Written by Daniel Hazard
The Rev. Stephen L. Sterner was elected acting executive minister of the UCC's Local Church Ministries. LCM's board of directors voted unanimously on Oct. 28 at its meeting in Cleveland.
Sterner will succeed the Rev. José A. Malayang, who is retiring on Dec. 31 after seven years in office. He will serve out Malayang's unexpired term which ends in October 2009, but he also can seek an additional two four-year terms beyond that time.
Sterner, 61, has extensive experience both as a pastor and in church leadership.
From 1986 to 1989, Sterner was secretary for church development in the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries. He spent the next 16 years in pastoral ministry as senior minister at Central Congregational UCC in Atlanta, Ga., and senior minister at the Church of the Beatitudes in Phoenix, Ariz. He was Interim Conference Minister for the UCC's Massachusetts Conference in 2005 and 2006, and is presently interim pastor at Claremont UCC in Claremont, Calif.
Sterner earned his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from UCC-related Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.
"From the beginning, my ministry has been to both serve the church and seek the church," Sterner said during a conversation with the LCM board before his election. "The church I was trained to serve at seminary was already beginning to disappear by the time I was ordained.
"I think the church is at a critical moment in its life," Sterner said. "Many of our churches have become so acculturated that their capacity to proclaim the Gospel has been compromised. So how do we sing the songs of Zion in an alien land?"
But many other congregations, Sterner said, are "ahead of the curve, and the structures of the church have yet to catch up with them.
"There are many things happening — especially in small, struggling congregations — that are sparks of light for the future."
Sterner is encouraged by the new generation of spiritual seekers, "who show a real hunger for faith, a fresh openness to biblical stories, and a sincere desire to engage in a deeper spiritual quest."
But seekers also reflect the culture's hostility to organized religion, Sterner said. "As a result, the new seekers are not so much agnostic, as antagonistic" to the church. "So if you're going to invite seekers into a community, you have to make sure there's space for them — not only physically, but also spiritually, culturally and theologically. It's useless to invite them and their stories into the church if their stories cannot be told."
The church cannot abandon its "historic traditions," but "we must talk about our faith in ways that are not controlling or condemning," he said.