Written by Connie Larkman
A new church start that practices love, emphasizes shared leadership, shared resources and the belief that gifts should be given first is being celebrated for its ability 'to share earthly and spiritual resources' as the winner of the UCC Be the Church of the Month Contest.
Land of the Sky United Church of Christ, in Asheville, North Carolina, co-founded in 2009 by the Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss and the Rev. Sara Wilcox, is being recognized for its approach to ministry, what the co-pastors call "a holy experiment."
"The purpose of the church is not simply to sustain the institution, but to bless the wider world and prosper the work of justice, and we are committed to that," said Hendler-Voss. "We give not out of our excess, but from our first-fruits and we invite those in our community to do that as well."
The congregation, which received financial help from the UCC in the form of a New and Renewing Church Grant in 2012, and funds from the Testimony! Campaign in 2014 believes that gifts should be the first given, not something donated only if there is enough left over after the bills are paid. It has financially supported organizations such as the Beyond Coal Campaign, MotherLove (YWCA), Nuestro Centro, and Campaign for Southern Equality, and gathers as a church community to choose what groups to fund.
"We are always mindful of the generosity afforded us as we launched Land of the Sky UCC and so we are committed to creating a DNA that reflects generous living and radical grace," said Hendler-Voss. "One of the first memories that we like to share is sitting with the Rev. Vertie Powers, who at that time was in charge of new church starts in the Southern Conference, and receiving her gracious affirmation. As we told her of our hopes and ideas as young, newly ordained clergywomen, she looked us in the eyes and said, 'Yes! You can do this.' We've never forgotten that and we consider it our privilege to pass that affirmation along."
"We use our tithed giving as a way to educate our own congregation about the justice issues we face in these days, as well as the local organizations working so faithfully to bring it forth," continued Hendler-Voss. "It also allows for a deepening relationship with local organizations that sparks meaningful collaboration.
"The church is always a 5 for 5 congregation, contributing to all of the special offerings of the UCC as well as to OCWM," said Virginia Land Himmelheber, who co-chairs the children's ministry team, teaches spiritual formation class, and serves on the Land of the Sky justice team. "It ranks among the highest in per member contributions to OCWM in the Southern Conference."
"The church's commitment serves as a reminder and point of understanding for how people should work to order their financial lives," said Wilcox. "We continue to cultivate generous giving to grow into and expand this holy experiment."
"We prayerfully trust that in God's economy, sharing by all means scarcity for none," Hendler-Voss noted. "And so when we bring our offerings together, we trust that if we give faithfully, there will be enough. We also budget very responsibly since we know that every dollar we receive is entrusted into our care for ministry. We offer classes and small groups that also help individuals and families work toward better aligning their personal budgets with their values. We give out of gratitude to God, not out of obligation. We emphasize gifts of time, talent and treasure as a way to embody our vision, and really it is our vision that gathers us, inspires us, and inspires our giving."
The church, which has 198 Threshold Partners, community members who enter a covenant to faithfully attend worship, give their time, talents and treasure to the congregation and pledge their witness for justice work, rents a building from the Western North Carolina Presbytery, which the co-pastors say has been "incredibly supportive of our ministry and deeply hospitable." And Land of the Sky extends that extravagant hospitality to other groups in its community, opening the doors of the building at 15 Overbrook Place, and offering the use of space for free.
"We do not use our name to identify the physical space," said Wilcox. "This is a theological imperative and pragmatic as we anticipate growing into partnerships that will help make this physical space further the radical love of God. We imagine there are many ways that can take place, and some ways that we haven't yet imagined. Because of this we are careful about sharing the space without cost. We hope to expand the reach of community groups who might make use of the space by growing the number of shared partners."
Right now the church welcomes Faith 4 Justice, a group of faith leaders provoking racial justice, The Teachers of Color Caucus and the Girl Scouts use the space free-of-charge. The Overbrook Place campus is also shared space; Land of the Sky meets on Sunday mornings, and Circle of Mercy (UCC and Alliance of Baptists) meets there later on Sundays. The two churches are declared to be a place of Sanctuary to protects illegal immigrants from detention and deportation, and are sponsoring a community gathering for the Sanctuary Movement with a training session January 28 on how churches can offer assistance to immigrants.
"We believe in faithful stewardship of God's resources, sustainable models of church, forwarding the work of justice, and living generously," said Hendler-Voss. "Faithful stewardship means using the building and grounds to the fullest extent and cultivating the ethos of the campus as a place of gathering and breaking down boundaries."
To that end, the church is working to cultivate a community garden in raised beds on the front lawn with hopes of expansion on the campus in the future. There's also a peace camp held on the grounds every summer.
The monthly "Be the Church of the Month" contest invites UCC congregations across the denomination to send entries demonstrating how they are living out each of the nine values proclaimed on the denomination's "Be the Church" banner. The nine value statements reflect the UCC's mission of extravagant welcome. Each month, the contest focuses on a different statement, and encourages congregations to share — in emailed text, photos and video — what they are doing in their communities to put these statements into practice.
The UCC communications team is now accepting entries for the January contest, highlighting the "Be the Church" statement: "Embrace Diversity." Information, photos, and video documenting how churches live out this month's "Be the Church" statement should be sent to Aimee Jannsohn before the Jan. 22 deadline.
"We deeply understand that the future of the church will require careful collaboration," said Wilcox. We also believe that future of the church is deeply embedded in its past and the resources that established communities currently have and may be inspired to share as the church evolves. We need more and more courageous congregations and polities willing to give boldly in so many ways. We need to give permission to try new things, permission to fail, permission to dream, permission to let go and give over to a new generation of church that may look very different. The truth is Land of the Sky is not vastly different than the church's we grew up in, but the church our children may experience may look vastly different. This is a critical time in the life of the wider church and we will need to dream big and imagine together. It won't be enough to do it alone."