“The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part; We are Christ’s body-that’s who we are!”
~1 Corinthians 12 excerpted from The Message
The Corinthian church was the first to hear these words. The words were not just for the church at Corinth, however. These words are instructive for us, the 2019 version of the disciples of Jesus. This very day in West Hartford in this sacred place we are part of that great cloud of witnesses as well.
In the last ten months since we voted to become a part of a new Conference of the United Church of Christ much has taken place in our Conference as we have worked to bring this vision to a reality. There is still more work to be completed and we continue to labor to align the Conference with our stated vision and values. Next month the General Synod will vote on the proposed resolution to form the new Conference and in January of 2020 it will begin as a new setting for ministry here in Southern New England.
Let me say that I have been privileged to be the Conference Minister of the CT Conference for the last six years. I am so grateful for serving in this capacity among you in this vineyard. My time in this ministry will come to an end in December of this year as the three current Conference Ministers of MA/RI and CT become a new leadership team of Bridge CM’s. There will be more to share regarding this significant change. As you may have already heard I will not be a candidate for any position in the new staff structure. After prayer and discernment, I arrived at my decision not to be considered for leadership in the future Conference so that new and dynamic leadership can emerge in your midst. I am open to “what’s next” in my life and I am trusting in the Holy Spirit to order my steps.
I want to thank my amazing colleagues who serve on the Conference Staff. They have walked this journey with me, and I have been blessed to share the ministry of the Conference with them and among them. They are a gifted and devoted group of people in the midst of significant change, who every day help us carry out our mission and ministry.
I am grateful for the work of the Board of Directors led by Bridget Fidler who over this past year have kept the mission of the Conference and the new Conference ever before them with faithfulness and a forward-looking attitude that embraces change. I am also grateful for CTUCC TA1 Board members who have also been working hard at creating the emerging Conference with great skill and commitment to the mission we have set before us.
To the pastors and leaders of the churches I am so moved by your faithful witness in these changing days in which you strive to live out the Gospel call to love God and love neighbor. It is a challenging time to lead as so many things have shifted and changed and your ministries do matter.
To the congregations of the Conference – you have made and continue to make an impact and a difference in the communities where you are located. You share the love of Jesus in so many ways and you offer God’s open welcome to children of God embracing them as beloved ones with open arms.
We need each other. None of us makes it on our own. Over the last six years this has been my mantra since returning to CT. My consistent message has been that as the Body of Christ we share a connection that runs deep among us. Having been a part of the UCC my whole life I have discovered that we know how to be independent people. We do not need Bible studies or conversations to discuss our version of autonomy. We have begun to learn how to become a more connected part of the Body by claiming our interdependence through the covenant that binds us together with God’s love that will not let us go.
I am convinced that the TA1 Conference is one way for us to bring to life our covenant connection and move us toward a future that is yet to unfold; filled with uncertainty, but a future which God has prepared for us to participate in as disciples of Jesus.
Making this change is not easy for some among us. However, as our archivist John Van Epps has offered, “This may seem to be a radical departure from our way of being church, even a threat to independence and autonomy. But that’s the way it was in the good old days of the 17thcentury.” There were Synods in that time period to deal with issues of cooperation in ministry. There was the Cambridge Platform and the Saybrook Platform which sought to under gird covenant among area churches. Saybrook was our guiding framework for 150 years until The Missionary Society of CT was formed in order to send missionaries to the west. The Missionary Society formed in 1798 has been our legal name and it is the name which will continue beyond the formation of the new Conference. We have been inheritors of a history which includes General Association, the oldest gathering of clergy in the United States. We were called the General Conference of Connecticut Churches and we have also been called the General Conference of Congregational Christian Churches. With the formation of the United Church of Christ in 1957 we took on the name CT Conference for the most recent period of time. The CT, MA and RI Conferences as named Conference bodies will come to an end with the formation of the new Conference. The Missionary Society of CT and the Trustees of the Fund for Ministers continue as legal entities to largely help to protect the endowments left for those bodies to serve as stewards of trust.
We are and will continue to be inheritors of a legacy that our forebears in the faith helped to create. We have a rich history and a commitment to making Connecticut and the world a better place. Our forebears were convinced that our faith was to be exercised in the public square and that our call to justice is an important and central part of our understanding of discipleship. We also acknowledge that we cannot sanitize our history and that along with the good that was carried out it is also true that our forebears also participated in systemic injustices which included racism, white supremacy and discrimination against the marginalized and deriving profits on the backs of human beings. We need to recognize both the blessing and challenges of our histories and to tell the truth as we endeavor to give thanks and to work towards changing the systems of oppression of others. We will bring that mindfulness forward into the creation of the new. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us and we are mindful of our responsibility to the future generations that will follow.
