Write the vision, and make it plain. That's the task handed to the Habakkuk Group, a working team of 17 lay people, specialized ministers, local church pastors and judicatory staff from across the wider United Church of Christ. The group's goal in the next three years is to work with the UCC's Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Team to revise the Manual on Ministry that will guide the conferences and associations of the UCC in authorizing the next generation of ministerial leaders.
The Habakkuk Group met for the first time from June 3-5 at the UCC's national offices in Cleveland, to begin to revise — or more accurately, "re-vision" — the Manual on Ministry. To do that, the group will examine all aspects of ministerial authorization, standing and oversight in the UCC.
"Our work is continuous of a conversation the whole church has been having in how we authorize ministers in the church. One thing we share is we all want excellent ministers who serve with integrity," said the Rev. Cameron Barr, an associate pastor at Plymouth Church UCC in Des Moines, Iowa. "That's the best investment and gift we can offer."
The Rev. Rachel Hackenberg, minister for committee on ministry resources and conference support for MESA, succinctly summarized why the Habakkuk Group is examining the Manual on Ministry: it's out of date. The current manual was last printed about a decade ago and dates back to the mid-to-late 1980s.
"It's out of date with some of our current practices of authorization and oversight across the UCC. It's out of date in some of its language — for example, the 'Member in Discernment' language that replaced 'Student in Care' following the Ministry Issues Pronouncement by General Synod 25," Hackenberg said. "And it's out of date with the breadth of work and conversation that led up to and followed that same Ministry Issues Pronouncement in 2005."
Eleanore Chong, a layperson at Central Union UCC in Honolulu and the Habakkuk Group co-chairperson, believes that authorized ministry must be "continuously defined in ways that speak to our time," which is why she felt called to serve on the group for the next three years.
But rather than undergo a revision of the Manual on Ministry, the Habakkuk Group and MESA will delve deeply in the next three years to re-vision the manual and write it based on what ministry is and is becoming, how ministers are formed and called, and what the procedures of ministerial authorization and oversight look like in the changing climate which is the 21st-century church.
As Hackenburg put it, this re-vision is more complex that just saying a certain line on a certain page needs to be edited.
"We're not aiming to write [the Manual on Ministry] 2.0," Hackenberg said. "The Habakkuk Group is tasked with envisioning a denominational document that speaks to our ecclesiastic processes for authorized ministry in a time of institutional change."
The initial meeting of the Habakkuk Group was one of understanding their task and "getting to know and listen to each other," Barr said. "Whatever we do must be grounded in creative theology.
The re-vision of the Manual on Ministry will one day guide the work of various committees across the UCC that gather in the conferences and associations of the denomination to authorize and oversee ministers. It will also benefit authorized ministers, local churches, associations, conferences and others sites of ministry.
The Habakkuk Group was formed from MESA's call for nominations, which found 155 candidates from across the wider church who filled 16 spots, plus another representative from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) since the UCC is represented in a similar Disciples working group. The team will gather twice each year in person and work together remotely between those semiannual meetings.
"We should have more clarity on our work by our next meeting," said Chong, which is scheduled for Oct. 24-26 in Cleveland.