Cafes. They supported three CTUCC churches which suffered major damage to their facilities: Plainville Congregational Church UCC after the collapse of its social hall roof in February, Saugatuck Congregational Church UCC in Westport after a major fire damaged meeting and rehearsal spaces in November, and the Somers Congregational UCC after a blaze destroyed its 1842 worship space on New Year’s Day, 2012. Silver Lake offered thanks for its most successful Annual Fund ever. And the denomination as a whole collected over 1.4 million food items, over $270,000, and over 37,000 letters to Congress in November through the fantastically ambitious and successful Mission:1 effort.
Appointed in April, the Conference Minister Search Committee got to work, holding scores of listening sessions and generating hundreds of pages of information. At year’s end, chair the Rev. Gordon Rankin wrote church leaders that they would discuss their findings with the Board of Directors in February, and with their input turn to work on the position description and Conference profile. The Committee reports its direction and progress at www.ctucc.org/cmsearch.
Amidst all the generosity, local churches, the Conference, and the national setting of the church all felt the strains imposed by an economy that continued to struggle. At year’s end, the Conference has not yet closed its books, but gifts to Our Church’s Wider Mission Basic Support, local churches’ primary means of contributing toward Conference and UCC ministries, had been down most of the year, continuing a trend disturbingly longer than the poor economy. The Board of Directors and Interim Conference Minister, the Rev. Charles Wildman, expressed their confidence in the vitality of the churches and the importance of Conference ministries in March and April, increasing the Regional Ministry positions in Fairfield County and the Eastern Region, plus the Minister of Christian Education position, to full-time.
The Conference’s Regional Ministers — Michael Ciba, Ineke Mitchell, Mike Penn-Strah, Susan Tarolli (then Tom Clough) and Sarah Verasco — offered much of the Conference’s covenant presence throughout the year. They worked with churches in transition and pain, they stood outside the damaged buildings, they supported association committees on the ministry, they preached and taught and comforted.
The Conference experienced several staff transitions during the year. At Silver Lake, Jennifer Kronholm Clark became Registrar and Office Assistant after the departure of Jenn McBurney. Site Manager Dave Kobersmith left in late spring, and as the year closed the Conference celebrated the appointment of Greg Arifian, to arrive in mid-January.
After the departure of Susan Tarolli, the Eastern Region welcomed its new Interim Minister, Thomas Clough, in October. Mia Douglas was appointed part-time Coordinator for Sacred Conversations on Race. The expansion of the Conference’s youth and young adult programs brought in two new part-time leaders: John Ramos for Young Adult Ministries in Service, and Debby Kirk for Giv2. Sadly, several former members of the staff left this world in 2011, amidst much grief: Ruth Gilchrist Addison, Richard Griffis, William Inderstrodt, Joseph Neville, and Alden Tyrol.
In May, Andover Newton Visiting Professor of Worship and Preaching J. Mary Luti gave a dynamic and inspiring address to those assembled in Naugatuck for the Spring Meeting on “Worship Remix!” “Christian worship gains strength, beauty and transformative power in any style,” she told them, “when it brings the wisdom of the ancients into creative conversation with the culture of our own day.”
Inspired by a Holy Week visit to South Korea, Interim Conference Minister Wildman brought new energy to the partnership with the Kyung-Ki Presbytery. Drummers from the Conference’s newest church, the Storrs Korean Church UCC, emphasized a poignant and moving prayer led by their pastor, Chang Ho-Jun, at the Fall Meeting in Guilford, and Wildman celebrated communion with the pastor who had hosted him in Korea, Gwak Seonkeun. HOPE, Inc.’s Marilyn Graham received the Living Waters Award for lay ministry.
In July, delegates from around the UCC came to Tampa, Florida, for a momentous 28th General Synod. They voted the Constitution and bylaws revisions recommended by the Unified Governance Task Force — chaired by the Rev. Bernard Wilson, pastor of the Norfield Congregational Church in Weston — which will significantly streamline the national structures of the denomination. The changes now must be ratified by the UCC’s Conferences. Synod delegates also approved a major agreement on mutual recognition of baptism and enjoyed a well-choreographed “flash mob” that raised energy, spirits, and awareness of the virtues of exercise.
Ten churches participated in the Crossroads Project during the year, which helped them assess their situations and make decisions about their future. Twenty-eight clergy and lay professionals used a new grant program for spiritual and educational enrichment thanks to the generosity of the Linden family. New worship, programming, and resources emerged from the five churches in the Threshold Project, which is now being evaluated for its next iteration. In addition to YAMS and Giv2 activities, young people gathered for an inaugural Youth Revival the night before the May Conference meeting, and over a hundred signed up as Members of Thinking About Working for God for a Living. Preparations are now under way for next summer’s National Youth Event.
976 young people from 146 CTUCC churches received the life-changing benefit of a summer session at Silver Lake — and some received more than one — coming to “love God, love their neighbor, and love themselves.” 2,722 people enjoyed a retreat experience during the winter, spring, and fall. Renovations began on the Retreat Center, and “high ropes” participants found a new cooperative challenge helping each other up the Jacob’s Ladder.
ConnTact published four “themed” issues in 2011, with CTUCC.org, the CTUCC ConferenceCast podcast, and CTUCC This Week email assuming the task of keeping the Conference up-to-date. The weekly Spirit Calendar continued to offer reflection and prayer via email, website, Facebook, and Twitter each Monday.
2012 will likely be a year of some decision. The Search Committee will engage in the active phase of their task to identify the Conference’s next leader; the Board of Directors will seek to address the support of Conference ministries in light of declining OCWM contributions. Amidst it all, the Conference will continue to strive, in Interim Conference Minister Chuck Wildman’s words at the Fall Meeting, “to empower the churches, from the smallest to the largest, to fulfill their Christian mission.”
As clergy and churches of the Connecticut Conference, he said, “We are not alone. We are the servants of Christ’s Church, and we have a covenant ministry together.”