United Church of Christ

Next Generation Leadership Initiative an investment in church of the future

A transformational leadership program administered by The Pension Boards United Church of Christ, which uses gifts from our forbearers to bring together young clergy dedicated to parish ministry and train them to lead the church of the future, is seeing an explosion of interest in 2014.

The Next Generation Leadership Initiative, which was created to address the issues of decline in the life of the UCC by the United Church Board for Ministerial Assistance (UCBMA) has received 59 applications this year for the class of 2024. That is double the amount of applications taken in 2013. Each year since 2011, just over a dozen seminary graduates embracing their first call are chosen for the training program — a 10-year commitment on their part, but one that the Rev. Danielle Neff, associate pastor of Mt. Zion United Church of Christ in York, Pa., didn't hesitate to embrace.

"I believe that God desires for us to be life-long learners and that we are called to be in constant pursuit of knowledge and experiences that can help us to better serve and be in relationship with others. NGLI, without question, provides that opportunity," said Neff, who joined the program four years ago as one of 11 accepted to the inaugural class of 2021. "There were a lot of unknowns at that time about what the program would become—but it felt clear to me that I would benefit tremendously from being in relationship with other colleagues who understood the unique challenges faced by clergy and young clergy in particular."

One of the program's lead architects, the Rev. Gayle Engel, a former UCC conference minister who served four different conferences, sees NGLI as a way to support young clergy to lead the denomination's shift away from shrinking membership. "What if the UCBMA, with gifts from our forbearers, was able to bring together young clergy who are dedicated to parish ministry and who have a readiness to be engaged in training, critical thinking, and transformation leadership experiences? Wouldn't that help local churches move from survival to embrace God's gift of a future? Our dream was to help the local church, through transformational leadership, to make this shift," said Engel. "It makes a difference if your focus is on the 'future of the church' OR 'the church of the future.'" Engel, who retired in 2005 as Conference Minister in Missouri Mid-South after serving 34 years in conference ministry says the initiative provides personal growth for each participant, and for the churches they serve.

"NGLI brings together seminary graduates in their early years of ministry in the local church for an intense journey of four years of core curriculum in Family Systems Theory, Adaptive Leadership, Teamwork, Communications Styles, Natural Church Development, Personal Assessments and an annual 360 Assessment with their church leaders, said Engel. "In addition, during the first four years they participate in two General Synods, two Leadership Institutes in transformational parishes, Facebook network support, and related team building."

The classes meet twice a year during those first four years for study and field experience. That time together as a team was a huge selling point for one of NGLI's newest participants. "The financial support and continuing education opportunities were certainly draws, but the most attractive aspect of the program was the potential for building relationships with people like me: young clergy who've heard the call of Christ and Christ's church, who've answered that call and because of it find themselves in far-flung places," said Jonathan M. Chapman, pastor of the Westfield Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Danielson, Conn. Chapman just started NGLI in January, one of 17 members of the class of 2024.

"Despite being in my first year, I can already see the benefits of the program. The support system it's created has been fundamental to my continued success in the parish. The continuing education element has provided a solid foundation, even in my first months, on which to build my pastoral ministry. Just this week, I actively called upon lessons and topics learned through NGLI to deal with a parishioner's crisis. Not to mention the affirmation of my call to ministry the program provides."

The last six years of the program, though more self-directed, still provides funds to the participating clergy to pursue the objectives they have identified for growth as they continue to serve in local congregations of the United Church of Christ.

"NGLI has a laser focus on providing a rich experience for those young clergy who have a readiness to engage in parish ministry and who are eager to learn and grow through self-reflection and leadership development for the local church setting," said Engel.

Another participant says the program will help him with one of his objectives — to mentor the young people in his congregation. "Serving as a local church pastor for the first time I thought it would be helpful to be part of an intentional program to focus on leadership," the Rev. Marvin Silver, pastor Jubilee United Church of Christ in Lanham, Md.

"The first year in NGLI was a sign of affirmation of leadership training I received as high school and college student. Young people can be taught leadership. That's a key part of my ministry now," said Silver, one of the 16 members of the 2023 class. "NGLI strengthens the church, to prepare the youth and young adults to be future leaders in the church and in ministry. A lot of the young people don't pick up the concept of how important they are, and they pick it up later in life. We see immediately though, there is a change in young people to their approach to their education; their grades go up, their self-esteem improves, they begin to discern their purpose in life."