We know in our heads that change is a part of life. It is the only constant in life. Every day is a new day and as hard as we might want to keep things as they are, things just keep on changing. Changes can be small, like they moved the bread aisle in the grocery store, they can be annoying like having to take your shoes off at the airport and they can be life changing when you discover you will be on a certain medication for the rest of your life. Changes can provoke strong feelings and bring on grief like the loss of a soul friend. Sometimes changes are hard and so difficult to manage. Some of us love change and are early adopters of change and embrace it with open arms and a love for the adventure and experimentation. Others of us don’t want to change or don’t like change and we sometimes react by kicking and screaming and railing against any change that challenges us to think in new ways.
Sometimes change is for the better and many of us can look at the changes in our lives as the times when we grew the most.
Transitions are probably among the hardest changes we are invited to make. Any time there is a transition there is doubt and uncertainty. We might feel vulnerable, unsure and anxious. If we are completely honest about change it always brings some kind of loss and so we need to name that aloud here in this gathering.
Theologian Paul Tillich spoke of change in his teachings. He invited people to look at life as a constant process of starts and stops, births and deaths. He reminded us that when a baby is born, it is death to the womb and life entering a new and mysterious womb. When a baby begins to crawl and walk it is death to total dependence on parents and a whole new life beyond their arms. When a child goes to school it is the beginning of knowledge that extends beyond the family and friends and closest circle. When a teenager learns to drive a car it is new freedom. When a person moves into a loving relationship it is the end of focus on self and creating a new life of companionship with all of its blessings and challenges. At every new beginning or new experience in our life there is an ending to the former way of doing things and a new life that opens itself to the future.
There is an endless cycle of beginnings and endings, of comings and goings, or saying hello and saying goodbye. If I am honest I’m not very good at saying goodbye. I have the uncanny and cultivated ability to be present at an occasion/gathering and vanish quickly without making a splashy fanfare about my departure. Our staff has certainly noticed this and they even make jokes about it. I know that new beginnings require endings but endings are bittersweet and often painful. Goodbyes represent an ending and so some of us shy away from saying goodbye. I once was told that the way you leave a social engagement is an indicator of how you will die. I have carried that with me since hearing it. So here is what I do. I am very intentional about saying goodbye to those with whom I have the deepest connection and the hosts of the event. I want that moment of touching base and it is important to me. I am still a work in progress around this and not quite what I need to do around endings and beginnings. Maybe that’s true for some of you too?
Becoming a new Conference will be hard and filled with challenges. There will be norms and cultures that we will encounter that will ask us to be gentle with one another and recognize that long standing Conferences have had a particular way of doing things. We are going to have to relinquish some things and we will need to adjust to new ways of working together. There will be people who will depart from Conference life and new ones who will step forward. We will need to be aware of these challenges and realize that work we once did we might not do any more and there will be difficult and challenging work we may take on that calls us forth in new ways we can only imagine.
As we head into this milestone transition I am excited about what God has in store for us to work together with our siblings in MA and RI. I believe that our covenant is a compelling one in which we proclaim that we are called to live the love and justice of Jesus. We have lifted the four core values of the Conference to be central to all that we do as we move forward.
We understand the local church exists to make disciples of Jesus and we welcome all people unconditionally to share in this calling.
We commit to making God’s love and justice real by loving our neighbors, children, and all of creation through our collective work, such as seeking racial, economic, environmental, and LGBTQ justice.
We believe God calls us to bring new life as agents of change and so we embrace and encourage adaptive and transformative leadership wherever the Body of Christ is gathered.
We encourage local congregations and varied ministry settings, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, to form covenant partnerships with all who work for the common good in their local communities and throughout the world.
We seek to be a Conference in which local churches make disciples, where we live the love and justice of Jesus, embracing adaptive change and transformation and forming covenant partnerships with those who work for the common good. These are the bedrock values and are the guiding star that we believe God is leading us to embody in the days that lie ahead.
So we journey on together. We are indeed a Body in Motion and we are moving towards some new dance partners. May we be bold and faithful as the Spirit continues to lead us forward.
you are in the tentative setting-out on a new pathway,
with all the feelings of excitement and inadequacy,
the vulnerability of hope and the fear of failure.
Give us the risk of new beginnings.
you are in the pressures of work and the precious space for creativity,
you are in the losses and griefs that throw us off balance
and in the joy and delight of new passion.
Give us the wisdom that sees your holiness.
you are in the exhaustion and satisfaction of completion,
the nerve-racking waiting for the verdict of others,
the challenge and risk of debate.
Give us the courage to find and speak our truth.
you are in the unknown that lies ahead,
the changes half-guessed at, or as yet unseen,
the new patterns and rituals of our embodied lives.
Give us the trust to be open to you.
May it be so.
*This prayer is from Naming God, by Jan Berry. The book is published by the United Reformed Church of Great Britain.