Marcy Dory (c.), a secretary with the UCC's Wider Church Ministries, participates in the bell choir at South Haven UCC in Bedford, Ohio. W. Evan Golder photo.
What image comes to mind when you hear about the "national offices of the United Church of Christ"? Do you picture a corporate setting with board rooms, or perhaps an ivory tower? Maybe nothing comes to mind because it feels too removed from where you are.
The UCC's Church House in Cleveland is not, of course, an empty facade made of brick and mortar. There are more than 200 people employed by its four covenanted ministries, and many of them are active members of local UCC churches—just like you.
And, like you, they care deeply about the current and future condition of the church.
The common thread that runs through each of their stories is a sense of family—church family. From local church activities to their duties as part of the national staff, these are people who are connected to the life of our denomination in very personal ways.
Meet some of your relatives at 700 Prospect Ave.
'Serving the church'
Two-and-a-half years ago, Marcy Dory was looking for a change from her job as a nanny. When a friend at her home church, South Haven UCC in Bedford, Ohio, told her about a temporary position with the UCC's national offices, Dory applied. She got the job and later was hired to her current full-time position as a secretary in Wider Church Ministries.
While her job may contribute to the efforts of the UCC's mission around the world, Dory's membership at South Haven is all about ministering in a local congregation where, since 1993, she has felt "unconditional acceptance." Dory acknowledges she "never really felt that before at a church."
Raised a Lutheran, Dory stopped attending Sunday worship while in college and drifted away from the church. Her husband, Sean—who was raised in the UCC—invited her to attend South Haven when they were dating. Soon, even her mom joined them and her church family was complete. The two were married at South Haven, where they take an active role in this multiracial, multicultural congregation.
Dory has taught Sunday school, was clerk of the church council for three years and performs in South Haven's bell choir. She also helped redesign the church's newsletter and enjoys sharing resources from the national setting with those in her congregation.
As a local church member, she likes to remind her colleagues at the Church House that quibbling over words and getting caught up in church structure has little meaning to individual congregations.
"Serving the church is what's important," she says.
Market globally, use it locally
Strongsville UCC in Ohio, is the church home of Aimee Jannsohn, marketing communications associate for Pilgrim Press and United Church of Christ Resources.
At work, Jannsohn markets books and curriculum for the UCC's publishing arm, including the Sunday school materials used by many Christian Education coordinators throughout the denomination. On Sunday mornings, she uses some of her own materials while volunteering as a church school teacher.
Jannsohn and her husband, Charles, co-teach 5th and 6th graders every other Sunday with a lectionary-based curriculum—some of which she improvises to fi t their relatively small class.
"It's easier, in some ways, for me to promote curriculum when I know more about it," Jannsohn says. She says she is able to bring her knowledge of UCC resources to her local church and then, just as important, to relate her first-hand experience while working at the national setting—a valuable exercise in give and take.
Within two months of her official membership at Strongsville UCC in 2002, Jannsohn was asked to be a trustee. She is in the second year of her two-year term and says, "After that first-year learning process, I have a better idea of church finances and the inner workings of the church."
But it didn't take Jannsohn any time at all to get to know the members of her church. "I've always felt comfortable there," she says. "We're like a close-knit family."
Leading church, washing dishes
As the UCC's general minister and president, the Rev. John H. Thomas travels a good deal of the time. But his schedule doesn't diminish his relationship with his local church, Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland.
"Pilgrim is a wonderful community that understands my absence and affirms the ministry I do," Thomas says. "The congregation is very generous to me when I am able to be there."
Thomas grew up in Connecticut, where he was an active member of his home parish, First Congregational UCC of Stanford. That commitment to his faith and his community comes from examples set by his parents, both of whom stressed the importance of faith-based action and service.
"There has never been a time in my life when I haven't been active in a local church," Thomas says. For 17-1/2 years, that church activity took the form of pastoring local churches in Connecticut and eastern Pennsylvania.
But now, while on the receiving side of the pulpit, Thomas reads the church bulletin and the newsletter with a kind of split-screen vision. "As I read the material I ask myself, 'How does this message reflect our mission goals and objectives in the national setting and how does it support and encourage us at the local level?'" he says.
When Thomas and his family first arrived in Cleveland in 1992, the Pilgrim congregation was very small. "They were just embarking on renewal and rejuvenation. But they were such a welcoming community of people. We had the sense that they needed us just as much as we needed them," he says.
At Pilgrim, Thomas has taught adult education classes, served as a member of the board of deacons and has been known to wash dishes, shovel snow and help in whatever way he is able. Although his schedule doesn't allow for committee membership at present, he still "feels a part of things, even as a sporadic member."
'Preaching and teaching'
In her native Puerto Rico, it was almost impossible for a woman to be ordained. But on Nov. 11, 1972, the Rev. Candita Mattos was to become the first woman ordained in Puerto Rico. She was 23 years old.
"It was diffi ult and challenging," Mattos says. "But I felt called to ministry even as a child."
As early as age 9, Mattos preached to children and youth groups at her church. "I used to call myself 'pastor of the children,'" she says.
Mattos came to the U.S. mainland in 1988 and joined Moreno Valley Congregational UCC in California. "We were the first Hispanic family in that congregation," she remembers. At Moreno Valley, she sang in the choir, led services, volunteered on Association committees and then at the Conference level.
In 2000, Mattos was called to serve in her current position as minister for Hispanic relations in the Office of General Ministries.
