|Jane Fisler Hoffman|
I was surprised and honored to be asked to write an occasional opinion piece for UCNews. The surprise is because I know what the editor may not: some who read this will think of me as one of "them" - an alien species in the church, a "judicatory" staffer, someone "higher up" in a church system and thus crazed with delight in power "over" the local church.
So OK, let's get this part over with. For the last 17 years I have indeed served on Conference staffs. Over those years I have heard comments that indicate the notion that we who serve in Conference ministry positions are somehow distanced from the local church, that we don't really know or understand or love the local church, and that we see ourselves as above the beloved local church.
So I want to testify here and now: for at least this person called to Conference Ministry, nothing could be further from the truth. (Now do me a favor and don't turn aside just yet!)
I would contend that only someone who passionately loves the local church, its pastors and its mission and ministries, would drive the trafficked highway hours to get to a conflicted local church, sit in anguish through hours of feuding diatribes too late moved from the parking lot to the meeting room, and seek beyond all reason to offer a scriptural word, a prayer and please God some wise counsel to a probably too late for reconciliation crisis. And that's just one sketch of much of our ministry on behalf of God's churches.
Though I cannot speak for all of my colleagues, I know that most of us who find ourselves called to such ministry believe that only those absurdly crazy enough to accept such a call and who believe heart and soul in the power of God through UCC local churches would even consider doing this work. And from the first time of many that our effort or counsel is ignored, we know all too well that we do not sit "above" anyone!
But more to the point, we who do this wider church ministry in the UCC are deeply committed to the power of God and governance vested in local churches and know ourselves to work "for" those churches, gathered as Conferences, not the other way around.
So as you read this and perhaps others of what this Conference staffer writes, please know that my faith was birthed and nurtured in beloved local communities of faith; my call was formed and named as I served as a very young church council president in a congregation that kept teaching and calling forth a shy young leader.
My life and faith have continued to be informed and shaped by local churches of all sizes and sorts. And even after these years of ministry too often on the underbelly of the church, dealing sorrowfully with clergy misconduct and more, I love my work and I love God's church. I have learned to watch for and by God's grace find the beautiful kernel of true church in the saddest of local church situations. I have met thousands of amazing, loving, mission serving people in our churches and my great delight comes in the weekly opportunities I have to worship with faith communities across the diverse spectrum of the United Church of Christ.
Though this ministry means being uprooted from one local church community of support that local church pastors are blessed with, it is a privilege beyond belief to worship as I have over the years:
- Next to a Midwest cornfield with a dozen folks in a church building still without running water but singing gustily accompanied by a CD of Tennessee Ernie Ford or Mormon tabernacle choir;
- Beside a Spanish translator for a fiery biblical sermon and then joining joyous, swaying praise with guitar and keyboard;
- In one of our largest UCC churches with several hundred brilliantly African-clad folk - but even among thousands, intimately embraced by the warmth of an extravagantly welcoming community;
- With a signer for the deaf bringing added art to my meager sermonic words and a congregation following scripture in the "Green Bible"
- At a daring Korean–Caucasian congregation, translating liturgy into Korean on the screen, preparing to celebrate a Korean style harvest festival;
- Shivering in the winter cold of an inner city vast sanctuary with the boiler out but praise still reverberating, though clapping muted by gloves;
- Moved by the unique harmonies and smooth vowelled verses of Samoan hymns, feeling a sense of angelic choirs;
- Viewing mountains over an ocean panorama through a sanctuary window beside a dazzling spread of tropical plants that draw the eye from backlit chancel tiffany art glass, while listening to a vibrant young preacher daring a prophetic word.
It is precisely because of what God has done and is doing through our United Church of Christ local churches like these and many more that my own small life has been poured into this frankly often painful but richly blessed ministry as one of a now diminishing number of UCC Conference staff.
If I am one of "them," it is my prayer that you know this "them" as one who loves the local church enough to live as a sojourner among many local churches, giving my modest gifts and time and love to strengthen the mission and ministry we can all do for God better together than apart.
The Rev. Jane Fisler Hoffman is the Southern California-Nevada Interim Conference Minister.