Someone recently said to me, “I don’t think God cares whether we are one conference or three?” I couldn’t agree more. But what God does care about is effective ministry and mission in our area. The question we are asked to vote on at this year’s Tri-Conference Annual Meetings is whether our mission (both individual and collective) will be strengthened through a model of deeper interdependence. What do you think? Is it possible that through forming new relationships we can become more than a sum of our parts? Is it possible that by embracing this new initiative, we can have greater impact in our local communities and the broader region? Of course it is. It’s also possible that none of this will happen. We might vote to form a union only to realize it didn’t work out as expected. But we won’t know that unless we try. We know that what we are doing doing now isn’t working as well as we would like it to.
“We are ready to embrace a new covenant to further the mission and ministry of the United Church of Christ in Southern New England.”
“We believe that the creation of a new Conference will increase the impact of the United Church of Christ in Southern New England. There is power and value in shared resources, knowledge and expertise.”
I love math. If I hadn’t entered the ministry, I likely would have ended up in computer science or engineering. Math is fun. At least is has been for me. I know for many others, math ranks right up there with receiving a root canal.
One thing math taught me though, before I entered the world of humanities, was that the numbers don’t always add up. Advanced calculus hurt my brain. Things became just too abstract for me. Imaginary numbers, antiderivative functions, parametric derivatives...no thanks! I’ll stick with addition. 1+1+1=3. There’s no question about that. Except...when there is. Sometimes the end result of addition is greater than the sum of its parts, right? For example, my wife and I working together can sometimes accomplish more than we each could individually. By sharing our unique thoughts, ideas, and approaches to the same situation, we can often be more creative than either of us could alone.
Churches can be like that, too. When the body of Christ is functioning well, all the members work together with the Spirit to bring about amazing results. We sometimes call these results miracles. In other words, 1+1+1>3! Could our conferences be like that as well - that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole? Is it possible that by pooling our resources (human, spiritual, and financial) we produce more than all of our conferences’ individual work added together? That’s what we are hoping. And that’s what we are believing!
Prayer themes for this week: With whom do you work well? Have you ever had a situation where working with someone on a project was challenging, but the results were astonishing? How can we ensure that when we are working (alone or collaboratively) we are inviting God into the process? When has working collaboratively with someone brought about a solution that far exceeded your expectations?
Scripture: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:1-4)
Prayer: Praise the Creator! The Light of the world! Thank the Holy One for Spirit Wind and blazing tongues. O’ God, shower us with your radiance. Anoint us with your Oil of Gladness. Send a cool breeze. Come and nudge us with a rush of wind. Blow us together and move us to new places. Ignite within us a passion for celebrating with many new faces. Behold, lots of new hands raising and clapping in new spaces. We are many voices, united as One Body, One Mind, and One Spirit. O’ God, you call us, to bear witness in and beyond our finite borders. We celebrate Pentecost and we remember the story about Jesus’ followers who had many voices yet, they heard one common message. They met in one room, on one accord and they had one mind on Christ. Rushing, Mighty and Uniting Spirit Wind, move us as one people, ready to serve, sing and rejoice.
Thank you for the Holy Ghost, the Sacred Helper that Jesus promised us. Praise God for Pentecost! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.
What does the Conference do for us? As a church pastor, I hear hear this question often. It’s a fair question. One that should be asked...and answered. Hopefully, the answers are meaningful enough to keep us connected and working with one another. If they aren’t, then we ought to ask why we remain in covenant, because the conference needs to be relevant. I see two levels of answers to this important question. First is the practical level. When churches struggle, when they are in conflict, when they feel they have nowhere else to turn, the conference is there for them. Local churches may not always be satisfied with the help they receive, but we need each other, especially when we are hurting. The conference helps us with congregational conflict, ministerial transitions, and unexpected tragedies. The conference, along with our associations, help our church leaders (ordained and lay) develop our ministries, become authorized, maintain standing, and establish safe boundaries for all. When working well, these cooperative initiatives make our local churches stronger by making our leaders stronger. The second level of answers is far more spiritual and relational. We covenant together because we believe that we are stronger, bolder, and more effective when we work together. The conference provides structure for this covenant. Together, as a conference, we establish vision, engage in ministry, and serve and praise God in ways that we cannot do alone. Our faith calls us to live in community, and that community is larger than just our immediate surroundings. It is to the ends of the earth. Our conferences are our connections to much of that wider world.
