Centuries of division between the Lutheran and Reformed branches of Protestant Christianity came to an end in 1997 when three Reformed churches (including the UCC) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America agreed on a relationship of full communion through a "Formula of Agreement." A few years earlier, Reformed and Lutheran churches in Europe—where the division between the two Protestant families dates back to the time of Luther and Calvin—agreed to a similar reconciliation through the Leuenberg Agreement.
acknowledges common historical roots between the two traditions, with a deeply shared theological and liturgical heritage.
moves beyond the historic 16th-century condemnations that divided Lutheran and Reformed Christians.
accepts the reality that there are important theological, spiritual and liturgical differences between the two traditions, but that these are not church-dividing, but rather a gift to each other.
celebrates the potential for shared mission and ministry as the two traditions grow closer.
The United Church of Christ is the only church in the relationship that has roots in both the Reformed and Lutheran heritage. Our "German Evangelical" tradition drew from the wells of both Reformed and Lutheran Christianity. Many UCC congregations of our "German Reformed" tradition—especially in historically German-American communities in Pennsylvania—have lived together with Lutheran congregations as "union churches" since the 18th century.
|Links to Resources|
General Synod: 1997 vote for Formula of Agreement
Text of Formula of Agreement
Orderly Exchange of Ministers of Word and Sacrament
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA website]
Presbyterian Church (USA) [PCUSA website]
Reformed Church in America [RCA website]
Our commitment to the unity of Christ's church is affirmed by the words of our symbol—"That They May All Be One." (John 17:21). Itself a union of several Christian traditions, the United Church of Christ is actively engaged in ecumenical relationships that seek to heal the broken unity of the Body of Christ.
The division of the church is a result of human sin, and all Christians have a responsibility to work for the day when, as Jesus prayed, "they may all be one." Ecumenical relations helps us to learn from the spiritual traditions of other churches. They help us to serve the world more effectively in God's name. They remind us that while we are proud of the diversity of the Protestant traditions that have joined in our united church, there is an even greater diversity in the Body of Christ that can make us whole.
Our ecumenical commitments affect us no matter where we live and worship. They are as near as the neighboring church down the street and as far as the communities of Christians who live the Gospel in the poorest countries of Africa and Asia, the Pacific and the Americas. On these pages you will learn more about these commitments as well as the broader dialogue between Christians and the followers of other religions.
Our commitment to relationship with all the peoples of the earth has led the United Church of Christ has entered into dialogue with other faith traditions.
"What does it mean to profess Christian faith in a world of many faiths?" "How can I be fully a Christian and at the same time respect the faith of others?" "What does it mean to be 'saved'?" "How do I interpret in an interfaith society the Bible verses that understand Jesus as 'the way'?" These are questions with which members of our congregations wrestle every day.
General Synod's commitment to interfaith dialogue is expressed in part through the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches. Through the NCC we have been able to connect with leaders of many non-Christian faiths. Other settings of the church are engaged in countless interfaith dialogues, projects and relationships. In many communities, UCC congregations join other churches in organizing coalitions with members of other faiths on issues of shared concern. Our commitment to understanding among faiths is also international: Many missionaries called called by the Common Global Ministries Board are deeply involved in interfaith relationships—especially in societies where Christians are a minority.
In 1987 and 1989, General Synod adopted resolutions reinforcing our commitment to reconciliation with the Jewish and Muslim communities.
Links to Resources
Resource on Interreligious Relations
National Council of Churches Interfaith Relations Commission
General Synod: 1987 statement on Christian-Jewish relations
General Synod: 1989 statement on Christian-Muslim relations
National Council of Churches: Interfaith Relations [NCC website]
History of interfaith relations [WCC website]
Christian-Jewish relations [WCC website]
Christian-Muslim relations [WCC website]
Links to Websites of Other Faiths
Ecumenical Councils and Agencies
The United Church of Christ is a founding member of the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches and many other ecumenical agencies and projects. The NCC and WCC began to take shape in the late 19th-century in response to the worldwide ecumenical movement.
The UCC is also a member of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches—the worldwide communion of churches in the Reformed, Presbyterian and Congregationalist traditions.
