Written by Gregg Brekke
When Keeping You ePosted helped kick off a campaign earlier this week to bring Ellen DeGeneres to General Synod, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and the initial energy contagious. However, a few people scratched their heads and a couple even complained: Why Ellen?
To be sure, a diversity of opinion about who or who should not be invited to Synod is not anything new in the UCC. What is new, however, is that we have never purposefully invited people to join a campaign to entice a speaker to come to our General Synod.
Because we have never before issued such an "open invitation" to a potential speaker before, I have become aware that many people, perhaps most, don't know the back story of how we arrive at names considered for potential Synod speakers. Others may not be aware of the increasing and inspiring role of Saturday's unique programming at Synod since 2007.
Saturdays at Synod took on a new character in Hartford, Conn., when we celebrated the UCC's 50th Anniversary. It was a huge hit and part of that was the lineup of speakers that we were able to garner. The intent of Saturday – then and now – became an opportunity to hear presenters and performers that speak to the church on a number of topics and from a range of perspectives – religion, entertainment, science, media, arts and culture, technology, etc.
It has become our intentional effort to acknowledge that the church exists in the world; that God is still speaking – through religion, yes – but also through many contexts, vocations and disciplines. Saturday is about the church, our faith and the context in which we minister within the larger culture and society. It has become our time to acknowledge that we can learn from people who are within the United Church of Christ and the church universal, but we also can learn from people who have not openly declared that they are speaking from a particular faith perspective.
For 2011, building on the theme "Imagine What's Possible. God is Still Speaking," the General Synod Program and Planning Committee asked that the majority of Saturday's programming speak directly to supporting and strengthening local churches, but also inspiring everyday people in the church to come to know the church's promise and potential in a changing world. To this end, we are creating an outcomes-based Synod that will equip attendees with concrete ideas to take back to their local churches in the areas of leadership, technology, spirituality, worship, youth empowerment, global ministry, justice and the arts. As part of these various "tracks" of learning, we are inviting top-tier thinkers to provide inspirational speeches and application experiences. For those who yearn for best-practices advice for our local churches, this Synod will be for you.
In addition, the committee wanted a keynoter that would be able to speak creatively to the theme, but one who also would have significant name recognition to draw people to Synod that, perhaps, would not ordinarily attend. After brainstorming a number of names, it was the role of staff to follow up on these. Included in that list were big names like Ellen, Oprah, Michelle Obama, Anderson Cooper, Bono, etc. – people that could both inspire and be a "draw" for people to come.
As we did in 2009, we are continuing our efforts to pursue Michelle Obama as a potential speaker but, at this point, we have no indication that she will come. And the likelihood of getting any confirmation of her participation will be last-minute, even if we are successful.
We also have researched many other names and not surprisingly found them far more costly than our financial capabilities allow. And, in keeping, Ellen DeGeneres' customary speaking fees are also far beyond our reach.
But, given Ellen's proclivity to enjoy genuine, quirky and funny grassroots efforts, some felt she just might respond to this kind of mass, innovative invitation. Thus the "Get Ellen to Synod" campaign was born. Our communication department has created an out-of-the-box opportunity that will not only send a word of invitation to Ellen DeGeneres, but also build excitement for the approaching Synod and encourage us to explore the gifts of imagination and possibilities. Thus, we believe our Synod theme – "Imagine What's Possible" – fits Ellen's persona perfectly.
One immediate insinuation, I have heard, is that we invited Ellen just because she's gay. Some also took this opportunity to reiterate their opposition to the UCC's support of the "gay agenda" or wrote that we focus too much attention on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in the UCC. I am saddened to have to address this question. But, for those who wonder, we invited Ellen because she has great imagination, is engaging and has a broad appeal to many ages, including a generation that is too often overlooked in our churches. Ellen is a household name, and has a track record of responding to innovative campaigns like the one we have just launched. Ellen also was a name suggested to us by the General Synod Program and Planning Committee.
While I'm not a betting person, I would wager that if we are able to convince Ellen to accept our invitation to Synod, our attendance will jump significantly! Moreover, the media attention that Ellen could generate could help focus far greater public attention on the whole work of the United Church of Christ, our distinctive and inclusive witness, and our broad mission priorities. Already, since launching the campaign, WFLA in Tampa/Orlando, has run a story about what we're doing, an indication that our collective innovation can help us build the kind of visibility and attention that we often hear UCC people yearning for.
We are a church that celebrates diversity in society and in our churches. So I want to note that the last two Synods have had diversity among the keynoters: two men – one white and one African American – each invited for what they could bring to the General Synod, not because of their racial identity or gender. We have no intention of selecting a keynoter solely based on his or her race, age, gender, sexual orientation or physical ability, but just as there is more to me than the fact that I am an African-American woman, there is much more that attracted the committee to Ellen, beyond her sexual orientation.
Another question has been voiced as to whether or not Ellen is even a Christian. Frankly, I don't actually know. We have a history of inviting people of various faiths and backgrounds to address Synod – Eugene Robinson in 2009, as one example – without questioning their beliefs. I am sure it is accurate to state that the committee believes that it is possible that people of all faiths or even no particular faith can have something worthwhile to share with the General Synod.
Is this just a gimmick? No and yes.
We would love to welcome Ellen to the General Synod. It would be fun and inspiring, it would increase registration, and my guess is that she would be a very engaging, challenging speaker – with depth, substance and, of course, humor. It might even result in some positive attention for the UCC. So should she be willing, I'm all for accommodating her schedule.
But do I really expect Ellen to come? Time will tell, but this I do know: Even if Ellen does not oblige our fun and heartfelt invitations, she will have helped to inspire momentum, excitement, laughter and common purpose in the process. It's a fun way to introduce our churches and members to the power of new technology and to see what's possible if we garner our collective voices and excitement to "get Ellen to Synod." In short, it's UCC's newest version of our public welcome of SpongeBob!
So, that's the deal. I hope you are able and willing to join in with a spirit of fun and playfulness as, together, we imagine what's possible.
Edith Guffey, associate general minister, serves as administrator of the UCC's biennial General Synod.