Thomas: Church structures matter, but must not become ‘idols’

Thomas: Church structures matter, but must not become ‘idols’

September 30, 2008
Written by Gregg Brekke

As discussion of the proposed governance structure continues, the Rev. John Thomas, UCC general minister and president, offered a reflection on and justifications for a single governing board.

He insists that institutional oversight must enable agility and foster collaboration rather than burden members with the "mundane" and enforce a "hermeneutic of suspicion" among different bodies.

"Structures do matter," says Thomas. "They reflect our values, our commitments, and our loyalties. They can either facilitate or inhibit our work. But any structure can become an idol, and every structure must be open to renewal and change."

Provisionally called the United Church Board (UCB), the proposal will be presented to the existing boards for approval during their respective Oct. and Nov. meetings.

The full text of Thomas' reflection is below.

A Structure for the Challenge and Opportunity of Tomorrow's Mission

Reflections on the Governance Conversations in the
United Church of Christ
October, 2008

The Rev. John H. Thomas
General Minister and President

The need for a progressive Christian witness, tempered by ecumenical sensitivity and courageous in its readiness to take risks for the Gospel, is everywhere apparent in a world that continues to live in the grip of fear that builds walls, denies dignity, exploits the vulnerable, and seeks security only in wealth and weapons. The United Church of Christ, at its best, has been that witness and we are called to claim that vocation in new and compelling ways for the future. This witness is expressed across our church in vital congregations nurtured by conferences and served by the national setting. This vocation is led by gifted leaders shaped in our local churches, colleges and seminaries, and encouraged and inspired by wider settings of the church. Together we are called to a bold future.

My nine years as General Minister and President have convinced me that the national ministries of the United Church of Christ, while challenged in significant ways, are also poised to claim powerful new mission opportunities. The Stillspeaking Ministry demonstrates the capacity of a clear and creatively articulated identity, amplified by new technologies and communication strategies, to unify and inspire our members and churches. The growing number of new immigrant churches, together with our historically dynamic racial and ethnic congregations, reveal opportunities before us if we could fully claim the evangelical commitment to being a justice-centered, multi-racial, multi-cultural church. Sacred Conversations hint at what might be possible if our churches entered into spiritually grounded discernment about the hardest questions of life. Recent experience in on-line giving to special appeals shows us the potential for amazing generosity if we could fully claim the new opportunities available to us in a rapidly changing philanthropic environment. The eager response to last year's Iraq Peace Petition, and the growing membership of our Justice and Peace Action Network suggest strongly that UCC members and friends can be mobilized for prophetic justice advocacy and global solidarity. Yes, the opening years of the 21st century have been marked by conflict in the church, loss of members and congregations, and severe financial constraints. But these same years have revealed enormous and exciting opportunity for us to claim the vocation and the legacy of our forebears and the promise of the next generation.

Increasingly our structures, particularly our governance structures, inhibit and impede our capacity to quickly and eagerly claim these new opportunities, technologies, and relationships. Their number burdens both volunteers and staff with meetings instead of mission. They complicate rather than facilitate bold and creative strategic visioning and planning. They create a culture of permission seeking and turf protection rather than bold generativity. They render our church's response to these new opportunities piecemeal and sluggish rather than focused, unified and quick to respond. They appeal to an older generation's affinity for parliamentary process and debate rather than to a younger generation's yearning for discernment and hands-on engagement. Rather than being places for the most creative and imaginative thought, our governing boards are often laden with the peripheral and the mundane. They are increasingly expensive and consume an alarming and ever-growing percentage of limited dollars and personal energies. Each Collegium member alone spends an average of forty days each biennium, exclusive of travel, just attending meetings of the General Synod, the Executive Council, and a Covenanted Ministry board – nearly a month and a half not even counting days for preparation, sub-committees, etc. Is this wise, healthy, or faithful stewardship?

Five years ago a thorough evaluation of our new structure under the direction of the Executive Council and utilizing research expertise from Hartford Seminary revealed serious flaws. Multiple governing bodies made unified strategic planning and visioning awkward at best, impossible at worst. The authority of each Board in relation to the Executive Council and to one another was seen to be ambiguous, leading to frequent tensions and uncertainty. Over the course of those years the Collegium increasingly encountered the challenge of dual accountability to a respective Board and the Executive Council. This resulted in the current difficulty of drawing governance and management together for decision-making on behalf of the whole national setting, particularly around tough financial issues.