“The Conference setting is ‘uniquely positioned to be the center for congregational interdependence.’ (On Covenant, a paper by Sue Phillips) …We believe it to be the role of the Conference to help local congregations discern the ministries to which they are called and to provide a way to connect congregations to one another.”
“We are a people who are bound together by covenant.”
“Covenant” is a pretty weighty word. At least, as Christians, it ought to be a weighty word. Think of the covenants that God establishes with folks throughout scripture: Adam, Noah, all creation, Abraham and Sarah, David, and on and on. These are no small matters. In fact, they hold the keys of life and death...literally. Covenant is at the heart of Christian faith. It is also at the heart of our denomination. Yes, autonomy is a key component in the life of the UCC, but the UCC would not exist without covenant, as well. That’s what the whole “United” thing means. We choose(autonomy) to work together(covenant) to be the church. Now we are talking about expanding one of our covenants. We are talking about expanding beyond our state borders and choosing to covenant with churches throughout Southern New England. Do you have anything to gain from such a covenant? Do you have anything to give? We are already committed to one another through our national denominational bond. What would it take for us to live up to our conference covenants either as they currently stand, or in this expanded vision of conference?
Prayer themes for this week: What covenants have you made in your life? How have you been at living up to your end of the bargain? How do you react when others fail to keep a covenant they made with you? How does God react under such circumstances? What is the covenant that your church has with the larger church? What are the benefits of this covenant for both parties?
Scripture: “And God said this is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbows in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (Genesis 9:12)
Prayer: O Holy One, Love Divine, Wise Guardian of life, you bless us with signs to remind us of the eternal bond between us. You bless us with your Word and shine your Light in darkness, showing us your ways. Dear God, help us to see a rainbow sign in the sky. Fill us with your presence as we discern and affirm your promises and plan to gather us as one body in Christ. Just as you, O God led the founders of the United Church of Christ sixty years ago, lead us today to greater heights. Help us to understand what it means to be a newly formed community. Remind us about the early followers who united on the day of Pentecost. May we embrace our call to be a united and uniting community, bearing fruits of the spirit, proclaiming the Gospel, and living into your divine plan. Guide us as one United Church in Christ, we pray. Amen.
“The awakening to which we bear testimony is not confined to our congregations.”
I don’t know about your church, but my churches have changed a lot over the years. Simply put, things that worked, and worked well, for churches in 1957 (when the UCC was founded) don’t seem to be working real well right now. A lot has changed. Our local churches are fighting to keep up with all this change while still remaining recognizable to our eternal purpose. There are those who are suggesting we are in the early stages of a major revolution in the church. Just as the Protestant Reformation rocked the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago, they are speculating that we are living in the midst of a new reformation. Some are calling this Church 3.0. Is it possible that the conference structures recognized by the UCC at its founding need to change as well? Can our long standing boundaries and definitions remain stagnant as the church moves through this evolution? Should they? Is it possible that we might be better equipped to respond the revolution already going on around us by adopting a new vision of what it means to be a conference? I think so.
Prayer themes for this week: What is one thing your conference has been successful at in your experience? What is one area where it let you down? What have you done to support your conference beyond sending money? If you were to list your top three priorities for your conference in the coming years, what would they be?
Scripture: During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. (Acts 16:9-10)
Prayer: Gracious and Loving God, we thank you for the gift of time to rest, pray, look for signs and listen for your call. Holy One, as we witness many wonders in your creation, help us to recognize the many changes around and within us. Help us to notice how your tiniest creatures cooperate with your master plan. Inspire us with a vision of your plan where we are called to cross over to new areas and proclaim the good news to others. Savior, in your grace and mercy we pray. Amen
“We believe that the transformative message of the Gospel invites us into a deeper proclamation of that which unites us through the core values of the United Church of Christ.”
“We are not a people who live without hope.”
“We do not believe that the narrative of decline should define us.”
This is a bold statement! My entire ministry, all 22 years of it, has been spent in the general state of decline for mainline Christianity. Yes, some of my churches have grown and grown by quite large numbers, only to eventually succumb to the broader downward trend after a number of years. It’s not an easy time to be in ministry (lay or ordained). It can be discouraging. Many of the people in my churches are tired and worn out. What I love about the above statement is that it flies in the face of the prevalent cultural narrative. In this way, it reminds me of Jesus. Jesus, didn’t let society’s narrative define him or his ministry. He understood he was a part of something amazing, remarkable, Divine. We too are a part of that same reality. Golly, I wish we all really believed that God is doing something amazing with us and our churches. How much more energizing our ministry would be, no?