"My job involves developing projects and ministries in the Hispanic community, to identify their needs and to recruit more active Hispanic leaders," she says.
That commitment to the Hispanic community extends to her home church, Buenas Nuevas UCC in Cleveland—the first Hispanic congregation in the Ohio Conference and home to most of the national office's Hispanic employees. In 2001, when the church's founding pastor, the Rev. Edward Rivera-Santiago, accepted a position at the national offices, Mattos and other members stepped up to fill the void in pastoral leadership.
"We take turns preaching and teaching," Mattos says, including participating in the congregation's "school of discipleship"—what other churches call Sunday school.
"We discuss the sermon after worship with adults and youth," to explore the gospel lesson more fully, she says.
Lorin Cope, minister for Conference relations in the church's national setting, is a seventh-generation UCC member. Jeff Davis photo.
As the UCC's minister for Conference relations, Lorin Cope is "the answer man" for the denomination's 39 regional bodies. His job includes assisting search committees, helping Conferences promote support for Our Church's Wider Mission and dealing with counsel on pending legal matters. In general, Cope is the Conferences' hands, eyes and ears at the national offices.
A seventh-generation member of the UCC, Cope has been a member of Bethel UCC in Beloit, Ohio, his whole life. He is in his second round as president of the church's consistory, having served in the same capacity in the late 1980s.
"I appreciate the history and heritage of the Congregational Christian and Evangelical and Reformed traditions of the church," he says, and praises the spirit and autonomy of UCC local churches.
"We're in a very exciting time now at Bethel," he says. "We've called a new pastor and I see worship changing, becoming more enhanced," partly because of a new high-tech projection system in the sanctuary.
There have been painful times at Bethel, too. In June 2001, the church's membership struggled with a decision on whether they would remain a UCC congregation. "Over 70 percent of the membership affirmed our UCC relationship," Cope says, "but we had a number of members leave."
During the upheaval and in the process of searching for a new pastor, there were grace- filled experiences along with the pain. "Our denominational association was strengthened," Cope says, "and we discovered our resources—print and human—that we will continue to take advantage of."
Stewardship has been a reoccurring theme in the Rev. Craig Hoffman's many ministries with the UCC. From chaplaincy at a South Bronx drug rehabilitation clinic and residential facility for people living with HIV/AIDS to his current post with the UCC's financial development ministry, Hoffman recognizes the value in all our relationships and works to make sure our gifts are not taken for granted.
"When I was working with people at the clinic, I saw the connection between stewardship and life," Hoffman says, because the closer we come to our mortality, the more precious our life becomes.
His path to his current church home at Archwood UCC in Cleveland has been filled with what he calls "God's serendipity."
"I came out [as a gay man] on the Synod floor in Ft. Worth in 1989," he says. After discussing his sexual orientation with his family's home church, the congregation refused to affirm his in-care status as a seminarian.
The rejection was a spiritual struggle, and it paved the way for his transfer of membership to Church of the Covenant UCC, an open and affirming congregation in Boston, where he was ordained in 1993 and became involved in ministry to people living with HIV/AIDS. He and his partner, the Rev. Allen Harris, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister, moved to Cleveland in 2000.
"It was a move we made totally on faith," Hoffman recalls. "We were willing to go wherever God led us."
The two of them spent much of their first year in Cleveland exploring different congregations—both UCC and Disciples. "But we kept coming back to Archwood," Hoffman says. "We felt very much at home there."
Again, stewardship plays an important role in Hoffman's service at his local church. His pastor, the Rev. David Bahr, says Hoffman "has the most difficult job there is at a local church—he's treasurer!"
Making sure payroll is met and getting bills paid can be a struggle, Hoffman acknowledges. "Working at the national office in the financial development ministry, I know the financial problems from both sides," he says. "As a local church treasurer, I've certainly held onto OCWM contributions a little longer to make payroll."
It's a dilemma that he's sure repeats itself in many local churches.
'I'm a local church member'
She may be "just plain Doris" to the members at South Haven UCC, but the Rev. Doris Powell's service to that congregation is anything but ordinary.
A member for 14 years, she has facilitated adult Sunday school, sung in the chancel choir, been a delegate to the Ohio Conference annual meeting, served as vice moderator on the church council, was internal auditor and has served on most, if not all, of the church's committees at one time or another.
Powell's idea of ministry, she says, "is to help raise up other leaders in the church." In her role as minister for pastors and seminarians with the UCC's Stewardship and Church Finances Ministry, she does just that.
But just as important is the stewardship and care of her local church family. "I've experienced the same struggles as members of other congregations," she says. "I'm a local church member. I've gone through it."
When South Haven went through the open and affirming discernment process a few years ago, the congregation failed to pass the resolution by the necessary two-thirds majority. "We were two votes away," she says, noting how the process itself opened up important dialogue.
Powell says she is spiritually grounded and nurtured by local church membership. "I get stressed out if I don't have that connection."
Her pastor, the Rev. Terry Bartlett, says that some people may think it is intimidating or threatening to have national staff members or other clergy as part of a congregation.
"The national office is not the ivory tower in Cleveland," he says. "The national staff here at South Haven are very supportive of my ministry. They aren't the experts who want to tell me the 'right way to do things.'"
They're "just plain Doris."
Laurie Bartels, a free-lance writer and frequent contributing writer for United Church News, is a member of First UCC in Lakewood, Ohio, where she serves on the "dream team," a group that's committed to developing new ways for the congregation to thrive.