Ten years after ordination, a group of UCC pastors reflect on what they've learned and future directions for the church
The vital church is not only one committed to issues of global justice, but also one that remains committed to addressing the spiritual needs of its local members, says a group of UCC ministers who are celebrating their 10th anniversary in ordained ministry.
After 10 years of leading worship, preaching sermons, praying with parishioners, visiting shut-ins, offering communion, advocating for justice and sharing the faith, 10 UCC pastors—all ordained in 1993—were randomly selected and invited to reflect on their experiences in ministry.
What have they learned? How have they grown? Has the UCC lost sight of its local churches' struggles? Is the UCC still a prophetic voice of justice and peace? Have we yet become the multiracial, multicultural, just-peace, open and affirming, accessible-to-all church that God would have us be?
Reaching in and out
"We're already reaching out [into the world]. We need to reach out more into our surrounding communities," says the Rev. Wesley Cobbs, 70, pastor of Avalon Park Community UCC in Chicago. In turn, those local activities will ripple out into the global community, he says.
Similarly, the Rev. Donna C. Pupillo, 48, pastor of Friedens Chapel UCC in St. Louis, hopes that the church will have a greater voice in the lives of ordinary people. "We look at the big global piece and my folks are struggling with gas prices going up and how they're going to pay for kids' tuition," she says. "I hope the church can be seen as a place of healing and growth" for the person in the pew.
Growth almost always brings change. As Friedens' first female pastor, she says she has met little resistance, and her church's enthusiasm for her ministry has allowed her to grow, to try new things and to experiment. After 10 years in the same pastorate, "I'm marrying the people that I confirmed. There's a lot of joy in that," she says.
The Rev. Paul E. Forrey, 39, pastor of Sunset Congregational UCC in Miami, sees the UCC being a church that is "socially active in issues of peace and justice," which, he says, is an important element of the faith. Yet he sees a growing hunger in his congregation "for deepening their own spirituality." He hopes "as the UCC leaps into the future, that we maintain our sense of groundedness in Christ and our faith."
The voice in the wilderness
Does this mean that the wider church should retreat from its historic commitment to advocacy on issues of peace and justice?
"I don't think we should step back one iota from where we are," says the Rev. Philip N. Persson, 59, pastor of Congregational UCC in Chico, Calif. "If anything, we should speak out more on issues, especially on war and peace."
Persson does not believe that the UCC is "in any danger of losing our place as a prophetic denomination. If we are entering a period of wilderness, we need to be the voice crying out in it."
Inclusiveness has been an integral focus of Persson's decade in ministry. Before accepting the call to his current position, he wanted to make sure that the congregation would support his commitment to inclusive language.
"The New Century Hymnal and inclusive language in worship have fostered more caring attitudes in our church," Persson says, adding that, after he had been at the church for three years, the congregation decided to become "open and affirming" of all people, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
Persson says that he and the 90 members of his church found it freeing when they finally accepted the fact that they were a small congregation. It encouraged them, he says, to do the type of ministry that was needed most in their community. "We stopped thinking about growth and started thinking about what is more important—like living out our faith by feeding the homeless twice per month."
Finding a ministry that fits
Both Persson and Pupillo have enjoyed decade-long pastorates in their respective congregations, but interim ministry has been the vocational niche best suited for the Rev. Heather Wicks, interim pastor at Miller Avenue UCC in Akron, Ohio. Each type of ministry offers particular blessings, she says, but interim ministry "has been a wonderful opportunity to sample all different kinds of churches."
Wicks, 66, has served in congregations with as few as 48 members and in one that boasted more than 400. While she has enjoyed the variety of different congregational challenges, she also has learned that "issues are the same everywhere."
Wicks would like to see the UCC make "an effort to be more accessible and responsive to needs of the local church." She doesn't think that the church needs to be "afraid of losing the prophetic edge." It's possible to accomplish both, she says, noting that balance is achieved when we are "faithful to Christ's gospel of love and inclusiveness no matter where it takes us."
Size of membership is not as important as the courage and commitment mustered by a congregation's members, she says. "It's amazing what we can accomplish with some gritty, gutsy people."