"One of the biggest benefits isn't just mine, it's my congregation's," said Chapman. "A decade ago, my church, founded in 1715, was on the brink of disaster. From trying to scrape by to merger to even closure, their future was, at best, uncertain. Through a series of intentional interims, the church found its way back from the edge, and finally called me to a 3/4-time position. They knew this was their shot, and they took a gamble on a young clergyman looking for his first call. This program affirmed that they were on the right track, that they had made good decisions. Simply put, we're going to make it. NGLI is denominational affirmation that my leadership is a valuable asset to this congregation. It helps me and it helps them. I suppose the way to say that would be: It helps us."

"It is a powerful thing to feel that your denomination (vis-a-vis The Pension Boards) has invested in you as a minister," Neff said. "I also feel that, though it can sometimes feel awkward to say, the financial incentive that NGLI offers towards our retirement savings is really critical, particularly as congregations face continuing stressors on their budgets."

"In return for a 10-year commitment to local church ministry in the United Church of Christ and faithful participation in the NGLI program, a $10,000 contribution is seeded in the participant's Annuity Plan account," said the Rev. Krista Betz, director of Ministerial Assistance, The Pension Boards and NGLI administrator. That contribution "should have a value of approximately $75,000 at the end of a 35-year career."

"Out of all the many enterprises I have had the opportunity to engage in within the UCC family as a longtime Conference Minister, NGLI ranks at the top of my involvements in the wider church because of the very special opportunity to provide for the enhancement of young leaders to lead "the church of the future." Engel said. "Our UCC family is enriched because of these talented and insightful young leaders."

"I would say NGLI is an opportunity to become a better minister for Christ. It's that plain and simple," said Silver. "If young pastors want an opportunity, this is the program to do that."

For more information – ngli2030.pbucc.org.


Chicago's Trinity UCC to replace traditional roof with green roof

Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago is making some upgrades to its facility, and doing so with the good of the earth in mind. Under the leadership of the Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity UCC, the church is working to raise funds to replace its current roof with a green roof, which will provide the church environmental and financial benefits, while preparing it for a sustainable future.

"We have a leader with a vision and the chutzpah to get it done," said Ramona Westbook, Trinity UCC member and an architect who is helping with the project. "We talk about the people who have a mind to build. Well this is our wall, and this is our time, and this is our opportunity to be part of some amazing stewardship."

Trinity UCC's Raise the Roof campaign launched last fall and is seeking to collect $5 million in the next three to five years to complete the green roof project, as well as other infrastructure improvements such as replacing roofs on other properties, updating heating and cooling systems, modernizing the worship center, and repaving parking lots. The Raise the Roof campaign has already received $4.1 million in donations towards its goal from Trinity UCC members.

"This is a tremendous response from 1,026 members and households from Trinity United Church of Christ," said the Rev. Mark A. Smith, Trinity UCC's minister of stewardship. "The members are overly excited about the campaign, as has been exemplified through sharing their Raise the Roof testimonies during Trinity UCC's regular worship services."  

The Raise the Roof campaign website lists several benefits the green roof will provide the church and the surrounding community, such as providing insulation to the building, increasing the church's green space, and absorbing and cleansing rainwater. The roof could also provide space for urban gardening and help mitigate the "heat island" effect that can cause higher temperatures in urban areas that have few trees and little green space. Green roofs are also known to have longer lifespans than traditional roofs and decrease the amount of energy a building needs to operate.

Preliminary stages of the project are already in the works. The project's Feasibility Committee has provided reports detailing research and recommendations for moving towards energy efficiency and sustainability, and the church had a site assessment conducted by a sustainability services firm. On March 19, Trinity UCC had a lighting audit conducted, and on March 21, met with a project manager from the firm that will advise the planning and phasing of the project with LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification as an objective. At this time, a timeline to begin construction and to complete the roof has not been set.

"Taking advantage of the latest in green technologies as we reinvigorate our aging infrastructure is a wonderful way to match what we preach with what we practice," Smith said on the Raise the Roof campaign website. "It is truly a blessing for me to be in a position to witness our church moving into this exciting area."

Mission 4/1 Earth, the UCC's 50-day earth care campaign that took place last spring, inspired an organizing theme around environmental issues that has really caught on at Trinity, said Rosalyn Priester, member of Trinity UCC's Green Committee and member of the UCC's Environmental Ministries Steering Committee. The church's theme for 2014 is "Love God, Live Green, Liberate All," which is meant to provide an overall framework for worship and become infused into the congregation's language and theological understanding.

"The spiritual practices of this church draw on African spiritual traditions in which there is no separation between the sacred and the secular," Priester said. "This means that church is not just about what happens within the walls of the church building, but is also tied directly to what happens in the larger community."


