Things are beginning to change for churches in the Dakota Association of the UCC's South Dakota Conference. Pastors are engaging with their communities, resulting in community gardens to address food disparities and even a wind turbine to address rising energy costs. Lands are being returned to the association's churches, repairing the once-strained relationship between the association and conference leadership. And last month, three Native American pastors were ordained through alternative pathways for the first time, recognizing and celebrating their decades of service to the UCC.
"It's a movement in another direction," said the Rev. David Felton, South Dakota Conference interim pastor. "Hopefully it's a movement we started that can't be stopped."
The ordination of the Revs. Hampton Andrews, Norman Blue Coat and Mike Kills Pretty Enemy is an important milestone for Native American churches. Combined, the men have dedicated more than 60 years of ministerial service to the UCC, despite never being officially ordained. According to Winifred Boub, Dakota Association administrator, access to traditional seminary and theological training has been limited for the Native American community. The schools are too far away for most pastors, who are typically older, nontraditional students with families, to uproot their lives, and the association rarely has the funds to provide financial assistance. Also, few seminaries focus on Native American ministry, which Boub says is different than traditional education.
"The Bible and the scriptures need to be taught to the Indian community in a culturally relevant way," Boub said. "They don't teach that in traditional seminary. It's such a different setting for our folks."
To address this problem, Boub has been an active leader of the Eagle Butte Learning Center, opened in 1998 to provide culturally relevant education ministry designed to enhance leadership skills among clergy and lay leaders of Native American UCC congregations. The EBLC not only teaches the history and polity of the UCC, but also trains pastors on how to deal with issues such as addiction, suicide, diabetes, unemployment, and poverty that plague Native American communities.
"Helping and serving people is one of the most important things we can do, and it's what God wants us to do," said Andrews.
Andrews, Blue Coat and Kills Pretty Enemy have been students of the EBLC for at least 10 years. In addition to their decades of on-the-job training, the EBLC has provided much of their continuing education that the Dakota Association and the South Dakota Conference leadership consider more than adequate.
"It's historic that these three men were ordained under the alternative tracks to ordination," Felton said. "We have recognized three of the elders – long-standing pastors who have served faithfully in the UCC for years in really challenging roles on the reservation. This is a time of respecting and honoring them, and saying to them that their skills and abilities and what they have done is on par and equal to other UCC pastors."
A resolution to offer multiple pathways to ordination was presented in 2005 at General Synod 25, and was adopted in 2009 by delegates at General Synod 27. Representatives from the Dakota Association were on the taskforce that issued the proposal, and Felton said much of it was written with Andrews, Blue Coat and Kills Pretty Enemy in mind. Boub believes that recognizing alternative tracks to ordination will inspire more Native Americans to strive for this level of ministry, and will strengthen the confidence and spirit of their people.
"Our pastors, they have dreams and they have a vision of what they think their ministry should be among their people," Boub said. "I believed in them and trust them enough to give them the freedom to carry out their vision. That is happening now."