I was sitting in my office a few years ago when a woman walked in and said, "My name is Susannah, and I think God is calling me to birth a UCC church out of a coffee shop in Atlanta. Can you help me?"
She shared her strategy, told me of her passion for ministry, the reason this church needed to be birthed and why the community was ready for the church right now.
For a person who loves starting new churches almost as much as breathing, I was captivated. With that one question, Susannah, the Southeast Conference and I began the marvelous adventure of planting Kirkwood UCC.
Conversations like this happen a lot these days. God is increasingly calling people to birth new churches — or maybe it is that UCC settings are developing the ears to hear God's call, which has been there all the time. Regardless, church planting is on the rise. I find this hopeful for many reasons. Practically speaking, the UCC closes more churches than it starts, which does not bode well for its future as a voice of prophetic witness. More fundamentally, however, is the theological conviction that has been the centerpiece for the Christian faith over these thousands of years — we are called to go into the world and make disciples. We are called by God to extend radical invitation to those who are without a place to belong or a voice to speak.
The challenge the UCC faces today is simple — it needs more leaders called, trained and equipped to start new churches. Every setting in the denomination needs to actively identify entrepreneurial people who cast vision, motivate followers and inspire action.
The UCC needs local church leaders and pastors with the ability to recognize potential in others. Who in your church (lay or ordained) likes to start new ministries and create new communities within your church? Maybe, with your encouragement, they could plant a church. Who in your youth ministry has a passionate faith, budding leadership abilities and inspirational vision of what church could be? Maybe with your encouragement, they could plant a church.
Perhaps you are a member of a Church and Ministry Committee – who of your candidates for ministry has the church planting spirit? Maybe, with your encouragement, they could plant a church. Or maybe you are feeling the call to plant a church — if so, I'm here to recruit you!
Discerning whether you have the gifts and skills to plant a new congregation involves a process of assessment. A couple of years ago, the UCC joined with its ecumenical partners to develop the new church planter Gallup assessment survey, which indicates if a person has the personality traits needed to start new churches. This assessment, as well as a set of interview questions to help leaders discern their calling, is available at http://www.ucc.org/newchurch.
The UCC also has recently developed a Gallup assessment survey for pastors interested in redeveloping congregations, as the skill sets are often complimentary.
In October the UCC's New Church Leadership initiative is embarking on a new way to help people discern their calling to this important ministry. Working collaboratively with the UCC's Local Church Ministries, the initiative has trained a team of assessors to lead a series of "discernment events" across the country.
These Friday and Saturday workshops will provide opportunities for anyone interested in the church planting process to take basic assessments like the DISC Profile, TEAM Profile, and Conflict Management Styles. Attendees will receive individualized feedback from on-site assessors and the opportunity for additional training if they qualify as a church planting candidate. Most importantly, they will hear from active church planters about the process of starting a church and begin to imagine what this journey might look like for them.
After good candidates to plant new churches have been identified, training is the next critical step. The New Church Leadership Institute hosted in Atlanta each year focuses entirely on teaching practical "how to" strategies. Participants have the opportunity to learn from church development practitioners while networking with other church leaders from around the country.
This year the Institute is launching a second track focused on training pastors in turnaround churches. It will address issues such as conflict resolution, community networking, leveraging technology, stewardship and fundraising, faith-sharing and forming your leadership teams.
Starting a new church is a courageous ministry. While most pastoral leaders are trained to pastor existing churches complete with buildings, hymnals, parking lots and salaries, church planters have the challenging task of forming community, building traditions and growing disciples all without the comforts and predictability of institutional stability.
Church planters gather people in living rooms and coffee shops and community libraries to talk about a "church that is becoming," but not here yet. They network with community leaders, local schools, other pastors and business professionals to share their hopes for this new faith community, asking for their support and prayer. They cast a vision far and wide that says, "I do this not because I believe this church could exist, but because it should exist." This church matters.
In the 2008 film "Milk," gay rights activist Harvey Milk would stand on the street corners of San Francisco and yell through his megaphone to the growing crowds in the streets, "My name is Harvey Milk, and I am here to recruit you!" That is a line worth stealing.
My name is Cameron Trimble, and I am here to recruit you. I am asking you to help us find new leaders, start new churches and inspire new visions. I am asking you to strengthen your local church, encourage your teenagers to consider pastoral ministry and make sure your church is making a difference in your community. I am asking you to remember why the United Church of Christ makes a difference in your life and share your story with others. I am asking you to help us grow the Church.
I hope you will join me — and many others — on what promises to be an extraordinary journey.
The Rev. Cameron Trimble is the UCC's Southeast Conference Associate Conference Minister for Church Development and the director of the UCC's New Church Leadership Initiative. Program details and registration information are available at http://growtheucc.org.