UCC unfurls painting displayed at 1964 World’s Fair

The archivist for the United Church of Christ spends a lot of time cataloging and tracking material that dates back decades. Even so, it comes as a bit of a surprise that he unfurled a piece of history Tuesday. The UCC's national offices in Cleveland have been in possession of a painting, possibly since the 1960s, that shares a message of love and faith, which was displayed at the World's Fair 50 years ago.

The artwork, a banner that is more than 40 feet long, is the work of Sister Mary Corita (Corita Kent). The Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art sent curators to the UCC Church House to examine the piece on March 18. The museum is considering featuring the banner during an upcoming travel exhibit, Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent, which will run from June through September.

"Finding out about this incredible piece, right here in Cleveland, sent some shockwaves through our curatorial team," said Rose Bouthillier, associate curator and publication manager for MOCA. "It's quite the coincidence, and the banner would be an absolutely stunning addition to the show."

Sister Mary Corita Kent, whose signature is visible in the lower right corner of the canvas, was known for artwork during the 1960s and 1970s that depicted love and peace. The nun painted the piece for the Vatican Exhibit of the 1964 World's Fair in New York City.

The missing bit of information about the painting is how it came into the UCC's possession.

Ed Cade, archivist for the UCC's national setting, said the Corita Art Center contacted him to inquire about the piece, Beatitudes Wall, for the exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Five women, two from MOCA and three from the Intermuseum Conservation Association, inspected "The Beatitudes" in detail and measured its dimensions, and will determine soon if it will be displayed at MOCA this summer.

"My hunch is when the World's Fair was over that no one knew what to do with it," said the Rev. Robert P. "Rip" Noble, who served with the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries as executive associate from 1985 to 2000. Noble hung the artwork in the Church House years ago because "it's a piece of UCBHM and UCC history in terms of support by the church for the arts, and specifically our relationship with Sister Corita. It's a fabulous piece."

When the UCC first moved to Cleveland from New York City, Noble, who chaired the effort to renovate part the building space, designed a wall long enough to display Beatitudes for a few years in the early 1990s. When the building was reconfigured the piece came down and was relegated to the archives where it has remained over the years.

Because of the UCC's relationship with Kent, the United Church Press published two books of her works in the late 1960s. Historians say Kent's art often depicts a blend of social justice, peace and spirituality. Those elements are present in the 40-foot canvas the UCC possesses, with the word "happy" in large colorful letters in several places.

The painting is strewn with a mix of Bible scripture, and quotes from Pope John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy. JFK and Pope John XXIII both died in 1963, but Kent used their comments for "The Beatitudes" because they were "great heroes of the time," according to archives at the Corita Art Center. Kent actually painted three 40-foot banners for the World's Fair and chose this one to display.

Kent later gained international attention for her vibrant artwork in the style of serigraphs – an art form of silk-screening. She was born Frances Kent and joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and ran the art department at Immaculate Heart College until 1968. Kent died in 1986.

Some of Sister Kent's collection has been held by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Whitney Museum of American Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York City.


Commentary: Why We Can't Give Up on Preventing Gun Violence

I am not writing this in the immediate aftermath of another horrific mass shooting. I am not marking the anniversary of a prominent gun violence tragedy, although given the estimated 30,000 deaths from gun violence annually, it is likely the anniversary of a gun tragedy in some American community somewhere. And although legislation to strengthen background checks on gun purchases is still before Congress, most political observers give it little chance of moving in a midterm congressional election year. But perhaps it is just such a time as this when we need to redouble our efforts to prevent gun violence from continuing to take its tragic toll in our nation. Truly our silence will not protect us.

The fact is that gun violence is preventable. We have the means to reduce gun violence, and we have the knowledge to implement prevention approaches. We have studies that give us insight into the factors contributing to gun violence and insight into effective strategies for preventing it. We certainly know the cost of failing to prevent further gun violence, although we may not ultimately be able to fully measure the cost of trauma, despair, hopelessness and grief that is left in its wake. It is striking and sobering that 14 months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, charities that helped to provide funds for mental health care in the Newtown community have nearly exhausted those funds, and it is unclear how long into the future the need for such services will remain.

What we seem not to have is the political will to take action. An overwhelming majority of the American public, including a majority of gun owners, supports strengthening the background check system on gun purchases in response to gun violence, but such legislation remains mired in the fear of alienating special interests in an election year. These same special interests have even gone on the offensive to derail the nomination of Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy for Surgeon General, because he has identified gun violence as a public health crisis.

Faiths United Against Gun Violence, a diverse, interfaith coalition of faith-based groups united by the call to confront our nation's gun violence epidemic, just concluded its Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath observance. As part of the Sabbath, thousands of people of faith around the country engaged in prayer and action to address gun violence in our communities through public policy advocacy, participation in community prevention programs and education. Faiths United rests on a core belief that is reflected across faith traditions, the belief that violence and death cannot and will not have the final word. That is reason enough to continue our efforts to prevent further gun violence.

