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FIDO*

Imagine What’s Possible
God Is Still Speaking,
Revaluing Covenant

Rev. Charles L. Wildman
Interim Conference Minister
Connecticut Conference Fall Annual Meeting
October 22, 2011

In my 14 months as your Interim Conference Minister, I have driven 30,000 miles to preach in over 20 Connecticut pulpits and meet with 32 gatherings of lay and clergy leaders about their ministries. Along the way, I have met engaged and dedicated church leaders. Every congregation I have visited is working hard on local outreach and justice projects. All are doing a first-rate job of ministering to their own members, friends and communities. The United Church of Christ in Connecticut- the largest Protestant presence in the state- is alive and earnestly striving to be an effective witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ.

But all is not well. These are not easy times for the Church. While we have some 81,000 members and many more friends, statistics show that our average age is 67. While we have nearly 1200 youth at Silver Lake in the summer, many church youth groups are struggling. While we have 244 churches, more than half are small and concerned about their future viability. While our state has the highest per capita income in the nation, many of our members struggle with job loss and reduced retirement income, making financial support for church budgets, the Conference, national and global ministries challenging.

While Connecticut is among the largest conferences in the United Church of Christ, it also is among a diminishing number capable of effectively serving their congregations. In the next few years, we can expect consolidation of conferences and various shared staffing arrangements with Connecticut assuming broader responsibilities.

Meanwhile, we are needed more than ever. Our congregations and the conference that serves them are steeped in experience and energy for addressing the spiritual and physical yearnings of our region. We hear God speaking to us in the pain of Hartford’s 16% unemployed workers; in the struggles of new neighbors from other nations; in the desire for people of all faiths and no faith to live in mutually supportive community. We hear God speaking in the voices of Outreach Hartford, New Haven and other communities, as folks struggle for responsible ways to address extreme economic distortion and a breakdown in basic business ethics. Who better than the Church of the United Church of Christ to give positive leadership in this new day? The coming generations of today and tomorrow need us!

Someone has said that an interim is a hospice chaplain and a midwife, both at the same time! So, is this hospice time for the conference? Or is it birthing time? In truth, it is both. Some old ways of being are passing. Some new ways are being born. And God is in it!

Paul refers to the passing of the generations in his 1st Letter to the Church at Corinth (1 Cor 3:10): According to the grace of God given me, like a skilled master builder, I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it…

Our meeting today is about careful and visionary building for the future, on “foundations firmly laid.”

Why the Conference?

What is our foundation? Why the Conference?

Our reason for existence is to serve the churches. In language from the business world, the Connecticut Conference is a single client organization. The client is the local church. The Conference exists to serve the 244 congregations comprising the Connecticut Conference. Our mission is to empower ever church, from the smallest to the largest to fulfill its Christian mission. This mission is the embodiment of the covenant that we share.

We live under a Covenant

A covenant is a sacred contract; the participating parties are the churches and God. The covenant involves churches in a region confessing that they need mutual support to best fulfill their common Christian witness. While retaining local autonomy, congregations of the covenant voluntarily agree to work together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The earliest Congregational Churches in sparsely settled New England learned that they needed one another for survival. The few ordained clergy itinerated around the region, visiting each little congregation about once each month. So neighboring churches provided one another with support, especially in crisis times of major storms, draughts and floods. Soon, these congregations institutionalized their relationship in associations and consociations. It was only a matter of time before these groups formed the Conference to give wings to their Christian ministry and mission in this region of New England.

So, we are not 244 independent congregations with no relationship to one another. Nor are we 700 active and retired ordained clergy, each existing as “lone rangers.” We are bound together by a covenant to support one another, in associations and in the Conference.

