Written by Michelle May
"The United Church of Christ is undergoing a period of great change - but not of great demise."
When introduced to delegates and visitors during the Opening Plenary on Friday, the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, nominee for Local Church Ministries Executive Minister, encouraged the church not to forget this.
While recognizing a significant time of change for the church, Guess admitted that there are no easy answers or quick fixes.
"But I do understand that new leaders for the United Church of Christ must be willing to speak to the angst that stirs in us, to interpret it and to minister to it, but more than offering analysis, to take practical steps and make creative decisions to welcome the new era of ‘possibility’ that so many of us are yearning for," he said.
In a world where the buzz word of the day seems to be "hope," Guess reminded us that hope is more than a good marketing strategy; it is a renewed and refining presence in the world.
"Hope has been known to pack its bags and show up in strange, unsuspecting places: in flooded, tornado-ravaged towns and along hurricane-battered coastlines. Hope opens wallets and checkbooks, and it sets people to singing and praising God again," he said.
Quoting from Episcopal Bishop Mark Dyer of Pennsylvania, Guess shared the Bishop’s belief that every 500 years or so the whole church conducts a great big rummage sale.
"And lucky us, we were born into that 500-year cycle," he said. "We’re in the process, as Christians, of sorting through the church’s attic and deciding what to keep and what we shall discard."
Guess said he is not just appreciative of the United Church of Christ, but indebted to it. He received a laugh from those gathered in the Plenary Hall when he admitted to a "newcomer naïveté" when he first joined the UCC, believing the denomination to be perfect.
"All I can say is that you schooled me well, but my enthusiasm for this incredible church has not dampened."
Through his current position as Director of Publishing, Identity and Communications (PIC), Guess has had many opportunities to observe what is happening around the United Church of Christ and he said he is encouraged by what he sees.
"I sense a strong hunger for an articulation of our envisioned future together, an eagerness to recapture the belief and proclamation that the UCC exists for a reason."
Guess acknowledged that the changes won’t be easy because "the new" has always rattled the church.
"We wrestle with how to stay true to the institution we have been and to the new mission we sense God is calling us," he said. "Our jitters are understandable. But resistance is not a faithful option."
Local Church Ministries Executive Minister search committee chair Carol Williams-Swoope said Guess was chosen from a large pool of talented and diverse candidates. In her introduction, Williams-Swoope said the committee found his love for the church and his success as a local pastor as two of the reasons that he was chosen for the position. She pointed out that when Guess was pastor of Zion UCC in Henderson, Ky., he led the church through a period of growth from 12 to 300 members.
In speaking of the United Church of Christ’s growth, Guess said that for too long we have relied on two metrics to determine our success—membership totals and dollars given to national ministries. While not diminishing the importance of these statistics, he emphasized that they don’t tell the complete story because of changes in what "membership" means and new patterns of mission-giving that illustrate the growth of local mission, not necessarily a disconnect with denominational impact."
Guess said that he has experienced what he calls the saltiness that is the United Church of Christ and that not only has he been beckoned by its light but he believes tens of thousands of new people will be touched and impacted by UCC ministries.
"We respond not to diminished (or repeated) expectations of ourselves but to greater expectations of who God believes we can be - and then, in turn, what we imagine is possible for us."
General Synod delegates vote on the election of Guess and the other Collegium nominees on Monday evening.