Hope for more-unified national structure espoused; specifics yet to be ironed out
A commitment to building a more-unified UCC national setting was affirmed - in principle - at the close of a difficult and sometimes contentious meeting of elected denominational leaders on Jan. 5-6. However, the exact form and function of that more-cooperative structure, as well as a timeline for implementing it, were left open for future conversation and negotiation.
"We're not on the same page, but we are on a new page," is how one participant described the meeting in Cleveland. Over two days, about 40 representatives of the UCC's Executive Council and the church's four national Covenanted Ministries, as well as Affiliated and Associated Ministries and the Council of Conference Ministers, gathered to present and discuss the five autonomous boards' divergent reactions to a "streamlining" governance proposal first introduced by the five-person Collegium of Officers last fall.
Justice and Witness Ministries and Local Church Ministries voted last fall not to support the plan. Wider Church Ministries, the Office of General Ministries and the Executive Council voted to support it.
While it appeared that the Collegium's initial proposal was now dead, the meeting's second day did coalesce around an apparent commitment to exploring different potential models of governance that might allow for enhanced communication, financial development, human resources and the articulation of shared national mission priorities and programs.
Still, throughout the meeting, some participants expressed deeply-held concerns, despite the need to cooperate around mending some obvious and necessary structural flaws, that certain national ministries not be stripped of their historic mandates, lest some commitments be lost to centralization.
"Those on the margins are never helped by centralization," said the Rev. John Gregory-Davis, co-pastor of Meriden Congregational UCC in New Hampshire and vice chair of Justice and Witness Ministries.
The Rev. José A. Malayang, executive minister of Local Church Ministries, described the meeting as "vintage UCC" with "a good mixture of honest and open disagreement and discussion."
While Malayang noted the authentic love for the UCC held by all participants, he also felt the meeting lacked adequate conversation about the history and legacy of UCC forebears, who had "consistently resisted creating singular or centralized structure for our national ministries."
The meeting ended with most apparently agreeing that the Collegium's initially stated timeline - which included approval by General Synod delegates in June 2007 - seemed unlikely; however, all held out hope that some consensus might emerge and be discussed at this summer's national gathering.
The group also explicitly named and affirmed its commitment to maintaining diversity and inclusivity as broadly shared concerns for governance of the national church. "Any further work on structure will be explicit about guaranteeing diversity and building on those guarantees," the Rev. John H. Thomas, general minister and president, said, summarizing the group's sentiment, to nodding heads.
"We need to honor the process of what happened here," said the Rev. Yvette Flunder, pastor of City of Refuge UCC in San Francisco and board chair of Justice and Witness Ministries, "and we can say that we have regained some momentum for addressing some critical issues."
Early in the meeting, Flunder said she and others needed to claim the meeting as "safe space" where concerns could be shared openly without feeling that a need for group agreement would trump individual honesty and conviction.
Legitimate concerns were being expressed, Flunder and others stressed repeatedly.
"We need to acknowledge that there were difficult and even painful points of the conversation," said Iowa Conference Minister Richard Pleva, during the meeting's wrap-up session.
The Rev. Barbara Kershner Daniel, pastor of Evangelical Reformed UCC in Frederick, Md., and a member of the Office of General Ministries board, said she sensed, from the beginning, a need among participants to clear the air of past misconceptions, inaccuracies and hurt feelings.
"The group, as a whole, felt that the way we are currently structured may not be the best," Kershner Daniel said. "But we also knew we had to be honest and keep with the conversation and not just give up."
Richard Fluechtling, a member of First Congregational UCC in Madison, Wis., and LCM's board chair, told United Church News, "The process is going to move forward with some new insight and it's clear the Holy Spirit is going to have to be in that process."
As the meeting adjourned, participants named specific outcomes, including "listening with care and respect," "being guided by new insights," "a rediscovered love for the UCC," and the identification of "some potential models to explore with intentionality."
On the morning of Jan. 6, three potential structural models were presented by individual participants and then vetted by the larger group, with each idea receiving some level of support. The proposals, while not set in stone, seemed to emerge as hopeful fuel for future conversation.
At press time, the Collegium and board chairs planned to appoint a joint task force that will continue working on structural adjustment issues.