It is time to reclaim our streets, schools, and workplaces from the threat of gun violence, and it is time to reclaim the power of our vote from narrow special interests that seek to block even modest, common-sense measures to prevent gun violence. Our culture has a heavy investment in death; isn't it time we invested in hope and change?

Sandy Sorensen is director of the UCC's Washington, D.C., Office.

View this and other columns on the UCC's Witness for Justice page.

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General Synod 2015 theme, General Synod 2017 location announced

How have you found God in an unexpected moment or place? That's a question people from across the life of the UCC will ponder during General Synod 2015 next summer as part of the gathering's theme, "Unexpected Places."


Pastoral Changes March 2014

Ministerial changes reported in the Data Hub—the UCC's information system for ministers and churches—for new calls begun in 2014 (as updated in the system in March 2014).

Mary Little Apicella, Federated Church of Christ UCC, Brooklyn, CT
Kevin Ewing, United Church On the Green UCC, New Haven, CT
Michael Fritz, Bethlehem UCC, Maple Lake, MN
Anna Larson, First Congregational UCC, Hancock, MN
Patricia S. Ross, United Church of Christ, Beavercreek, OR
Shelley R. Wagener, Meridian UCC, Wilsonville, OR
Nancy Parsons, Friedens United Church of Christ of Beasley, Beasley, TX
Sarah Anders, Rockville United Church of Christ, Rockville, MD
Ann Beaty, First Congregational UCC, Madison, WI
Molly Carlson, United Church of Christ Congregational, Yankton, SD
Jacob Buchholz, First-Plymouth Congregational UCC, Lincoln, NE
David Jennys, United Church of Christ of Beresford, Beresford, SD
David Jennys, United Church of Christ, Centerville, SD
Lucinda Haak, Saint Paul's UCC, Eureka, SD
William Painter, First Congregational UCC, Glenwood, IA
Susan Reed, First Congregational UCC, Glenwood, IA
William Alexander, Plymouth Congregational UCC, Ottumwa, IA
Tara K. Olsen Allen, Second Congregational UCC, Beverly, MA
Erick Trudel, First Congregational UCC, Watertown, CT
Bruce Bradley, Presbyterian UCC, Aurora, NE
Ashley Dodson, United Church of Chelsea Federated, Chelsea, VT
Jeff Dodson, United Church of Chelsea Federated, Chelsea, VT
Ken Ehrke, Cathedral of Hope UCC of the Mid-Cities, Bedford, TX
Adam Lassen, Saint Luke's UCC, Columbus, NE
Derek White, Bethany Congregational Church, Foxboro, MA
Penny L. Lowes, First Congregational UCC, Romeo, MI
Christopher C. Owen, United Church of Jaffrey UCC, Jaffrey, NH
Vanessa Colesworthy, Federated Church in Thomaston UCC, Thomaston, ME
Jennifer K. Macy, United Church in Walpole, Walpole, MA
James Pennington, First Congregational UCC, Phoenix 
Rick Normand, Prospect Congregational Church UCC, Prospect, CT
Darryl Kensinger, Trinity UCC, Tamaqua, PA
Todd B. Farnsworth, Federated Community Church, Hampden, MA
J. Mary Luti, Wellesley Congregational Church UCC, Wellesley, MA
Glenn Root, First Congregational UCC, Wallingford, CT
Sue Timothy-Hall, First Congregational Church of Madison, Madison, CT
Nancy Bacon, Tehachapi Community Congregational Church UCC, Tehachapi, CA
Gary L. Proietti, Calvary UCC, Crestline, OH
Lisa Gail Irwin, Union Congregational United Church of Christ of Green Bay, Green Bay, WI
Jack W. Kraaz, Union-Congregational Church, Waupun, WI
Rose Trenbeath, Salem United Church of Christ, New Salem, ND
Michael Cassady, United Church of Christ, Spencerville, OH
Doug E. Adams, United Church of Christ, Westminster, OH
Bryan Simon, United Parish of Alpena UCC, Alpena, SD
Rebecca J. Sunday, Saint Paul UCC, Wapakoneta, OH
Tom Emerick, Faith United Church of Christ, Muscatine, IA
Milo D. Van Veldhuizen, Saint Paul UCC, West Burlington, IA
Mike Cleeton, Peace United Church of Christ, Monticello, IA
Melvin Hurst Jr., Congregational UCC, Farragut, IA
Danielle Buhuro, Lincoln Memorial Congregational UCC, Chicago 
Robert A Gross Jr., First Congregational UCC, Akron, OH
William A. Krepps, Zion United Church of Christ, Gilman, IL
Elaine June Painting, Zion United Church of Christ, Steubenville, OH
Andrew Taylor-Peck, Trinity UCC, Canton, OH
Rebecca M. M. Nystrom, First Congregational UCC, Geneseo, IL
Jacqueline A. Perry, First Congregational UCC, Norfolk, NE
Trudy Irving, Beulah United Church of Christ, Lexington, NC
Tim Wilcox, United Church of Newport, Newport, VT
David George Plant, Saint Peter's UCC, Amherst, OH
Jack Whitcomb, First Congregational UCC, Stockville, NE
Mark J. Stewart, Mount Olivet UCC, East Berlin, PA
Carol Hill Bastin, Grace United Church of Christ, Allentown, PA
Nancy L. Hardy, Orangeville United Church, Orangeville, PA
Nancy L. Hardy, Zion United Church of Christ, Orangeville, PA
Nancy L. Hardy, Saint James UCC, Stillwater, PA
Susan Kaplan-Burgess, United Church of Christ, Cornish, ME
Matthew James Mccaffrey, Waterford Congregational UCC, Waterford, CT
Stephanie Wooten, Saint Luke's UCC, Philadelphia, PA
Barbara E. Pence, Peace in Zion UCC, Zieglerville, PA
Barbara D Doerrer-Peacock, Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ, Scottsdale, AZ
Roger Zimmerman, South Congregational UCC, Springfield, MA
Diane Kay Martin, Black Forest Community UCC, Colorado Springs, CO
Sally Elizabeth Balmer, Guemes Island Community Church UCC, Anacortes, WA
Karl W. Jones Jr., Saint Peter's UCC, Orwin, PA
Karl W. Jones Jr., Trinity UCC, Tower City, PA
Barbara Elizabeth Laucks, Seabreeze UCC, Daytona Beach, FL
Charles P Laucks, Seabreeze UCC, Daytona Beach, FL
Emily Kellar, Pilgrim Church of Duxbury UCC, Duxbury, MA
Ed Shriver, Grace United Church of Christ, Massillon, OH
Mary Ann Short, Saint Jacob's UCC, Leetonia, OH
Alana Kelley, Lake Avenue UCC, Elyria, OH
Kelly J. Burd, Pilgrim Congregational UCC, Cleveland 
John Boydston, Hope United, Georgetown, TX
MC Lewis, Grace United Church of Christ, Houston 
Sarah Conway, Teche United Church of Christ, New Iberia, LA

The Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD) provides oversight of the UCC Data Hub through which ministerial changes are made. However, Conferences and Associations are responsible for reporting changes and maintaining ministerial records in this system. If you have questions about this information, please contact the appropriate Conference or Association. 


UCC, United Church of Canada start path to full communion

Six delegates from the United Church of Christ will spend three days in Toronto this week  working with ecumenical colleagues from the United Church of Canada to continue bringing the denominations closer together. This first discussion toward full communion underscores the United Church of Christ’s promise of a General Synod 2013 resolution that calls for strengthening the relationship between the United Church of Christ and the United Church of Canada.

The church representatives gather from Feb. 12 through Feb. 14 as a 12-member committee to begin laying a foundation for a full communion agreement.

"This meeting in Toronto is the first of a series of meetings that follow the General Synod resolution regarding the ecumenical relationship with the United Church of Canada," said the Rev. Karen Georgia A. Thompson, United Church of Christ ecumenical officer and one of six people from the United Church of Christ on the trip.

"The hope is that this group of 12 persons will be able to bring back a common document that will go to the United Church of Canada’s General Council and the United Church of Christ’s General Synod, both of which will be held in 2015," Thompson said, adding that General Council takes place every three years compared to every two for General Synod.

While in Toronto, the 12-person Joint Full Communion Committee (sometimes referred to as the United Ecumenical Partnership Committee) will reflect on what a full communion agreement might mean for the two related, but nationally distinctive, denominations.

"We have to come to mutual terms to how we know ourselves and understand ourselves," Thompson said.

Joint Full Communion Committee for each denomination
  United Church of Canada United Church of Christ
  Prof. Mark Toulouse Rev. Sue Davies
  Rev. Daniel Hayward Rev. David Greenhaw
  Rev. Danielle Ayiana James Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson
  Rev. Cheryl-Ann Stadelbauer-Sampa Rev. Campbell Lovett
  Rev. Bruce Gregersen Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson
  Ms. Nora Sanders Rev. Geoffrey Black

The United Church of Christ has a full communion with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a Formula of Agreement with the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and a "Kirchengemeinshaft" with the Union of Evangelical Churches in Germany (UEK).