UCC-Disciples Ecumenical Partnership
In 1989 the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) approved a historic partnership of full communion. The two churches proclaimed mutual recognition of their sacraments and ordained ministry.
Though remaining two distinct denominations, the UCC and Disciples have committed through their partnership to seek opportunities for common ministry, especially where work together will enhance the mission of the church.
The partnership is a unique experiment in U.S. ecumenism. In every setting of the two churches, UCC members and Disciples are serving Christ side by side. There are now more than 30 "federated" congregations affiliated with both denominations, and it is now common for Disciples and UCC ministers to serve congregations of the other denomination. The Common Global Ministries Board, formed by the UCC's Wider Church Ministries and the Disciples' Division of Overseas Ministries, unites the international mission work of the two churches.
To some, they're the answer to a thirsty congregation's prayers. To others, they too often turn out to be self-serving opportunists who lead their flocks into a hostile wilderness. They are pastors, ordained in other denominations, who accept calls to lead local congregations of the United Church of Christ.
But some of them also might be key players in a seemingly never-ending drain of members out of the denomination, which, like all of the other mainline denominations, has suffered losses every year for nearly 30 years.
Theories stem from new UCC data on the 172 congregations (about 2.5 percent of the total) that have left the UCC since 1996. A surprising 79 percent of these churches were led by non-UCC pastors or reported no pastor at all. Only one in five (21 percent) had a UCC-ordained pastor at the time. More than one in three (35 percent) had a pastor ordained in another denomination. The rest (44 percent) had "no reported leadership," meaning they either had no pastor at the time or already had such loose ties to the UCC that they filed no information.
Go slow with data
Attempting to make sense of this "non-UCC pastor factor" can lead to some thorny terrain. For decades the UCC has championed ecumenical projects to share ordained ministries among various denominations. To suggest that non-UCC pastors have become a "foreigner-in-our-ranks" problem or an unwelcome group could cut against the church's long-term vision for ecumenism.
Wary of implications, researchers urge caution when interpreting the data.
"We can't say there's a causal relationship between calling a non-UCC pastor and church withdrawal" from the denomination, says Sheila Kelly, Minister for Research Information and Services in the UCC national office. "It could very well work the other way, with churches unhappy with the denomination intentionally calling non-UCC pastors as one step in distancing themselves from the UCC."
Two schools of thought
As data beg explanation, two schools of analytical thought emerge within the UCC.
The first says congregations must beware of a breed of charismatic pastors who have entrepreneurial designs to make local churches independent of the denomination. The second says non-UCC pastors have merely become fall guys for a denomination that makes life difficult for evangelical pastors and thereby alienates evangelically-minded congregations.
In 1999, First Congregational UCC of West Brookfield, Mass., called Assembly of God pastor the Rev. Harry Staiti to lead them. Staiti got the job, according to interim pastor the Rev. Patricia Glore, because "they were so anxious to get somebody in place." But although the church didn't end up leaving the denomination, she says Staiti seemed to have such a departure in mind.
"I think he thought he had an opportunity to lead them out [of the UCC] and they would follow anywhere he would lead them," says Glore. "They forgot who they were for a while, no doubt about it."
But Staiti tells a different story—one of being shunned by the local UCC.
"I accepted after nine months that we were on our own here," Staiti says. "I had seen the UCC as a place that celebrates diversity and everyone can be included. But I got the impression that evangelicals are not included." Nevertheless, he adds, "I had no intention of taking the congregation out of the UCC."
During his one year there, Staiti says, average worship attendance swelled from 30 to 175. Yet the old guard of the church bristled at his style, which, he says, included asking worshipers to open their Bibles during sermons and asserting that salvation comes only through faith in Jesus Christ.
In February 2000, he says, a disgruntled faction voted him out. He now pastors a storefront church, wedged between a deli and a Chinese restaurant in an East Brookfield strip mall.
Feeling unwelcome is sadly common for non-UCC evangelical pastors serving UCC churches, according to the Rev. David Runnion-Bareford, Executive Director of the Biblical Witness Fellowship. His organization has requests from 40 to 60 UCC congregations seeking evangelical pastors at any given time, he says, and must often look beyond what he sees as a liberal-heavy pool of UCC candidates to satisfy demand.