The Conference is the servant of the local church. We have a skilled staff to assist. Five deployed regional ministers are dedicated to full-time work in their 40-60 congregations in their respective areas of the state. Their ministries are supported by the Conference Minister and associate conference ministers who collectively bring many years of experience and specialized skills to assist. (Oct. 31, we welcome the newest regional minister, Rev. Dr. Thomas Clough. Tom will serve the Eastern Region as Interim for a while. As an interim, he will not be eligible to be the called regional minister. We are delighted to have someone of Tom’s experience and stature joining us in ministry.)

In traveling the Conference, I have become concerned that a new generation of clergy and lay leaders seems uninformed about the ways in which the Conference serves our churches. A quick review-

Core Ministries: Regional ministers work full time helping congregations find pastors, educating and resourcing our 15 committees on ministry so that they follow best UCC practices in nurturing candidates for ordination, supporting clergy and congregations in moments of crisis, hold all ordained clergy to the highest ethical and moral standards and much more.

Threshold: An outreach to congregations that are on the cusp of a new burst of vitality. Michael Ciba manages this endeavor.

Crossroads: An effort to systematically work with marginally viable churches to discern and plan for renewal, merger, winding down and or becoming legacy churches. Sara Verasco coordinates this ministry.

Generosity Ministries: Patsy Bjorling, enables successful annual giving programs, OCWM interpretation, legacy programs.

Endowment and investment ministries: Charlie Kuchenbrod, assists churches development and expand endowments and, through Connecticut Conference’s Combined Trust Fund, to a offer safe and productive investment vehicle.

Christian Education, faith formation, spirituality resourcing, youth and young adult education- All of these are the exciting mission of Karen Zeil in the Dudley Resource Center at Church House.

Youth and young adult ministries, through the significant programs of Day McCallister, and through the many ministries at Silver Lake Conference Center under the direction of Anne and Tim Hughes.

Justice and Witness: This historic ministry of our conference is shared by all of our staff and presently coordinated by Barbara Libby. Recent projects include work on Islamic-Christian relations and a newly-burgeoning ministry around Occupy Hartford and similar movements.

Mission Interpretation and advocacy: With the hoped-for approval of the Global Mission Conference proposal, a renewed effort by staff and volunteers will develop to “engage in God’s transforming mission with our international partners” (see GMC booklet, UCC Global Ministries). Meanwhile, our significant partnerships with Korea and Colombia continue with the support of dedicated volunteers. Mission One is another ministry we are encouraging.

Support of active and retired clergy: Through Fund for Ministers and individual gifts, some $217,000 was given this year to support clergy with emergency needs of all kinds, as well as those who lacked funds for desperately needed rest and renewal. Barbara Libby, Interim Associate for Clergy Concerns, administers these programs.

All of these ministries are ways in which we fulfill our covenant promises to nourish our congregations and clergy. These are some of the ways we seek to be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ in our time and setting.

Imagine What’s Possible

Challenging times are ahead. Some say the old mainline church is dying. I do not agree. We are changing for sure, but not dying. In fact, our United Church of Christ is needed more than ever. Our progressive theology, social justice, spirituality ministries, adult faith formation and Congregational polity are highly relevant for the 21st. But the Conference will not survive and thrive if it remains uncritically wedded to historic ways of worship and congregational life.

Theologians William McLoughlin, Phyllis Tickle and others think we are in the midst of a once-in-every 500-year reformation. Old forms of Church are being questioned, sometimes discarded. Cameron Trimble of the Center for Progressive Renewal, speaks of an “Emergent Church,” a “blank canvas” on which we must paint a new scene in order to minister successfully to our children and grandchildren. She says we need “a reformation of hope” with lively, engaging, authentic worship and faith community. Folks thirst for new preaching that challenges head and heart. Emerging church thinker, Jean Huston, states that new generations “want to feel the Living Christ” in worship. Is this not a yearning of us all?

The Conference must change with the times. In order to empower congregations, the Conference must be an empowered mission, alive with the Spirit, light on its organizational feet, effective and relevant in its use and sharing of human and material resources, willing to challenge old forms, paint on a blank canvas.

