Written by Daniel Hazard
Illinois pastor, born in '57, has found meaning in turning '50'
The Rev. Denise Griebler, born in 1957, will be 50 years old next year. And the United Church of Christ, in which she is now ordained, will mark the same milestone.
"Fifty - it's a really great age," says Griebler, who was ordained in 1993 after serving four years in licensed ministry. "Personally, I'm young enough that I still have lots of energy for what tomorrow brings. But I'm also old enough to honor my experiences and appreciate both my gifts and my deficits."
Griebler is just one of 179 UCC clergy who share their birth year with the denomination they serve.
Yet, for Griebler, her pending 50th comes at an especially poignant, painful time in her family's life.
Last October, when she became pastor of St. Michael's UCC in West Chicago, her husband, Curt Koehler, now 56, was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. It's an ordeal that's required some matured perspective on this new, uncertain stage in her life - and in her ministry.
"By the time you're 50 - if you've stayed connected to others and to the world - then you're old enough that you've been through some difficult, challenging times," she says. "And you get some definition from that."
"You can either choose to shut down," she says, ". or you can choose to believe that God's in the midst of it and that it matters."
Just after the diagnosis, Koehler underwent brain surgery - on Nov. 11, 2005 - meaning Griebler has since spent the first year of her ministry at St. Michael's UCC not just caring for her new parishioners, but being cared for herself.
The mutual exchange has made Griebler particularly fond of her "tiny church," as she calls it. St. Michael's UCC is an "incredible community," one as equally committed to being the church in the wider world as it is at home among those they know and love, including her.
"They really know how to act like church," she says, noting how she's had to lay aside her own big-church biases since she has come to experience the level of compassion, sense of justice, and degree of denominational loyalty shared among this 62-member suburban congregation. Despite an average worship attendance of just 40, St. Michael's UCC contributed more than $10,400 last year in basic and special support of Our Church's Wider Mission.
'I feel more clarity'
On Aug. 30 - the day United Church News talked with Griebler - she had just driven her husband to his first day back on the job as a U.S. history teacher at South High School in nearby Downer's Grove. Together, they remain optimistic about the future.
"The tumor is stable and may be shrinking, hopefully," she says.
But through it all, she has marveled at her husband's determination, saying neither he nor his teaching colleagues doubted for a moment that he would return to the classroom that he loves, even if it meant he needed to teach his students from a wheelchair.
"Integrity is a really core piece of turning 50. I feel freer to have integrity than I've ever had in my life," Griebler says. "I feel much more clarity about what I'm called to do, called to say, called to be. I'm more willing to do that now than ever before."
"I'm not afraid," she continues, before pausing and adding, ". on a good day."
"But there are lots of good days," she says.
During the formative years of a person's life, Griebler believes, "it's easier to say 'yes' to everything that comes along." But the older we become, one's 'yes' and one's 'no' are laced with more meaning, because each is leavened by wisdom and experience.
"The same is true of institutions, I think," she says. "We become more clear of who we are, what our core mission is, what our core identity is, what we want to say 'yes' to."
And that's something she sees happening in the UCC - a gelling of sorts, at age 50, around our founding principles as a "united and uniting" church. She sees the denomination more sure of itself, not only as it more readily owns its rich heritage but also in how it proclaims its emerging identity.
"We've done some very good and clear thinking about what it means to be a church with a wide welcome," she says, "and that puts us in a position to talk with other Christians as well as other religious people. It's a gift that we bring."
In addition, another "core value," she says, is the UCC's testament to a still-speaking God. "And that means we have an attentiveness to being a still-listening people."
"We don't necessarily have the same experiences, but we really can come together around the idea of being the body of Christ together," she says.
UCC by choice
Griebler spent the first 10 years of her Christian life at Bethany UCC in Chicago, where she was baptized as an infant. Occasionally, she looks back and thinks, ""Wow, I was one of the first babies baptized in this church." But throughout childhood, as moving dictated, she and her family found geographic reasons to periodically change churches. She was confirmed in a Lutheran congregation and later became active in a United Methodist youth group. She also attended a Church of the Brethren house church.
"Generic Protestant" is how she describes her religious upbringing. But young adulthood saw Griebler returning to the UCC denomination of her younger years, this time not by accident, but by choice.
As a community organizer in Chicago for the Central American Sanctuary Movement during the 1980s, Griebler talked with many U.S. faith groups about sheltering Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees during the civil wars in their countries. Soon, she became impressed with the responsiveness of UCC congregations, especially Chicago's Wellington Avenue UCC, one of the first churches in the city to become active in the Sanctuary Movement. Ultimately, she joined Wellington Avenue UCC and it was the community that helped Griebler discern a call to attend seminary and, ultimately, to ordained ministry.
Today, Griebler is active with the Illinois Maya Ministry of the UCC's Illinois Conference and she serves on the board of SIPAZ, an international project that promotes the peaceful transformation of conflict in Chiapas, Mexico.
'Who I really want to be'
For several reasons, the UCC's 50th observance might feel like an awkward celebration for some, Griebler contends, because institutions - when compared to individuals - have longer life expectancies. There's not the same sense of urgency to take stock, to do inventory.
She jokes, "But when you look at some of the church's finances, you say, 'We may not have 50 years left.'" One small obstacle that fans of the UCC's 50-year observance will have to face, she believes, is that a significant percentage of UCC members have already passed - for themselves - the 50-year mark, and the number's allure has tarnished. "They've been there, done that," she says.
"They look at me - at 50 years old - and think, 'our nice, young pastor.'"
And, institutionally speaking, many of our congregations, too, have well surpassed the 50-year point. St. Michael's UCC, for example, will observe its 138th birthday this year. In New England, some UCC churches are eyeing 400-year anniversaries. Fifty can look like small potatoes.
Still, even at mere 50, Griebler sees value in looking back, especially to appreciate how the UCC was founded courageously with an ecumenical and optimistic outlook, across once-staunch denominational lines, and while expressing core commitments to justice, peace and inclusion - values still sorely needed in today's religious landscape.
Despite being baptized early in the UCC, Griebler feels like it's the place she's chosen for herself, because she's ventured and experimented elsewhere, including attending the Presbyterian-related McCormick Seminary.
But she's firmly UCC, and proud of that fact.
"It's fun to be born into the family and then come back and choose it," she says. "It turned out to be the place where I really did get a lot of my core values. It's who I really wanted to be."
Visit St. Michael's UCC online at stmichaelsucc.org.
Our babies are all grown up
While many, if not most, UCC congregations pre-date the denomination's 1957 founding by hundreds of years, 19 churches are uniquely UCC "newbies," having been formed in the same year that this new denomination was being created by the historic union of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches in America.
Here's to some true UCC baby churches who will celebrate their own golden anniversaries, alongside the UCC as a whole:
West Congregational UCC, Phoenix, Ariz.