The partnership with the United Church of Christ would be a first for United Church of Canada. The Rev. Michael Blair, executive minister of Church Mission for the United Church of Canada, said after the resolution was approved in July that it was "a first for us because we work in partnership with many denominations, but no formal relationships like this resolution would produce."

The United Church of Christ and the United Church of Canada began a formal conversation in April 2012, when the United Church of Christ made a historical visit to the United Church of Canada offices in Toronto. The denominations met again in April 2013 at the United Church of Christ's National Offices in Cleveland.

The General Synod 2013 resolution on the ecumenical relationship outlined that each church would form a team of five members, in addition to the general secretary of the United Church of Canada and general minister and president of the United Church of Christ serving as ex-officio members of the committee. Each committee includes a seminary representative, a theologian, a conference representative, a pastor, a staff member and the head of communion.

There are likely two more meetings ahead this year between the United Church of Christ and United Church of Canada to have a communion agreement in place by the end of 2014. Thompson said that dates and locations of future meetings will be set this weekend "with respect to the timelines necessary to get the documents to General Synod and General Assembly." Later in the process, the United Church of Christ committee will find a way to hear from various constituents in the church.


UCC Christmas Fund gives back to retired, active ministers in need

John Kelly Poorman is always exploring different ways to try to increase contributions to the Christmas Fund. For the past several years, the church council president of St. John's UCC in Boalsburg, Pa., has taken professional holiday photographs of members and their families in exchange for a Christmas Fund donation. This year Poorman wrote a nontraditional Christmas story to support the fund that recognizes and honors those who have served and continue to serve in lay and authorized ministries of the UCC.

"The ones who have been around for long time didn't have what pastors have now, so they struggle, and if anything devastating happens to them, they have no recourse," Poorman said. "We had their support when we needed it, and I think it's important that they have our support now that they need it."

Poorman's story, So, a Preacher and Santa Walk into a Bar, is for sale on amazon.com, and all proceeds will go to the Christmas Fund. While Poorman is not a UCC minister and does not personally benefit from the contributions, he has a special appreciation for the fund that assists ministers in need.

The Christmas Fund for the Veterans of the Cross and the Emergency Fund is one of the UCC's four special mission offerings. In 2012, the fund provided nearly $1.5 million in assistance to 900 clergy facing overwhelming financial demands in the form of Christmas thank-you checks, monthly pension supplementation, quarterly health premium supplementation, and emergency grants, which can also be utilized by active clergy. A ministry carried out by the Pension Boards for 111 years, the fund is received each year on the Sunday before Christmas.

The Rev. Jim Rapp and his ex-wife the Rev. Alicia Spring, who have both served various UCC congregations in Florida, benefitted from a Christmas Fund emergency grant after their son, Evan, had a kidney transplant in May 2013. While insurance paid for the surgery, both Evan and Jim, who was the kidney donor, needed to stay near the hospital for several weeks of follow-up appointments. The emergency grant enabled them to cover the costs of housing and meals during their recovery period. Jim is now pastor of Church of the Isles UCC in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., and hopes to see his congregation become the highest giver per capita to the Christmas Fund this year. 

"It was a no-brainer for me to want to share a kidney with my son," Jim said. "Ministerial assistance came through quickly and generously and we were able to be ministered to."

"We always supported the Christmas fund," Alicia added. "I had always thought of elderly and retired ministers and spouses. I had never thought about the other side – people who were in difficult situations. It was a real blessing to have that weight lifted."

Vernis Brown is the widow of the Rev. Roy Brown, who was called to be a pastor at age 7 and served UCC congregations until he suffered a stroke in 1997 and passed away in 2002. Vernis said her husband always kept his promise to God to serve small congregations, which meant that she and Roy were often the only staff in churches they served in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota. Vernis taught Sunday school, ran vacation Bible school, and worked with the women's and youth groups. In addition to preaching, Roy also drove a school bus, and worked as a farmer, hunter, trapper and fisherman. While she would never trade her life as a preacher's wife for anything, Vernis recalls how she, Roy and their 10 children lived on very little because the small churches they served couldn't afford to pay much. But the annual Christmas thank-you check has been and continues to be a welcomed contribution to her family. Each year, Vernis donates one-tenth of her check back to the Christmas Fund and encourages others to give as well.  

"It has really been a blessing and helped us in so many ways," Vernis said of the fund. "I'm the first one to stand up and say, ‘I'm a recipient. Give generously to help other people.'"

To donate to the Christmas Fund, visit the Pension Boards website.