The following sketches are my efforts to work with the relatively blank canvas of this interim period; to imagine what’s possible; how God is still speaking to our historic covenant commitments here in Connecticut Conference-

Reaffirm our Mission: Our core organization is the Missionary Society of Connecticut. We need to keep mission thinking central in our visioning. We are inheritors of the charge to preach, teach and serve in the name of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Native American culture says that it is a sin to know where the good water is and not share. As we respectfully engage in interfaith ministries, we are the ones called to embody the Christ of God. Alive worship in our sanctuaries must bear fruit in our streets and in our lives. As the writer of James 2 says, “faith without works is dead.”

Dare to risk: New ways require risking time, talent and material resources. It is time we retired the phrase, “We’ve always done it that way.” Prudent, prayerful attempts to develop new ideas and new financial practices will be essential. We need to be light on our feet, able to respond to Spirit winds when they blow our way. Let us be attuned to new voices with new ideas about being Conference. For example, as some UCC conferences around the nation struggle survive, we may find that our mission is to share staff, financial management, educational resources and more with them. Affinity conferences may develop using cloud based technology.

Encourage collaboration: In staff management and with staff and conference leaders, we need to retire the term, “silo management” in favor of collaborative efforts. Porous boundaries between all staff and leaders are essential for a free flow of ideas and new concepts. This will facilitate our ability to respond quickly to new historical moments, such as the present national gatherings in cities around the globe.

Educate Conference leaders: Gone are the days in which a powerful conference minister makes major decisions for board ratification. The emergent conference requires a board of directors who are informed, honest advisors and partners decision making. Likewise, a collaborative conference minister will make sure that all staff are continually informed on major discussions and decisions, and that all staffers’ ideas are solicited. In this model, the Conference Minister still retains traditional authority, but shares it as needed for best decisions and greatest buy-in.

Invest in a strong Conference: Our congregations require our very best support in these challenging times. To support that principle, the investment budget voted by last year’s annual meeting must be retained. That budget funds five full time regional ministers plus a full-time Christian educator. This provides maximum professional ministry to all of our churches and committees on ministry. This budget also facilitates the work of 2.4 professionals in youth and young adult ministry and continues a needed 10% subsidy of Silver Lake ministries and operations.

Re-think OCWM: Our Churches Wider Mission/Basic Support is the primary funding vehicle for mission support throughout our United Church of Christ. OCWM/Basic is the engine behind an immense array of ministries from our Connecticut Conference to the support of the national setting of the UCC to Ministries meeting human need with our partners in every corner of the globe. Because it is so broad, it is not well understood and difficult to describe. OCWM/basic is faithfully given by most congregations. By vote of the Conference, we send 63% of these funds to Cleveland for the UCC’s national and global mission. Only 37% is retained here for the ministries of the Conference.

Connecticut is by far the leader in this high percentage of OCWM we send on. But this puts an unusually heavy burden on the funding of the Conference’s work here in Connecticut. While I have great admiration for this commitment, the time has come to review what we are doing. To that end, I am asking the Finance and Budget Committee to study the OCWM retention rate and bring to the Board its best recommendation for the future. In addition, I am challenging our congregations to do everything possible to raise their OCWM/Basic support in order that Connecticut’s outstanding staff and ministries can be sustained in these tight times.

Pray for our Search Committee that they will find a person of head and heart faith who will show love and encouragement to staff, board and congregations alike; and one who has an appreciation for the history and heritage of this historic ecclesiastical context and its pivotal role in shaping the “new UCC for the rest of the 21st Century.

God is still speaking.

An exciting future is ahead or the conference. Surprises abound because the Spirit is alive and well in the diverse and beautiful congregations of this conference. The covenant is being renewed.

Imagine what’s possible! as we continue to build God’s realm of human and ecological justice and peace, a world fit for all God’s children.

...upon foundations firmly laid.

…upon our historic covenant that binds us to one another in Christ’s ministry.

We give thanks that God is with us.

May we be with God in this interim time.

Amen.

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