One Congregation's Journey to becoming an Economic Justice Church: The Story of the United Church of Chapel Hill, UCC (Chapel Hill, NC)
by Hiawatha Demby, Member of the Economic Justice Covenant Program Task Force and United Church of Chapel Hill
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Habakkuk 2:2b - 3
After engaging in a process of study, reflection, and discernment, the United Church of Chapel Hill, UCC, located in Chapel Hill, NC, made the decision to become an Economic Justice Church. Their decision and its meaning for the life of their congregation are expressed in the Covenant they wrote and approved. The congregation also wrote a resolution calling on other congregations and all settings of the UCC to be Economic Justice Settings. The Southern Conference approved the resolution, and “An Economic Justice Covenant” XXX was presented to and approved by General Synod XXVII in 2009. The resolution called for the creation of the Economic Justice Covenant Program to encourage, support, and resource other congregations and settings of the UCC as they discern their call to do economic justice.
- Determine if your congregation wants to pursue creating an economic justice covenant.
- Secure the informed consent of church leaders to begin a series of study regarding economic justice and how it intersects with Christian values.
- Review existing covenants and decide if it is better to create your own or to adopt an existing one.
- Expand your education and number of participants with more classes, presentations and speakers if they are available.
- Once the issue of economic justice is sufficiently embraced, request your church governing body approve the writing of an Economic Justice Covenant.
- Create a writing committee to revise an existing covenant or to start one from scratch based on your congregation's insights and concerns.
- Take preliminary drafts to each ministry and organization in your church for review and edit the draft based on their feedback of how it will affect their mission.
- After it is approved by your church governing body, present the covenant approved to the congregation for discussion and final revision.
- Vote on the covenant in its final form as a congregation.
I. Early readings and forums
The interest in economic justice began with education. A class created by our board of adult education was well attended and generated excitement about the possibility of addressing this issue:
- Adult Sunday class featuring the book "God's Politics" - by Jim Wallis
- Adult forum lecture on "Globalization" – Rebecca Todd Peters – Professor, Elon University, Elon College, NC
- Adult forum lecture - Rep. David Price - NC 5th Congressional district
The quest to create a covenant began with a 10:00 AM Sunday adult forum class that featured the book God's Politics by Jim Wallis. This raised the congregation's interest in what would be involved in realizing economic justice and how it fit our duties as Christians. We invited an authority on globalization to address one of our adult forums which gave the attendees an overview of how a global economy could marginalize many of the world’s populations. After these offerings and similar classes and a power point presentation on wealth and inequity it was clear that there was a significant interest in the church for addressing Christian responsibilities regarding economic justice. The church council proposed creating an ad-hoc committee to explore the question and at the conclusion of their charge to make a recommendation on if and how to proceed with creating an economic justice covenant for the church.
II. Form an Economic Justice Committee
Forming an economic justice exploration committee is a good first step in defining the issues and the interest of your congregation:
- recommends issues to address in covenant,
- regular meetings, weekly or monthly, and
- continue with presentations.
The ad-hoc committee at UCCH was comprised of a diverse range of expertise and viewpoints regarding what was included under economic justice. Each member introduced themselves, even if already well known to the group, and expressed their particular interest and insights regarding economic justice and what they expected to accomplish for this effort. Future meetings included reviewing existing information on ecumenical and other information regarding the causes, impact and proposed solutions for economic justice including the Accra Confession from the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the call to action by the World Council of Churches. The committee also worked with the board of adult education to continue educational programs on the subject. The EJ committee had been meeting for nearly a year before deciding to create a new covenant that rather than simply adopting one of the existing covenants (e.g. the Accra Confession). The committee felt this was the best way to get the rest of the congregation thinking about economic justice and how to put it into action. While it would take longer and be more difficult and uncertain, the committee hoped it would touch more people and build the resolve as a congregation to translate the covenant into action.
III. Form a writing committee
A writing committee can be formed, possibly to include members of the group that has been shepherding the process up to this point. Each congregation’s covenant will be unique, but it might include some of the following:
- Stories, facts and information that make the case for taking action on economic injustices
- The brief history of the congregation’s prior and on-going involvement with issues of economic injustice and previous actions and stances taken by the congregation
- A description of the congregation’s “call” to get involved in this issue in a new or deeper way
A writing committee was formed as a subcommittee of the economic justice committee and was responsible for writing the initial covenant document:
- utilizes notes from the EJ committee,
- set a date for a first draft,
- form an education committee,
- got congregation input on covenant contents and what it meant,
- EJ committee approved first draft, and
- continued presentations and workshops, and
- make materials and resources available.
The writing committee began with a list of principles were created from the EJ committee meetings and input from church boards and these ideas were consolidated into a list of succinct principles that covered all main points of concern regarding economic justice and attempted to eliminate redundancy and contradictions. The committee also created other programs to get the congregation more involved in the process. Covenant Sessions were held on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, in which we, the congregation, discussed and gathered the key ideas of the covenant. Another goal was to make the covenant something that the congregation could conceive of putting into action. Once the basic size and structure were determined the actual writing was given to a small sub-committee to produce the first draft of the covenant. This draft was reviewed by the larger committee and the church council and revised. The process was repeated a few cycles until a final draft was produced.
IV. Education on economic justice continued
Various forms of educational experiences were offered to the congregation. The EJ committee worked to:
- make materials and resources available,
- recognize EJ efforts that already exist at the church,
- incorporate EJ education in regular church programs and activities,
- create new programs with BOAE (board of Adult Education) to engage the congregation, especially families,
- create programs that include the youth,
- encourage activism,
- have activist present their cause to council or EJ committee, and
- offer spiritual and publicity support if appropriate.
V. Final drafts
At a certain point the content and form of the covenant should be declared stable and changed only for technical improvements. The review of the covenant is a key step:
- distribute to the congregation for feedback,
- have the different boards comment on how it will affect their work,
- have forums regarding the covenant,
- do visioning about what the covenant will mean to the church and members,
- engage the congregation,
- create new programs to engage the congregation, especially families,
- engage the youth,
- incorporate economic justice education in regular church programs and activities
- recognize congregation efforts already in motion, and
- have activists present their cause to the membership as an economic justice issue.
The church boards and organizations were given a chance to read and reflect on the approved final draft of the covenant. The covenant was then printed in the church bulletin for the congregation to read. Cluster Dinners were held where members of the committee dined with 3 or 4 congregation families and discussed the covenant and it's meaning to them. This intimate setting proved to be ideal for personal reflection and revealed and addressed many concerns that had not been expressed up to that point. Any significant issues discovered here were reported back to the committee, however most were matters of implementation and not changes to the covenant itself.
VI. The vote
By this time the covenant should have been seen by everyone in the congregation. A church wide vote is the best way to assure that approving the covenant is a community experience:
- have a church wide meeting,
- collectively read the covenant,
- have the congregation officially adopt the covenant by vote,
- post the covenant in a prominent and highly visible location,
- organize administrative support for EJ activism and activities, and
- create an economic justice board or add it to the duties of an existing board.
The vote for the covenant was taken at a congregational meeting and the covenant officially approved. The first administrative task was then to create a standing support structure for economic justice initiatives. This became an additional charge for our board of 'Outreach and Service', now the board of 'Justice, Outreach and Service'. We also did an in-house review of staff, purchasing and labor practices to make sure they complied with our new covenant. Some sustained programs associated with the covenant include membership in a community organizing committee, support for local community supported agriculture enterprises (CSAs).