Two and a half years ago at joint meetings of our boards and the Executive Council authorization was given to begin exploring practical and sustainable models for streamlining our structure. Since then two Governance Follow-up Teams representative of the breadth of our varied constituencies, each of our boards, the Executive Council, the Collegium, conference ministers, historically underrepresented groups, conference boards of directors, and many others have considered options and proposals. Differing perspectives have been heard and considered, dissent both invited and honored. Boards challenged the proposals before them and led the Governance Follow-up Teams to refine and reshape new proposals. For example, some Boards pressed for safeguards ensuring careful attention to fiduciary responsibilities regarding our endowments, while other Boards raised concern regarding the need to ensure significant presence in our governing structure from racial and ethnic constituencies. This has not been by any stretch of the imagination an abrupt, hasty, or backroom process. If the process moves forward this fall, there will be additional time for discernment by many others before constitution and bylaw amendments are presented to the General Synod in 2009, and an additional two more years will pass before any of the changes are confirmed and implementation begun after 2011. The openness we cherish in the United Church of Christ has been well served and will continue to be honored in this process.

What will this mean?

  • I imagine a group of 85 to 88 gifted UCC leaders, broadly representative of the racial and geographic diversity of the church, meeting together in focused meetings to plan national ministries with a heart of justice, a global horizon, and a passion for the local church.
  • I imagine 85 to 88 members of the board being fully conscious of the whole of the national setting (rather than just a part in which they are especially interested or loyal) visioning, overseeing policy, and stewarding the historic and new financial resources of the church with moral and legal clarity.
  • I imagine the financial and human resources that are no longer used to support four other boards now being freed up to engage our most gifted leaders across the church shaping and participating in ministries generated by the national setting in partnership with conferences and local churches.
  • I imagine leaders less burdened with multiple, cumbersome governing bodies, more engaged with creative thinking with a governing board adequately trained and appropriately supported for the core tasks of governance of the sort that inspires and generates denomination-wide creativity in mission.
  • I imagine board members committed to raising money, with the time they need to guide the church into the new culture of giving that awaits.
  • I imagine a General Synod more directly connected to the programmatic life of the national setting, a large and representative gathering of the church discerning our strategic direction and the resulting implications for the work we do.

Much has been said about the pain this process has created, particularly among racial and ethnic communities. I acknowledge that pain does exist, in those communities and elsewhere. But a new governance structure will not exacerbate that pain, and retaining our current governance structure most certainly will not relieve it. The causes of this pain are profoundly embedded in our institutional life despite heroic efforts on the part of many. The healing of these wounds, created over years of oppression and neglect, require different remedies and the intentional work of listening, confession, and repentance. I trust that all of us, regardless of our perspective on the proposal before us, will be committed to that work, work that has indeed been central to the process of exploring structural change.

Structures do matter. They reflect our values, our commitments, and our loyalties. They can either facilitate or inhibit our work. But any structure can become an idol, and every structure must be open to renewal and change. In the United Church of Christ our structures currently tend to institutionalize a hermeneutic of suspicion and an inherent distrust of one another. That suspicion is frequently imputed to leaders, and those assumptions are often accepted without critical thought or respectful questioning.

Authority always needs restraint, accountability and balance, and structures that guard against excessive authority are ethically appropriate and intrinsic to our heritage. But structures that reflect a preoccupation with distrust while being inattentive to the graceful whims of the Spirit become oppressive in their own ways and ill-serve us in this time of rapid change and opportunity. I hope these next weeks of discussion and discernment will be marked by honest and respectful reflection and debate. Honest fear must be addressed, and enthusiastic claims carefully assessed. I believe we stand at an important moment of opportunity for the sake of the church's mission. I hope, from the best traditions of what it has meant to be the United Church of Christ, we can claim this moment as a distinctive community of God's people.

The full text of the proposed governance structure can be found at <>

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