Chicago Theological Seminary offers online path to ministry

The path of Melanie Poehls, a graphic artist from Dallas, changed the day she knelt along side an injured motorist, staying there as a man she didn't know slipped closer to death. Charlotte Morgan is a doctor of naturopathy in private practice in Las Vegas. Her path too, changed when she witnessed the healing power of her patients.

Two different paths now lead down the same road: a calling to ministry, to learn to help people in spiritual ways. Both women are following that call and are completing their second semester at Chicago Theological Seminary, one of six United Church of Christ-related seminaries.

There’s one catch. Neither Poehls nor Morgan relocated to Chicago for their seminary education.

This year, CTS has been approved to offer a master of divinity (M.Div.) program online, making it the first progressive seminary in the country to do so.

CTS’s three-year M.Div.program prepares students to be transformative religious leaders in the church and society. The degree also helps students prepare for non-church and non-traditional ministry, including settings such as health care facilities, human services organizations, government agencies, non-profit organizations, business and academic environments, and advocacy groups. Those are the places where Poehls and Morgan hope to minister when they graduate from CTS.

Poehls was raised Southern Baptist and has lived with a spiritual relationship with God throughout her life, but stopped attending church in her late teens after witnessing how her faith excluded some groups of people.

A pair of events six months before she applied to seminary, both involving death and near-death experiences that made her ponder what she was meant to do.

She saw that brutal motor vehicle wreck involving a motorcycle and truck, and rushed to the side of the man severely injured in that accident. "I was never close to anything like that, but I knew CPR," Poehls said. "I felt this compulsion to rush over to him, but I realized CPR wasn’t going to help. Nothing was going to help. So I just laid my hands on him, just trying to comfort him."

In another instance, Poehls found herself comforting a group of women in a hospital emergency room. Both events got Poehls thinking about how she could comfort people dealing with death or near-death experiences, without relocating her and her partner from Dallas.

"How can a lay person work in hospice care? And the answer I got was chaplaincy," said Poehls, who then began – and eventually grew frustrated with -- searching for a progressive seminary. "One day I Googled ‘gay friendly seminary’ and CTS popped up."

Morgan grew up in the ELCA Lutheran Church in the Midwest, and after moving around the country she landed in Las Vegas. She and her partner have been together for 23 years and have two daughters. While looking for an inclusive faith community that was open and affirming, the family discovered the United Church of Christ.

But it was in her practice and her work in the hospice community that Morgan’s life turned toward a seminary education.

"I saw hope and healing in front of my eyes, and the call came from God," Morgan said. "It created a new life trajectory to go to seminary and get my M. Div. and work with God and help others."

When Morgan thought about what she would do with a seminary education, she figured her path would continue along in the medical field through hospice work or chaplaincy. Now Morgan says she wants to help with the Open and Affirming movement — a way for UCC congregations to become more inclusive of all people — and will spend time in the coming years discerning how her skills as a doctor might help her future ministry.

Both women couldn’t move their families to Chicago for three-years of seminary; through the web-based curriculum CTS students can be connected to the Chicago campus without even being in the same state.

CTS’s accreditation for its online M.Div. degree was the result of two years of work to develop a web-based program, along with a grant to help translate an educational experience to an online environment.

The distance-based learning courses have assigned readings, video-based lectures and podcasts, and web-based classroom discussion. "There’s a lot of reading, and responding to the readings and to classmates," Poehls said. "We have a Facebook group for all incoming students, so I’m friends with some of my classmates on Facebook and they might ask me how things are outside of classes. So there is that sense of camaraderie."

As for any advice to share with people considering a web-based seminary education, both women offered their thoughts.

"Be highly-organized. Have the knowledge about yourself that there is a lot of alone time, time for thought and reflection, but be careful to balance that out. Take advantage and get out of the location [in which you learn] to not become too isolated," Morgan said.

Morgan also suggests registering for one-week intensive classes for credits, which she has done for summer and winter classes. The intensive courses, which take place on the Chicago Theological campus, offered her a chance to meet a few other students, visit the campus and meet administrators and faculty.

Added Poehls, "I can’t speak for others [in this program], but at CTS your voice is heard and your thoughts are recognized, regardless if it’s online or in person. It’s a family."

Founded in 1855, CTS promotes a progressive philosophy, and its students have been advocates for social justice. CTS serves more than 25 different Christian and non-Christian faith communities by preparing men and women for the religious leadership.

"At Chicago Theological Seminary, we like to say, ‘You don’t have to come here to go here,’" said the Rev. Alice Hunt, president of CTS. "Now that’s more true than ever.


