I have been a United Church of Christ minister for the past 36 years. Sixteen of those years were spent in two local congregations where I served as a local church pastor. For the past 20 years, I have been on a Conference staff – in CT and in Florida.
When I bleed, I bleed black and red which are the colors of the Still Speaking Initiative. I have devoted my life to the core values of this tribe, and I do believe that the core message of the United Church of Christ can both change and save people’s lives. It is of course based in the central message of the Gospel and the call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the God who created us and who loves us unconditionally.
I’m enough of a UCC History, Theology, and Polity "geek" to know a lot about this endeavor and what was to be an experiment in an ecumenical movement. Our motto from the priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17:21 declares "That They May All Be One." This belief was central to our forebears in the faith on whose shoulders we now stand. They believed that their witness to the world was a witness of Christian Unity. There surely were things that could divide them in those days as there are things that divide us in these days. For the sake of Christ and with a firm belief in the power of Jesus to make us one, they made this their central proclamation.
We talk about covenant a lot in the United Church of Christ. We maintain that our polity is covenantal. The UCC Constitution and Bylaws were rewritten in 2000 to underline the connections between the "settings of the church" (Local church, Association, Conference and National). However, many among us spend a lot more time living as if we are not connected to one another. I have often said that a leader of the United Church of Christ can spend their entire ministry never saying the words "United Church of Christ," and there would be little to no repercussion for making that choice to be disconnected from the rest of the church.
If I had a dime for every time I have heard the statement, "We feel disconnected from the Association, Conference, national setting" I would be a rich person! I have witnessed the misunderstanding of autonomy to be translated as, "leave us alone, we are doing fine here. We will call you if we need you." And yes, there is an expectation of "transaction" where the question is raised, "What have you done for us lately; why should we get involved with the wider church?"
This sense of disconnection is not only located in our churches. Relationships go both ways. The wider church settings are also responsible for not always being present in the life of our churches when we are needed. We make mistakes and we fall short of living up to everyone’s expectations. While we try to be good covenantal partners that is not always the case. We are all responsible at times for not building relationships.
I’m crazy enough to believe we don’t have to continue to live this way. I believe our local churches and leaders are working hard to live out their mission and ministry. Every single day our local churches are working to advance the realm of God in their setting. We have amazing leaders, and I am encouraged by their gifts and skills for ministry. We also know that the times are changing and that we must adapt to those times or face continued diminishment and shrinking resources for the ministries we seek to incarnate in our daily lives.
We need each other. I believe that deep in my soul. We do not have to face the challenges we face alone. We do not have to live as if we are disconnected from one another. I believe that interdependence and mutuality are a preexisting condition and that we would do well to begin living in some new ways with one another. We all know that relationships matter. We all know that in these days of deep mistrust, that trust is the capital that we must build with one another. Relationships that are healthy are not "one way streets". Relationships that are healthy are built on mutual respect and affection for one another. Rather than a "what’s in it for us" question, I wonder how we might move to "What can we do together that we cannot accomplish by ourselves?" Can you imagine what it would look like for all of the members of the United Church of Christ to move as one people? Can you imagine what might happen if instead of making jokes about how disconnected we are, we began to live as a people committed to the originating vision of unity (not uniformity)? Can you imagine the impact we might make to help God create a world that is more just, more compassionate, and more loving?
I will continue to preach a vision of connection. I will continue to lead with a conviction that we are part of the body of Christ and that when we live out of our oneness in Christ amazing things can happen. Maybe I’m a fool for Christ, but hey – let it be so!
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