Answering the needs of the community is also important for the Rev. J. Nathan King, 42, a former Southern Baptist who is pastor of Trinity Reformed UCC in Concord, N.C. "The population in this area more than doubled in the last 12 years," King says, "and a large portion of that growth has been Hispanic."
North Carolina, says King, has struggled to develop infrastructure necessary to meet communities' needs "and schools were in need of people who could help with the language barrier." His church includes a number of teachers who have stepped into the breach by volunteering to work with students.
Finding a church that allows its pastors to be themselves is important to the Rev. A. Rebecca West, associate pastor of Plymouth Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C.
The 62-year old West came to ministry "kicking and screaming." As a second-career pastor, she left behind "a plush job, weekends off and a month's worth of vacation." But, she says, her call was strong.
Although her decision was the right one, West says she continues to be concerned about the role of women in the church. "Women need to have a more open platform and we need to recognize that not everyone who is called to ministry is called to the pulpit," she says. Some women, she says, enter the pulpit not because it is their strength, "but because it is the only place where they can get recognized."
Dimensions of diversity
Is the UCC's commitment to diversity merely lip service? The Rev. Linda C. Brady, 65, interim pastor at Encanto Community UCC in Phoenix, says that affirmation of every human being has proven to be a goal, not an accomplishment.
"We say that's what we're about but behind the scenes we hear, 'Well, we don't really want those kinds of people in our church,'" Brady says. She is concerned about the lack of vision at the local-church level and the prevailing tendency toward a status quo mentality.
Diversity can be challenging in many settings of the church and for many reasons. The Rev. Beth A. Donaldson, 41, pastor of Kapaa UCC in Hawaii, says she has learned a great deal about the "complex cultural dynamics" that exist in the Hawaii Conference—a diversity that she describes as "academic, cultural and theological."
"Diversity is great, but we need a common vision," Donaldson says. To propel the church into the future, she says, we should recognize that "strong leadership is not a bad thing. We need to have enough identity and sense of purpose to even begin to ask the question 'where is the church headed.'"
At Park Congregational UCC in Norwich, Conn., its pastor, the Rev. Sidat F. Balgobin, has embraced not only the diversity of the church's membership but also diversity in worship style and theology.
Balgobin, 55, says he comes from a mystical Christian background and his preaching encompasses elements of mystical spirituality. "I have two rules for my sermons," he says. "One, keep it real. Two, keep it simple."
A frequent contributor to United Church News, Laurie Bartels is a member of First UCC in Lakewood, Ohio.
Gleaned from 520 Sundays on the job
The Rev. Sidat Balgobin, pastor of Park Congregational UCC in Norwich, Conn., says that, for him, seminary was never about simplicity. "We were so entrenched in the academic part of religion, we didn't get a lot of the spiritual," he says. His advice to those now preparing for ordained ministry is to "read people that you wouldn't read in seminary. Read some eastern philosophy or the mystics." He says he isn't putting down the church's commitment to intellectual inquiry; he just wants to see current seminary experience expanded.
Here's additional advice for the would-be ordained from now-veteran clergy:
"Be patient. Don't do everything in a hurry. Take short steps."
-The Rev. Wesley Cobbs, Avalon Park Community UCC, Chicago
"Invest in your love of worship. Give it time. That is what will stoke you in the days and years ahead."
-The Rev. Beth Donaldson, Kapaa UCC, Hawaii
"Don't take yourself so seriously" and "Play together and serve Christ while having fun."
-The Rev. Nathan King, Trinity Reformed UCC, Concord, N.C.
"Discernment is very important. You have to be guided by the Spirit."
-The Rev. Rebecca West, Plymouth Congregational UCC, Washington, D.C.
"Be a 'non-anxious presence' within the congregation (borrowing a term coined by Edwin H. Friedman in his book "Generation to Generation)."
-The Rev. Heather Wicks, Miller Avenue UCC, Akron, Ohio
"Mediation and reconciliation skills are important."
-The Rev. Linda Brady, Encanto Community UCC, Phoenix
"You will want to put your stamp on the church. Let the church stamp you."
-The Rev. Donna Pupillo, Friedens Chapel UCC, St. Louis
"Listen to the voice of your call and to not much else."
-The Rev. Philip Persson, Congregational UCC, Chico, Calif.