As a UCC pastor, I have known the church through local churches, Associations and Conferences. Although I have appreciated the leadership and resources of the national church, I have not often experienced it firsthand.
If asked to give a one word description of national church leaders, I might have replied, "Bureaucrats."
When I first heard about the restructuring of the national church, I wondered if it weren't mainly tinkering with organizational charts while important work waited. When I heard that the new offices in Cleveland would include a for-profit hotel, it seemed as if cultural values were encroaching on the values of the church.
Then this fall I visited the UCC's national offices in the Church House at 700 Prospect Avenue in Cleveland. From my first steps into this old office building, my stereotype of the national church was belied by the reality I discovered.
On the first floor I found a striking chapel, constructed in-the-round to provide community around the Communion table, intimate yet able to accommodate the entire staff on special occasions, with clear glass open to the world outside. The hotel was behind the main building, with access along a ramp whose wall featured Pilgrim Press books. I learned that the hotel was developed without a cent of Our Church's Wider Mission money, instead earning income for the church, while providing rooms for meetings and lodging for those attending them at rates below those of other quality hotels. Good stewardship!
Upstairs on the several floors I visited, I found national staff offices to be functional and attractive but not ostentatious. More important, I found a warm atmosphere of camaraderie and mutual support among highly diverse people. I sensed that secretaries and clerks were treated with the same respect as team leaders and the church officers. Here was a concrete expression of a covenantal church at its best.
An event one afternoon particularly struck me. After a conversation with a staff member who generously gave me full attention for an hour and a half, a colleague came by with word of the serious illness of a Conference Minister whom many of them knew. Folk on the floor were gathering for prayer; could we join them? We did, about 25 of us holding hands in a circle as we prayed for our brother whose life was threatened.
As I left the building that afternoon, I added a silent prayer for forgiveness for my failure to recognize that here is no bureaucracy, but the servant church of Jesus Christ at work—a compassionate community of committed Christians. I came home chastened and exhilarated. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. John Brooke is Pastor Emeritus of Congregational UCC in Belmont, Calif.