Three Southern New England Conference Boards Call For Year Of Discernment On Federating Or Merging
By Eric Anderson and Tiffany Vail
The Boards of Directors of the Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island Conferences of the United Church of Christ have joined together to consider a future of mutual ministry. In a resolution that hails the benefits of interdependence, the three boards have all voted to call their pastors, leaders, and congregations to a "season of discernment" to consider how God may be calling the three conferences to federate or merge.
"By creating and pursuing a robust partnership," reads a portion of the resolution, "we may increase the likelihood that 15 years from now, a vital expression of the progressive church movement will be alive and well in America."
While the idea of federating or merging the three southern New England conferences will likely be new to many people, the staffs and boards of each Conference have been involved in cooperative efforts for several years now in such areas as search and call, help with fitness reviews, racial justice training and environmental ministries, and they have co-hosted several Super Saturday events together.
Over the past two years, the Connecticut Conference Minister has met with the Massachusetts Conference Board and vice versa – the first time for such meetings. The three chairpersons gathered in 2014, and then the full Boards met together in November, 2014, another historic first. This summer, the three Conference Ministers and three Board chairs met and crafted this resolution together.
The Rev. Jim Antal, Massachusetts Conference Minister and President, said the exploratory conversations the board and staff have been undertaking have begun to identify numerous ways to “be better together.”
“Making our boundaries more permeable facilitates sharing best practices – and it also allows us to share ownership of and champion more missional initiatives and congregational resources,” he said.
Leaders in the three Conferences are excited about the possibilities of doing more together.
"I am moved that this initiative to ground ourselves in prayer and discernment has been unanimously approved by the Boards of our three respective Conferences," said the Rev. Kent Siladi, Connecticut Conference Minister. "As we attune ourselves to the Spirit’s voice and movement in our conversations I pray that we might be open to wherever the Spirit may lead us."
Antal added: “Living as we are in a time when we are more and more conscious of our interdependence, I celebrate this season of discernment. The Holy Spirit has guided us thus far in this conversation, and I can’t wait to experience how she will continue to guide us as we enter this process.“
"I just love imagining where God might lead us," said the Rev. Barbara J. Libby, Interim Conference Minister of the Rhode Island Conference, "as we enter together into intentional conversations about the possibilities: of working interdependently, of working more collaboratively, of sharing resources, gifts, and skills across three conferences with over 150,000 United Church of Christ people of faith."
The Rev. Dr. Keith Bolton, a member of the Connecticut Conference Board of Directors, said the season of discernment “represents our willingness to trust God in that rather scary process. It says that we believe in a God who is greater than any fixed form of our current witness.”
Conference leaders said they were excited to be inviting the churches into the discernment process to see where it might lead.
"We are giving ourselves the time and space to listen and learn from the concerns of our churches, in order to create new ways to respond to the needs of a hurting world," said Susan Rotblat-Walker, Vice President for Stewardship of the Rhode Island Conference. "Because the local churches will be brought directly into the process they will hopefully feel less removed from the life and work of the conferences."
The Rev. Jocelyn Gardner-Spencer, a member of the Connecticut Conference Board, was among those working to prepare the ground for the resolution. "Those of us who have been part of this conversation so far feel that it's time to expand the circle, to hear from as many voices and perspectives as possible. In true Congregational fashion, I believe that we are best able to discern the movement of the Spirit when we do so together, combining the glimpses we each catch individually into a rich and vibrant vision of the future God has in store for us.
"I see this movement toward interdependence as embracing what is already true -- that we are, in fact, one body, one people, one church, thanks be to God," she said.
The Rev. Angela Menke Ballou, Chair of the Massachusetts Conference Board of Directors, said she believes that doing ministry together "will amplify our already strong witness on behalf of the gospel in New England."
"Each Conference brings many gifts to this move toward interdependence, she said. “The Massachusetts Conference has focused on pastoral excellence and communities of practice; Connecticut has a leadership role on racial justice and youth ministry; Rhode Island has much to teach us about connectivity and their mission partnership with Haiti. These are some of the gifts we each bring to the conversation," she said. "Our mutual ministry will gain from the individual foci of each Conference, so that the whole will be stronger by working in partnership."
The Rev. Dr. George Peters, Rhode Island Conference President, said the discernment process can “go as far as our courage will take us."
"Personally, I don’t think merger would be taking it too far. We in the Rhode Island Conference often think of ourselves as small (but mighty in Spirit). Imagine being part of a UCC Federation or Conference that is 150,000 strong and still mighty in Spirit. We can make a difference in our region, in our nation and in the world," he said.
As the resolution asks: "What would we do if we were brave and faithful?"