Nationally known author, teacher called to lead UCC Faith Formation Ministry Team

A nationally known minister, author and teacher in local church faith formation ministries has been called to lead the United Church of Christ Faith Formation Ministry Team. The Rev. Ivy Beckwith is joining the UCC's Local Church Ministries, headquartered in Cleveland, on Dec. 1. In this new position, Beckwith will foster a significant shift in how the denomination approaches and designs faith formation ministries within and for the UCC, in response to the findings of the UCC's in-depth Christian Faith Formation and Education Ministries Report issued in September 2012.  

"As the UCC's Faith Formation Research Report made clear, approaches to faith formation have changed," said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister of Local Church Ministries. "No longer are we solely focused on an educational 'Sunday School' model, but one that embraces faith formation as the desired outcome of all we do as Christians and as communities of faith. 
 
"Faith is being formed, for example, when we read the Stillspeaking Daily devotional each morning, or participate in a public witness for justice and then reflect on the experience. Faith is formed in worship, at choir rehearsals, in mission projects, in advocacy letters, with friends and family, and at dinner tables," Guess added. "This is the holistic, intergenerational direction we are emphasizing, helping to create faith formation components to everything we do in the church and in our family life."
 
"I can envision no one more appropriately suited to lead and speak to these shifts than Ivy Beckwith," Guess said. "Her thinking and writing has inspired and challenged Christian leaders across a broad theological spectrum, from liberal to conservative to emergent."

Beckwith, an ordained UCC minister hired following a national search, has spent her entire ministry career in faith formation ministry, most recently as Director of Religious Education at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York, N.Y.  She has also served as the Minister to Children and Families at the Congregational Church of New Canaan, Conn. 

"I use a very simple definition for spiritual formation of children, youth and adults," Beckwith states. "For me spiritual formation is a process of loving God and living in the way of Jesus. People have written books on the definition and process of spiritual formation, but as I write and speak to groups about spiritual formation I want something that is easy for people to remember. And this definition seemed to be it for me."

Beckwith holds a Ph.D. in religious education and has worked in curriculum publishing as a writer, editor and marketer, authoring several well-received books in the area of childhood faith formation. Her most recent work, "Children's Ministry in the Way of Jesus," written to bring justice into formational ministries, will be released this fall.

"I see this as much more than the once-in-a-while application to a Bible story lesson," Beckwith said. "I think that living out the concept of God's justice in a children's ministry means helping children to act justly in their worlds, talking about human issues that perhaps aren't often talked about in a children's ministry and being aware of what the 'hidden curriculum' in our lives and churches is teaching children. How adults act means much more to them than what we say."
 
Beckwith's Faith Formation Ministry Team includes the Rev. Susan Blain, Waltrina Middleton, and the Rev. Scott Ressman, plus three part-time children and family ministers working jointly with the UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Rev. Kate Epperly, the Rev. Olivia Bryan Updegrove and the Rev. Olivia Stewart Robertson. They will work to infuse new ideas, understandings and resources that speak to how faith is formed and deepened through every aspect of the church's corporate life (study, prayer, arts, worship, advocacy, mission, service, leadership, etc.), through families, in vocations, and in relationship with all of God's creation.

"Ivy emphasizes we've focused on the 'educational' model exclusively for too long, while ignoring the importance of the 'experiential,'" said Guess. "Her approach to faith formation is holistic. It happens everywhere, not just at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, and it's lifelong and intergenerational."

"We have too long believed that we can 'school' children, youth, and adults into being fully formed lovers of God and followers of Jesus," Beckwith said. "The church has in many ways seen spiritual nurture or faith formation as a cognitive endeavor where we think ourselves into belief or action. I think that is backward. I think we act ourselves into belief which involves behavior and emotion. That's not to say there isn't a place for formal education. I just think the emphasis has been misplaced."
 
A graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with a Masters of Religious Education, Ivy earned a Ph.D. in education from Trinity International University, where her dissertation focused on experiential education and psycho-social growth. As team leader of the UCC Faith Formation Ministry, Beckwith will continue to establish the UCC's "Inspiring Models of Ministry" concept, like the "Bless" event in Boston, or "Peace Village" in San Mateo, Calif., where congregations inspire other congregations in the ministries in which they exceed. 

As Guess said, "Ivy has talked repeatedly about the need to find, embrace and replicate what's happening in congregations of all shapes and sizes that is working well."

"I think our churches have much to learn from what other churches have found to be both meaningful and successful," Beckwith said. "And one of the things I love to do is connect people in ministry who are thinking and talking about the same things. However, I do believe that how any church does faith formation really needs to grow out of the ethos of that particular church. I am a big believer in the idea of transferable concepts. Once we understand the underlying basis of a program or initiative, we can bring that idea to different settings and tweak it to fit that particular setting. I am also a big fan of tweaking."