"Once they become more accepted, they'll become more loyal," Runnion-Bareford says, referring to non-UCC, evangelical pastors. Meanwhile, he says, "we need to re-examine our denomination's commitment to diversity and whether it would be willing to embrace more evangelical viewpoints."
Already on slippery slope
One such church seeking an evangelical pastor was First Congregational UCC in Clinton, Mass.The church already had stopped sending delegates to denominational meetings when the Rev. Grif Vautier, a Presbyterian, became pastor more than eight years ago.
When the congregation voted this fall to withdraw, it cited as final straws the denomination's liberal interpretations of scripture and its scholarship fund for gay and lesbian persons to attend seminary.
"We didn't feel we could stand behind the [UCC] organization," said Jill Wong, co-chair of the search committee to replace Vautier. "The decision to leave the UCC was a membership decision and was not influenced by the ministers at all."
Others suspect pastors might sometimes have a lot of influence and must be aware of it—especially in an age when shared leadership across denominations is coupled with diminishing denominational identity.
"We in the UCC say we pastors have only one vote," says the Rev. Patricia Smith, moderator of the Massachusetts Central Association that saw two of its congregations leave the UCC in autumn 2001. "That's silly. We have a lot of influence. My congregation is coming along now to embrace the UCC, and I know it's because of my influence."
Clear pattern confirmed
Ron Buford, UCC Public Relations and Marketing Manager, agrees with Smith. Buford often handles calls from members whose congregations are in the process of leaving the UCC.
"This new data confirms a clear pattern I see among those callers," says Buford. "Here's the typical profile: The church calls a pastor who has never embraced UCC values; long-standing UCC members get alienated—they stop coming and some leave; a new congregation emerges as new people come and the balance shifts; people call me, desperately trying to hold on to their congregation, but it's too late."
Buford continues, "We have many great non-UCC pastors. However, church and ministry committees must identify those who do not come in good faith. These entrepreneurial types, less common among mainline clergy, come instead with an eye toward doing something they never could have done in the denomination they left—take a church out of the denomination, building, endowment and all."
Denominational ties crucial
Lack of commitment to one another ensures some pastors and congregations remain on the denomination's fringe, according to Ohio Conference Minister the Rev. Ralph Quellhorst. He says 40 Ohio congregations have left the UCC in the last 10 years. In his estimation, 90 percent of the congregations that fled the UCC had non-UCC pastors at the time.
"The pastor says, 'You don't have to stay in the UCC,'" Quellhorst says. "The pastor doesn't work to help them learn more about the UCC." Meanwhile, he says, UCC pastors too often regard their evangelical, non-UCC pastors as "second-class citizens" who "don't feel they're allowed very far into the fellowship."
"When you had a strong denominational loyalty, you could work it out," Quellhorst says, adding that those days are gone.
One facet of that UCC identity and loyalty is a prophetic vision, according to Buford, which comes, he says,when God reveals a new way to see an old situation.
"The new growth data suggests that the people will embrace a prophetic vision when strong and committed pastors boldly proclaim it," he says. "Prophetic vision is often unpopular. If the pastor does not believe it, the people will be cast adrift."
In the end, the correlation between non-UCC pastors and congregational departures might point to two or more solutions.
The BWF's Runnion-Bareford says the onus is on the denomination as a whole to "examine whether it values diversity or conformity" in a time when clergy shortages require creative solutions.
The Rev. Richard Sparrow, Search and Call Coordinator in the UCC's Parish Life and Leadership Ministry, disagrees. "The onus is on churches," he says, to know their history of commitment to "outreach, ecumenism and justice" through the United Church of Christ and therefore retain close covenantal ties.
"The issue is not just non-UCC pastors," he says. "Too often churches' ties are already loosening and they're on a slippery slope. Then they are vulnerable to a charismatic type pastor, who might already be in trouble with his or her own denomination."
One thing seems clear: if the pastor strongly identifies with the denomination, then the congregation probably will, too. What's not so clear is which comes first.
The Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald is pastor of Union Congregational UCC in Amesbury, Mass., and a free-lance journalist, regularly contributing to Religion News Service.