Listening tour makes multiple stops in Washington-Baltimore area
Written by J. Bennett Guess
November 24, 2009

The Rev. John Deckenback (standing), Central Atlantic Conference Minister, makes introductory comments at a listening session held at Christ Congregational UCC in Silver Spring, Md. The conversation with General Minister and President Geoffrey A. Black, one of several held over the weekend, was open to anyone who wanted to attend. Photo: Don Hill
More than a half-dozen opportunities for church members to share their dreams for the future of the United Church of Christ were held over the pre-Thanksgiving weekend throughout Maryland and Washington, D.C.

The listening events were the fourth installment in a 10-stop nationwide tour organized by the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, who became the UCC's new general minister and president on Oct. 1. During his first months in office, Black has taken to the road in an effort to hear first-hand from diverse groups across the UCC.

During his four days in the D.C. area, Black maintained a busy schedule. In addition to participating in multiple listening sessions attended collectively by nearly 200 people, he also met with a representative of the Obama Administration, delivered health care petitions to the U.S. Senate, preached two morning services at Peoples Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C., and participated in an ordination service at the 500-member Covenant Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., that voted recently to pursue affiliation with the UCC.

The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president, preaches about 'sacred memory' and 'holy imagination' at Peoples Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C. Photo: Don Hill
As during recent trips to the Northern California-Nevada, Connecticut and Massachusetts Conferences, Black opened Friday evening's (Nov. 20) session with 50 guests at a Baltimore inner harbor restaurant, asking, "How is God calling us to better shape the United Church of Christ with an expectation that God's spirit is moving among us?"

Attendees in Baltimore, as well as those at sessions in Frederick, Bethesda and Silver Spring, offered candid thoughts on dozens of issues, ranging from use of technology to the deployment of missionaries, including hopes that the UCC would:

  • Reach out more intentionally to young people, including college students. "My vision is that we get back to campus," one person said.
  • Expand monetary support for global mission. "I fear that our [UCC] world is shrinking since fewer dollars means that we have lessened our ability to send people into the world," a pastor said.
  • Not be afraid of what the future might bring. "I suspect that in the future we may have smaller but more effective Stillspeaking congregations," a retired pastor said.
  • Do more to assist African American clergywomen. "I have found it's not a glass ceiling; it's a cinder block ceiling," a frustrated pastor articulated.
  • Embrace gay-inclusive evangelism. "I have noticed that most of the people are coming [to our church] because we are open and affirming," a layperson said, noting that her church's LGBT-inclusive outreach committee "has more energy than anything I have seen in our church for five to 10 years."
  • Utilize technology to reach young people. "We need to reach out on Facebook and Twitter. We need to reach out and go where the young people are," one person said.
  • Articulate our distinctiveness. "I would like us to be able to say what makes us different, to say what makes us unique," a pastor said.
  • Broaden our theological vision. "We tend to articulate a theology of the middle class while, in our urban contexts, many of us are ministering to the underclass," a pastor said.
  • Specialize in outreach to interfaith couples. "We need to poise ourselves to be the church that welcomes them," said a woman whose husband is Jewish. 
  • Know our stuff. "We need to be more grounded in our story, our history," one person said.  
  • Not shirk from justice advocacy. "We need to keep a very strong presence in the area of public policy," a recently retired pastor said.
  • Recognize new forms of global partnership. "There is a kind of grassroots global work that is fermenting in our churches. It needs to be supported," said a pastor whose church has developed strong relationships in Colombia.

'This church has a future'

Although Black most often resisted a question-and-answer format out of preference for hearing others offer ideas and opinions, he did occasionally offer feedback to members' comments:

On deepening our ecumenical partnerships: "You've heard that 'necessity is the mother of invention'? Necessity may also be the mother of ecumenical partnership. Most of our ecumenical partners – I dare say all of them – are facing the same kind of challenges."

On population changes: "A lot of places where we used to be the hub of town, there are no more people there."

On church growth: "As much as numbers do count, that's not the primary goal. The goal is to be faithful. But, still, we need to push ourselves to grow. We need to be able to talk about our faith and, when we are effectively articulating our message, there are people out there who are ready and willing to receive it."

On the UCC's future: "There is definitely a need for a church like ours. We are a small denomination but we are an important voice in the life of this country. I am a firm believer that this church has a future. We just need to reach out and take hold of it."

Delivering petitions

Paul Monteiro (far left), the Obama Administration's liaison to the religious community, meets with the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black (far right). About 10 members of the UCC's National and Conference staff also sat in on the meeting. Photo: Sandy Sorensen
On Monday (Nov. 23), Black met for an hour with Paul Monteiro, religious liaison for the Obama Administration, during which Black offered the UCC's willingness to assist on issues of mutual concern. Black, who referred to President Obama as a "member of the UCC family," also asked Monteiro to assure Obama and his family of the church's ongoing prayers.

Black concluded the day with visits to Capitol Hill where he presented more than 20,000 UCC health care petitions to the offices of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), as well as the names of Maine petitioners to the staff of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who is considered a pivotal swing vote on health care reform.

In his visits to Senate offices, Black was joined by the Rev. John Deckenback, Central Atlantic Conference Minister, the Rev. Kwame Osei Reed, Associate Conference Minister for the Potomac Association, and Sandy Sorensen, director of the UCC's Washington Office.

Deckenback served as host for Black's trip to the Conference. 

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Rev. J. Bennett Guess
Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3801
guessb@ucc.org