Prayer themes for this week: What would it take for you to believe that God is doing amazing things at your church? What would constitute success or growth in your context? Does it have to be numerically? What awesome thing has God done in your ministry recently? How did you celebrate it?
Scripture: “The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;” (1 Corinthians 15:41-43)
Prayer: Amazing God! Thank you for the resurrection. I see dark clouds bow down; birds spread their wings and salute the stunning sunrise. Amazing God! Thank you for the resurrection. The soil opens, sprouts emerges as new growth, like a bridge for your tiny earthly creatures. I watch ants navigate a new terrain. Amazing God! Thank you for the resurrection. All that seemed dead, lifeless, immovable and impossible is revived, renewed and refreshed. Many were worn out, stuck, exhausted, and buried are now exhumed, uncovered and released. Amazing God! Thank you for the resurrection. We rise to celebrate the resurrection. It emboldens us to holler, throw up our hands, and shout alleluia! Amazing God! Thank you for the resurrection. Revived and renewed, we embrace a new day and trust God’s new way to grow the church. My God, you’re Amazing! Amen.
“We are mindful of the changes that are taking place in our congregations...Some of our congregations are lively places of vitality. Some of our congregations feel as if they are “stuck in neutral”. Other congregations are wondering about their survival and still other congregations have had to make the painful decision to no longer continue as a church.”
"Discipleship…requires boldness and change.”
"The centrality of the word and witness of Jesus Christ will not be changed in this proposal for a united ministry.”
There is so much change. Sometimes it is hard to feel as though my feet are firmly planted on the ground. For many people, the church has been and remains terra firma, solid ground. But even the church has changed, hasn’t it? In fact, the church is constantly changing. You don’t need a history lesson talking about the Protestant Reformation, the introduction of the pipe organ, or the translation of the Bible into native languages to recognize this. We see it in our own churches. However, as Christians, one thing for us does not change. And that is the “centrality of the word and witness of Jesus Christ.” Yes, this new Southern New England Conference initiative is providing one more opportunity for change in our world.
But one thing that will not change is our faith is Jesus and our desire to live out his witness in our lives. After all, we are the United Church OF CHRIST. We aim to remain true to that call.
Prayer Themes for this week: What does it mean to you that you belong to the United Church of Christ? What do you mean when you refer to yourself as a Christian? With all of the change in in your life, what is constant and unchanging? How do you embody that constancy in your life?
Scripture: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
Prayer: Loving God, we leave our familiar towns, cities and zip codes
and gather as kindred spirits.
We share a common bond of gratitude for our God’s constant presence.
We are mindful that our plans are incomplete without your guidance.
Help us to seek your Holy Spirit in all that we say and do.
In Christ name, we pray. Amen.
“It is both an exciting and challenging time to be a part of the United Church of Christ here in Southern New England.”
Let’s face it, New England isn’t an easy place to be the church. I’ve spent nearly my entire life in New England. I grew up in Connecticut. I live in Rhode Island. And my father’s family is from Massachusetts (I spent many summers swimming at Horseneck Beach). We have unique and distinctive cultures throughout each of our states. Yet, we also have many shared experiences and perspectives. There is a lot of commonality across our states and state lines. My church faces challenges in ministry that someone in Massachusetts may be able to understand better than someone else in South Carolina or Arizona. Is there a way that by working more closely together we could have a larger impact on our region? Is it enough to bring God’s transformation to our church membership, our wider community, or our state? Or is it possible to bring transformation to all of Southern New England by broadening our interdependence?
Prayer Themes for this week: What is unique about the church in Southern New England? What challenges is your church facing that other churches in New England may recognize? Can we learn from one another to address these concerns? How can you better support the churches around you?
Scripture: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.” (Jeremiah 29:11-13)
Prayer: Thank you Almighty God for your presence and for watching over us and hearing our prayers. We pray that our needs, desires and plans reflect the hope and future you O God want for us. Almighty God, peel away the thoughts that interfere with the core of our relationship with You and with each other. As we strive to understand your divine plan for us, bless us with an attitude of openness, hopefulness and expectation for the future. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.
“As a ‘united and uniting’ church we are convinced that we need each other to navigate the changes that we are all experiencing.”
Southern New England “Congregationalists” love their autonomy. We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, what to believe, or how to be the church. Of course, this is a broad generalization, but come on, you know there is some truth to it! Yet, even in our rugged independence we turn to one another at times for help and support. “The church” has changed a lot over the past few decades. What worked for our congregations 20, 40, or 60 years ago, isn’t working for many of us anymore. I know that I, for one, have asked plenty of people for ideas on what is happening in our culture and what ministries have been working for them and their churches. There are a lot of meaningful experiences worth sharing. We need to find more effective ways to share those experiences with one another.
