In Conversation: John Thomas reflects on a decade of leadership

In Conversation: John Thomas reflects on a decade of leadership

August 31, 2009
Written by Daniel Hazard

ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson presented the Rev. John H. Thomas, president and general minister of the United Church of Christ, Cleveland, with the "Savior of the World Cross," made of more than 50 different pieces from throughout the world.  Thomas was in Chicago for a meeting of representatives of Reformed churches and the ELCA, and preached Sept. 9 at the regular weekly chapel service at the Lutheran Center. Hanson honored Thomas for his 10 years service as UCC leader.  Thomas leaves office Sept. 30, and will become a senior advisor to the president and visiting professor at the Chicago Theological Seminary.

Connecting piety with action

With his tenure as UCC general minister and president scheduled to end Sept. 30, United Church News posed a few parting questions to the Rev. John H. Thomas:

How has the UCC changed in the 10 years you've been GMP?

The easy answer, and the hard answer, is that we're smaller than we were 10 years ago. We're not alone among denominations in this, but that doesn't make it feel any better. The reasons for this are complex and long standing, and that cautions against simplistic finger pointing.

At the same time, during these 10 years I've encountered an increasing number of local churches across the UCC that are growing. Those that are growing have been welcoming to all, courageous in their commitments to justice and peace, committed to excellence in worship, and passionate about transmitting the Gospel to a new generation of Christians.

Paradoxically, we have grown smaller as a denomination at precisely the time we are learning more and more about how to be faithful and vital in the waning years of Christendom. I've described this as the transition from "respectable religion" to "evangelical faith." Every generation has wrestled with this, but it seems particularly challenging and important today. Will we make this transition? I would say I'm anxious, but still hopeful.

What do you feel was your biggest accomplishment as GMP?

I've long felt that we don't effectively articulate the deep connection between personal piety and public responsibility. This has often left our justice work looking very much like secular political activity or, on the other hand, turned piety into private introspection, what one theologian described as "the manicure of our own souls."

In my preaching, teaching, writing and public witness I have tried hard to make the connections, showing how sacraments, scripture, prayer, and theology shape a spirituality of resistance to the dominating and demeaning powers. I think people have noticed this about me, and have appreciated it. As products of the Enlightenment, we've tended to believe that if we think and do the right things, we'll succeed. Perhaps the pre-Enlightenment reformers have something to teach our post-Enlightenment church, namely that our only comfort is that we belong to Jesus Christ. To the extent that I have prompted a rebalancing of head and hand with heart, I think I've made a contribution.

What was your biggest disappointment?

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the struggle for justice in Palestine have dominated the 10 years of my leadership.

Arrogance and idolatry have swept across our political landscape and horrible things have been done in our name. Voices of protest and resistance have been raised, ours among them. But for the most part, and in the main, we have sounded a cautious, at times a timid note of resistance.

I've been sorting through my bookshelf, getting ready to move my library. Today I came across this quote: "One might argue that the deep malaise afflicting American life in the last decades is rooted in the fact that for the first time in our history we have confronted a situation that would not yield to American power or acquiesce in the notion of America as bearer of a special destiny to the whole world" (Clifford Goen). That was written in 1974, the year before I was ordained! Some years ago I participated in a protest against the Iraq war in Washington. Standing next to me were Joan Baez and Ramsey Clark. It occurred to me that they were both part of a protest I attended on that very spot in 1970!

Have we learned anything? I continue to be haunted by a quote from Bonhoeffer: "Are we still of any use?"

What is the greatest challenge the UCC faces in the next decades?

Leadership, leadership, leadership! Whether for large, vital congregations, or small, vital congregations, or for congregations ready for renewal, or for emerging and developing  congregations, the role of the pastoral leader is crucial. Courageous congregations need leaders who can equip them biblically and theologically for the prophetic task. Generous congregations need leaders who can inspire sacrifice. Evangelical congregations need leaders who can teach the faith and nurture deep practice. And good leaders need a church prepared to discern their gifts, train them, support them, and continually challenge them.

Our system has worked hard over the last years to ensure that leaders don't transgress the boundaries of good ethical behavior. Our system has not yet done enough to ensure that leaders reach toward new horizons of excellence. This will take sustained commitment and more money and attention than we have provided of late.

Our whole church needs to shift from a culture of leadership consumption to leadership production!

Under your leadership, the UCC embraced technology and digital communications. What sort of opportunities and obstacles does and will this present for the church going forward?

My colleagues would get a good laugh at the thought that my leadership had enhanced our embrace of technology. I'm not a Luddite, but I'm not cutting edge either!

For the most part I've tried to stay out of the way and let creative people take the lead. And lead they have! I'll confess that as one who loves the feel and texture of paper in my hand, I lament the demise of print media, and as a pastor who knows the value of  attentive presence, I worry over the excessive electronic multi-tasking that often intrudes into our encounters.

At the same time, I've grown tired of pervasive resistance to the church's embrace of technology and electronic community because not everyone is ready. Too often we fail to engage those in my sons' generation because we were shaped by and are still reluctant to leave the world of filmstrips that were the electronic mainstay of ministry in the '70s when we started out. By the way, if you don't know what a filmstrip is, just Google it!

What would you like to say to the UCC as you depart?

Embrace Geoffrey as you embraced me. Support him, care for him, celebrate his gifts. He has great gifts to offer. And above all, thank you for an amazing ride! 

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