Written by Anthony Moujaes
A two-day gathering will bring regional leaders from the United Church of Christ together with their counterparts from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Presbyterian Church (USA) to examine the challenges in ministry in the western United States, and to discuss ways to strengthen their work other across denominational lines.
The topic of strengthening and supporting a regional judicatory, or middle judicatory, Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson believes, will be the focus of conversation during the gathering — which is Monday and Tuesday, April 25-26, in Denver.
"While there is a UCC-DoC partnership and a relationship with the PCUSA through the Formula of Agreement, this gathering of the Western regions middle judicatory staff provides the opportunity to explore the work that the three denominations can do together in that region," said Thompson, the UCC’s ecumenical and interfaith officer.
Last year the PCUSA and Disciples of Christ met with the UCC in Indianapolis to discuss ways in which the three denominations could enhance their relationship and life together. At that meeting, each of the three denominations cited the need to strengthen its middle judicatory in the Western region, leading Disciples Regional Ministers, UCC Conference Ministers and their counterparts from the PCUSA to this meeting in Denver.
Thompson and the Rev. Susan Towner-Larsen, UCC minister for conference relations, will be joined by eight UCC conference ministers serving in a called, interim or acting capacity. The attending conference ministers include the Rev. Charles Buck, Hawaii Conference; The Rev. Mike Denton, Pacific Northwest Conference; The Rev. Walter John Boris, Central Pacific Conference; The Rev. Ken Iha, Northern California-Nevada Conference; The Rev. Félix Villanueva, Southern California-Nevada Conference; The Rev. John Dorhauer, Southwest Conference; The Rev. Sue Artt, Rocky Mountain Conference; and the Rev. Marc Stewart, Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference.
Regional leaders will begin their discussion by sharing some of the challenges they face in their ministry, and offer any strengths or resources that could help each other. As the meeting closes on Tuesday, they hope to brainstorm some tangible ideas of what the next steps might be.
"I hope we have conversations about tangible things," Dorhauer said. "Are there ways we can share staff or resources or building space that are mutually beneficial to all of us and help lower our bottom-line costs? That’s not nearly as important as the larger questions, which we won’t likely resolve, but how do we recognize our mutual need in a time of diminished capacity, resources and relevance?"
"What is coming upon us is economies of scale across our denominational lines. It’s a good time to enter into the conversation when the choices are still ours and the resources are still there," said Artt, who will attend portions of the meeting in addition to a conference retreat. "Collaborations are still difficult in some ways because we have different faith affirmations in some cases. Some of the easier things to collaborate on are less faith-based – like accounting."
Artt and Boris also hope for a conversation about geographic collaborations, since congregations in the western conferences are more spread out compared to eastern conferences.
"As a conference minister, I think trying to cover the distance to minister to my churches is difficult," Artt said.
"I hope one of the things we can put on the table is a coordinated effort for training of clergy, particularly retired clergy," Boris said. "As a conference, we are trying to provide training opportunities for clergy in a spread-out geography. If we find a way to work with the Disciples of Christ and the Presbyterian Church to provide shared opportunities for training, that’ll be a big plus."
During their time together, ecumenical officers of each denomination will outline how the churches have worked together. Thompson added that it’s an area that they will continually explore.
"There are places where we are doing trainings together or where or staff sit together at common tables in the national settings," she said. "Where that is happening in middle judicatory life will be a part of the focus for our time together. In addition to the question of what we are doing together is the question of, ‘What are some of the things that we can plan to do together moving forward?’"
"Regardless of the content of conversation, I hope we have the kind that allows us to build trust and respect," Dorhauer added. "We have to be more than passing acquaintances. We have to build trust."