Prayer themes for this week: Who has influenced your faith throughout your life? How has God been at work in those people? Whose lives have you touched? How might God work among us that we might rely more faithfully on one another?
Scripture: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-13)
Prayer: God of Light, Love and Unity, your Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light on our path. You enlighten us about the spiritual gifts you give us for building up the body of Christ. Sometimes we don’t recognize the ways you equip us for the work of ministry and the call to strengthen our faith and love for you and others. Almighty God, Thank you for giving us the knowledge of Jesus Christ as the Son of God who grows our faith. Help us to unite based on our core common faith and not on the basis of our territories. Bless each of us with a discerning heart so we will see the benefits of a unified faith in our triune God. In Christ’s Name, Amen.
“At the same time, we believe that our more traditional, familiar call maintains its claim upon us.”
Tradition has its value. In fact, without our tradition we would not be the people, or church, that we are today. Yes, some parts of our history are disturbing. But other parts of our past show the beauty and wonderful presence of God. Whatever happens going forward, whatever changes are in store for us, many of the unique aspects of the Southern New England conferences will continue. We have had profound impact on the formation of our nation, the development of our communities, and the lives of our members. That tradition will continue regardless of our future conference structure through the grace of God.
Prayer themes for this week: What does your conference have to offer other conferences? What does your church have to offer other churches? What are the unique parts of your identity? What new aspects of ministry might God want to infuse into your identity and how might those aspects be realized through new covenantal relationships?
Scripture: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1)
Prayer: Creator God you call us to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Yet, there are times when we offer a small portion of ourselves or we offer nothing at all. We call on you to give us this day our daily bread. We ask you to relieve our pain and suffering. Although we fall short in our giving to you, O God, you give us grace, unmerited favor, and undeserved blessings. We often want you to sign on the dotted line as proof you will answer our prayers. Mistrust and fear is rooted in our traditions. We often ignore the faith traditions of our founders whose union was sowed together by a dream and anchored in fervent prayers. God we trust your wisdom. Help us during this time of discernment to gather the seeds of wisdom and till the soil of any unnecessary weeds. We desire to give ourselves as living sacrifice. Please accept our desire to serve you and give all that we are and do for your glory. In Christ’s Name we pray. Amen
“We believe that God’s Holy Spirit is inviting our congregations, our clergy and our denominational leaders to become active partners in the creation of forms of Christian community which are so new that, as yet, we can only glimpse them. We believe we are called to be midwives to a new spiritual movement which is already being born.”
“If all we are going to do is form a new conference that is the same but bigger, then let’s not bother!” This has been a common refrain among those who have been exploring our new Southern New England Conference initiative. The idea behind this statement is that simply replicating our current conference structures and roles with a similar but larger format is a tremendous waste of time and energy. What we are hoping for, and trusting in, is that something new and creative will come out of this convergence. What final shape this initiative will eventually take is still in formation. In fact, it is likely something that will continue to grow and develop as time, and the Spirit, dictate. But ideally, this new initiative will lead to something that has greater support for our local churches and deeper impact on our broader communities.
Prayers themes for this week: What does my local church need from the conference to be more effective in its ministry? What does my community need from my church to feel the transforming grace of God? In what ways might God be calling our churches and leaders to collaborate on ministry and mission?
Scripture: “For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:9 NIV)
Prayer: Loving God we thank you for inviting us to be co-workers in your field. We renew our commitment as your servants. We are your farmers, planters, tillers, and builders. For we are your co-workers in God’s service destined to help create new life. Help us to be loyal workers of righteousness and not iniquities. Help us to accept your seeds of wisdom. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. Help us to recognize this season for planting new seed, and faith to trust you for a bountiful harvest. Lord as you call us to into your field, equip us with hearts, filled with loving care. Bless us with new seeds Give us an abundance of your light to follow your Way. Anoint us with oil of endurance and faith so we will not grow weary and fearful. Cleanse us with new water, fresh air and a vision that stretches beyond our finite imagination. God, revive us, renew us, reveal within us and remind us of your holy promise and plan. For truly you know the plans you have for us. You plan to make us prosper and give us a future and a hope. God, we thank you for your presence, your promise, and your plan. For we live to fulfill our Call and duty as your co-workers, your field, your building and dwelling place for your Spirit. In Christ Name, we pray. Amen.