The 'From the Ground Up: Re-Imagining Theological Formation' summit brought 135 people from across the life of the United Church of Christ to Cleveland, to imagine ways to transform how and what we teach, how we articulate what we believe and how we declare who we are in the world.
"Our mission in the world cannot and will not succeed without successful theological formation," said UCC General Minister and President the Rev. John Dorhauer in his greeting to those assembled on April 9. "The Rev. Alice Hunt (former president of Chicago Theological Seminary) has been preaching a cradle to grave investment in theological formation as long as I have known her. What does that look like?"
The Rev. Yvette Flunder, pastor of City of Refuge UCC in Oakland, Calif., and presiding Bishop of the Fellowship for Affirming Ministries, a multi-denominational coalition of over 56 churches and faith-based organizations from all over the world, set the stage for the summit on Monday morning. Flunder served as keynote speaker and provocateur, with an initial discussion designed to lead to thoughtful conversation over the course of two days.
She talked about choosing the UCC 22 years ago, when denomination shopping for her church, how the UCC's firsts in social justice—in leadership for women, in LGBTQ+ welcome—won out at the end of the day. But she also pointed out that, theologically, the denomination is still a work in progress.
"We have an 'us'ness in the UCC — there's a culture, a reality that exists. It becomes problematic when our 'us'ness becomes institutionalized, when the systems start limiting who can be called to the table," she said. She spoke about the Jericho Road, paralleled to pathways of cultural competencies, and asked the group to consider transforming the road — "what is it about the road that needs to change so all people feel safe traveling it?"
Flunder shared how cultural differences could have limited her inclusion in the United Church of Christ, and challenged the group assembled to think about how to accept and honor theological formation of others which may be different, but is still divine and valuable.
"If we are getting ready to be who God has called us to be in this time, whose cultural power, whose cultural voice is missing from this room? Not ethnic, not race, I said culture," Flunder asked. That, one of several questions offered for discussion before those assembled broke up into small groups to talk about the context of theological formation; what's working, what's not, what we have, and what we need.
"The work of theological formation is not solely the responsibility of the National Setting or the Conferences of the United Church of Christ," said Cheryl Joseph Williams, the UCC chief strategy officer. "It's a 'we' project. We all have to own it and invest in it."
The group work Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning was facilitated by a dozen members of the UCC national staff, who were willing to lay down their own individual agendas to hold objectivity in the small groups.
Those discussions were inspired and challenged by a panel presentation that preceded them. The Rev. David Greenhaw, president and Professor of Preaching and Worship at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Miss., the Rev. Starsky D. Wilson, president & CEO of Deaconess Foundation and pastor of Saint John's Church (The Beloved Community), also in St. Louis, and the Rev. Laura Arnold, a church pastor in Decorah, Iowa, a curriculum writer and former Associate Minister for Theological Education for the Southeast Conference of the UCC , asked participants to continue thinking about how cultural shifts and how the denomination is preparing or responding to them to stay true to UCC values.
On Tuesday afternoon, emerging themes about how to do that— using named assets and resources identified in the small groups — were brought before the entire gathering. Facilitator Rebeccah Bennett, brought in to connect the dots in a two-part plenary that focused on impact and outcomes, asked participants to imagine game changing pathways to better make God's love and justice real.
"The attention and the participation in this event far exceeded expectations," said Dorhauer. "The investment and the engagement suggest we got it right. This is the UCC trying to behave a little differently. This is the national setting paying attention to leaders who emerge at every level of this church around theological formation so we can work on it together, and move forward from here. The test of the event is in the commitment beyond this moment, and the accountablility."
Many of those invested in this project have committed to remain engaged in the process even after reports on the theological formation summit are published on the UCC.org website a month from now.
"We will be moving this to a web based engagement next," Bennett said. "Bringing those small groups back together using technology to help us continue to do the work. We want to answer 3 questions — what are the resources we need to get started on this pathway? What are the best mechanisms or structures for collective action on this pathway? Who needs to be on this pathway with us so we cast a wider net?"
As Joseph Williams said, "This is just the beginning of an ongoing process that defines our needs for theological formation in the United Church of Christ, and how to accomplish that holistically and systematically."
"There was one idea today that lit me on fire," Dorhauer said, "That the ongoing partnership with the Holy Spirit drives our missional effort going forward. There's a contemplative community emerging in the life of the United Church of Christ trying to invoke the movement of the spirit on our midst."