Reading reports in June from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church or the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reminds us that the struggle for unity amid sharp differences in the church is not a challenge for the UCC alone. No matter what a national church body may say about any of today's hot button issues, the threat of schism, of a break in communion, is very real for all denominations.
Since our General Synod in 2005 about 100 congregations have left the UCC and, most recently, our Puerto Rico Conference voted to disaffiliate. The reasons for these departures are many, but each is a painful diminishment in our life. The fact that there are also 65 other congregations in development or in conversation with us about membership is good news, but news that does nothing to offset the sadness of saying goodbye to churches and members who have been an important part of our life.
Conflict has marked the church since New Testament times. Conflict was part of the story of the journey leading to the creation of the UCC almost 50 years ago. Conflict has been a part of the life of the UCC whenever we have tried to stand for Gospel commitments of justice and love. Faithfulness is not about avoiding conflict; it's about how we respond to inevitable conflict. For leaders in the church, whether here in Cleveland, or in the life of Conferences and congregations, a large part of that means learning how to respond to the critics in our midst and beyond.
It is clear that we face two kinds of critics today. There are many loving critics who care deeply for this church, seek ways to support it, and yearn for its growth and vitality. They find themselves in dissent from some of the positions of the General Synod and its leaders, finding in the Bible and the church's tradition differing understandings of how we are to view contemporary social and moral issues. We need to listen with care, humility and deep respect to these loving critics, assuring them of their honored place within the diverse life of this church, finding ways for them to support those aspects of our national and global ministries that they can fully embrace. We need to be open to the truth that they have spiritual insights to nurture, even challenge us toward greater faithfulness.
It's also the case that there are critics who do not love this church, who seek to disrupt, distract, diminish, even destroy our life. These critics, within and beyond, encourage local churches to withhold financial support of our wider ministries, offer advice and counsel on how to leave the denomination, establish parallel structures for the placement of clergy and the sending of mission personnel, and regularly disseminate deliberately misleading or false information about the denomination and its leaders. Those who love this church, and cherish its legacy, need to be clear in saying no to this form of critique which falls outside the bounds of acceptable Christian behavior.
Discerning between these two types of critics is one of the great challenges of leadership today. It requires a deep humility to embrace the loving critics, no matter how uncomfortable their critique may be, never saying, "I have no need of you." But it also requires the courage to name those whose actions are out of bounds, saying to those who would disrupt, distract, even destroy, "I will not let you damage what is precious or diminish a vocation that is a critical dimension of the Gospel witness." Such discernment is not easy. May God grant us the wisdom required for it, and the discipline to do it.
The Rev. John H. Thomas is UCC general minister and president.