Written by Gregg Brekke
Following its National Gathering this week in Tampa, the UCC's Coalition for LGBT concerns has new leadership, a new structure and a plan to maintain and strengthen the Open and Affirming (ONA) movement. This turnaround follows a March announcement that the organization was facing the imminent shutdown of its office in Cleveland and a bleak future as a much-reduced organization with a minimal budget and no staff.
At the Gathering, the Coalition's annual meeting, members voted to replace its outgoing Board of Directors with a six-member "Leadership Team." These leaders are the Rev. Yvette Flunder, the Rev. Julie Kilmer, Phil Porter, Enzi Tanner and the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel.
At the same meeting, Coalition members voted by a wide margin to shift from a membership model to a professional non-profit model of governance and endorsed plans to launch a two-year plan for church wide consultation on the future of LGBT ministry and advocacy in the church.
"As the result of falling contributions and a decision by a foundation to withhold funds needed to support the Open and Affirming movement, the Coalition's Board was seriously considering a plan to close most of its operations except for basic maintenance of our system for certifying new Open and Affirming churches," said Andy Lang, the Coalition's executive director. "Like other non-profits, a sharp decline in charitable giving had seriously affected our financial viability."
The result, Lang said, is a movement with renewed confidence in its future and its relevance in the United Church of Christ.
The new Leadership Team will supervise the two-year consultation. "Everything is on the table, and everyone will be heard," said Lang. "We want to create the space for a wide-open and robust conversation that can create an LGBT ministry relevant in the 21st century and worthy of the diversity of our church - in race, ethnic origin, age, ability, gender and gender identity."
Preaching at the closing worship service for the Gathering, the Rev. Malcolm Himschoot affirmed the consultation as a necessary break for the work of the Coalition. "You can't [be perpetual] by being continuous – you have to take breaks," he said. "Just as there are rests in music for breathing, time for pause are needed so we can go on."
While the consultation lays the foundation for a renewed LGBT movement in the UCC, the Coalition is not going into hibernation. "Increasingly, our focus will be on ONA churches - both existing churches and congregations that are moving towards this step," Lang said. "We want to grow the ONA movement, reaching congregations that until now have been beyond our reach."
The Coalition anticipates it will register ONA church number 1,000 in early 2012. "When this happens, 20 percent of UCC congregations will have adopted covenants welcoming LGBT people into membership and ministry," said Lang.
But Lang is aware of the gap that exists for the other 80 percent of UCC congregations. "Most LGBT youth in this church are growing up in congregations that have not yet made a clear decision for inclusion," he said. "This leaves LGBT youth isolated and vulnerable - without role models and often without appropriate pastoral care. We cannot abandon them. It is critically important that the Coalition find ways to build relationships with churches whose tradition or culture until now have kept them outside the ONA family."
Helping congregations move towards an ONA covenant is not the Coalition's only goal for the ONA movement, Lang said. "We want to build community in the ONA movement," he said. "Many, possibly most ONA churches have little or no relationship with each other. This is a missed opportunity in states where marriage equality is on the table, or where LGBT rights are under attack. Working with each other and with ecumenical partners, ONA churches can help change the political playing field for LGBT equality."
The Coalition, he said, is committed to building effective ONA networks that can advocate effectively with and for the LGBT community.