From time to time, the secular press sensationalizes stories of congregations that vote to leave the United Church of Christ. However, rarely do we hear of those congregations that vote to reaffirm their covenant with the UCC.
Recently, two congregations in the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference did exactly that: Christ Congregational UCC in Fountain Springs (near Ashland in Schuylkill County), Pa., and Grace UCC in West Point, Montgomery County, Pa.
In 1993, several leaders of Grace Church in West Point had persuaded the membership to remove themselves from the UCC. After some changes in leadership and a difficult legal battle with several members who attempted to take the assets of the church, the situation changed. The Conference was asked to intervene and assist. On Palm Sunday, they voted to reaffirm their constitution as a congregation of the United Church of Christ.
A similar situation occurred in the life of Christ Church in Fountain Springs. A non-UCC pastor was called and soon began to discredit the UCC and its leadership. Eventually, he persuaded the congregation to disaffiliate with the UCC. However, this pastor subsequently left the position and, after considerable conflict within the congregation, leaders began to reassess their relationship with the UCC.
PSE Conference Minister the Rev. Russell Mitman, accompanied by a delegation from the Schuylkill Association, met with the consistory and interested members. On March 17, the congregation voted to reaffirm its covenant with the United Church of Christ.
"In both these situations," Mitman said, "churches felt themselves manipulated by strong-willed leaders with other agendas. It was gratifying to hear the members reaffirm the importance of the wider church and to realize that congregations cannot survive without the mutual support of others. I give thanks to God for the positive spirit in both these small congregations. We look forward to serving with them under the umbrella of our wider caring church family."
The Rev. Joseph H. Irwin Jr. is editor of Communitas, a news bulletin of the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference, where this article first appeared.
Southeast Conference welcomes new churches
By Ron Buford
Nearly doubles membership at annual meeting
When the Southeast Conference convened its annual meeting at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta on the weekend of June 14-16, it had 58 churches and 7,000 members.
When the meeting ended, it had 60 churches and 12,000 members.
The difference? Two existing congregations had decided to join the United Church of Christ and were welcomed into the Conference. One, Virginia-Highland Baptist Church (formerly Southern Baptist) in Atlanta, is a small, mostly white, community church of 120 members.
The other, Victory Baptist Church (formerly of the National Baptist Convention) in Stone Mountain, Ga., is an African-American church with more than 5,000 members.
The two congregations share a common vision that "addresses the total needs of the total person, with the Good News that despite the social, personal, psychological, political, spiritual and/or physical obstacles we face, there is certainly victory in Christ," in the words of the Rev. Kenneth Samuel, Victory's pastor.
The churches also were drawn by the UCC's polity.
"Authentic congregational autonomy only takes place in relationship," says the Rev. Tim Shirley, Virginia-Highland's senior pastor, "and relationship only happens within the context of communities that are mutually challenging and acknowledging of expectations. This is the kind of denominational relationship that Virginia-Highland Baptist Church desires."
The Southeast Conference has been actively engaged in welcoming a growing list of churches that are seeking affiliation with the UCC.
"We take pride that the Southeast Conference is growing in more than numbers, but also in spirit," says the Rev. Tim Downs, Southeast Conference Minister. "Besides these two churches, in the last six years our spirit of extravagant welcome has also brought in Church of the Savior in Roswell, Ga., and six new church starts for a total of more than 700 new members.
"We are proud to be the UCC in this five-state area during this season of renewal and growth."
Ron Buford is UCC public relations and marketing manager.