Synod provides 'a sense of the whole of the church'
In 1985, when 31-year-old Edith Guffey was packing for a trip to Ames, Iowa, to attend her first-ever UCC General Synod, little did she know how that experience would soon alter her life.
A young administrator at the University of Kansas and a member of Plymouth Congregational UCC in Lawrence, Kan., Guffey acknowledges she was elected that year as a Synod delegate because, "I was a young adult, a layperson, a woman, an African-American, and was active in the [Kansas-Oklahoma] Conference."
The diversity which she helped bring to General Synod 15 was — and continues to be — one of the biennial gathering's most-meaningful trademarks, she says, and "being intentional about diversity" was something that spoke volumes to her during her first involvement with the national UCC of any kind. "I really had no sense of the diversity or 'bigness' of the UCC," she recalls. "I was, frankly, blown away. That Synod gave me a sense of the whole of the church, something that no local church can replicate. It's just not possible."
She remembers waiting at midnight, along with others, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., one of the Synod's principal speakers, arriving on the Iowa State University campus. She recalls watching Valerie Russell, the legendary justice advocate and UCC leader, maneuvering among Synod goers, seemingly knowing every person there. She remembers "Balaam's Courier" — the perennial, unauthorized, truth-telling tabloid at General Synod — printing the names of church executives who stayed at nearby hotels rather than campus dormitories.
"People still refer to [Ames, Iowa] as the Mecca of all Synods," she says.
Remembered as the first and only General Synod to be held on the campus of a major public university, the 1985 gathering also proved to be groundbreaking in terms of its decisions: Both the Just-Peace Resolution and the Open-and-Affirming Resolution were adopted that year, leaving lasting designs on the denomination's DNA.
"I remember being assigned to a committee that I didn't have the slightest bit of interest in," she says, "but I did what I was supposed to do and found myself engaged in the process."
Her 1985 experience in Ames led to a second trip to Synod two years later, this time in Cleveland, where delegates heard a proposal to relocate the UCC's national offices from New York to St. Louis, an idea that was overwhelmingly rejected.
The St. Louis proposal's rejection, however, led to the formation of a second "location committee," on which Guffey was asked to serve. And her participation in the relocation process, and her articulate advocacy for Cleveland as the eventual site, led several to urge her to run for UCC Secretary, then one of three elected-officer positions in the denomination.
"People asked me to apply — and I was having more fun at my church work than I was in my real work — so I began to think, 'Maybe this is something that I can do,'" she says. "I wouldn't have used the word 'call' back then, but I got a call in 1991 to serve as secretary of the church."
Although, at the time, she worried how her husband, Jerry, and their two boys — then ages 3 and 9 — would adjust to her frequent travels as a national church officer, she decided to go for it.
And that's how Guffey's transition from Synod-goer to Synod-organizer got its start.
No two Synods alike
New to her national secretary post in 1993, when the UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) held their first-ever combined Synod/Assembly in St. Louis, she'd wait to have her first crack at the helm of Synod administration two years later, when she organized General Synod 20 in Oakland, Calif. (1995). And, since then, it's been followed by command performances in Columbus, Ohio (1997) and Providence, R.I. (1999).
After national restructure in 2000, when Guffey was elected Associate General Minister, she continued as Synod administrator in Kansas City (2001), Minneapolis (2003), Atlanta (2005) and this year, in Hartford, Conn.
Over the years, she's learned what to worry about — and what doesn't matter as much.
"Once you've seen one hotel you've seen them all. That's not what matters most," she says. "But what I love is how every General Synod starts out as one thing and evolves into something else. Each has a life of its own, and my role is just to make sure we can pull it off."
For example, when the site selection committee first chose Hartford back in 2001 to host General Synod 26, it really didn't grasp how large the 50th anniversary celebration might become.
"And it really has evolved into something greater than we had ever imagined at the time," she says. "The 50th Anniversary Committee said it wanted a General Synod like we've never had before, and we're going to get it."
As United Church News talked with Guffey in early May, she was stewing over organization of the Synod's "community groups" process. Yet, her most pressing worry — at that moment anyway — was making sure the shuttle service would be up to the task, given that 6,200 people had already registered as of May 8, ensuring that General Synod 26 would be the largest in the denomination's 50 years.
"No matter the Synod, you have to worry about the shuttles," she says, speaking from her Synod-planning expertise. "But this is the first time we've ever run this extensive of a shuttle system."
The Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, Connecticut Conference Minister, says Guffey has natural abilities when it comes to planning large, multi-faceted gatherings — especially how to juggle its many diverse components, from its competing agenda items to its hospitality issues, from its up-front visuals to its behind-the-scenes details.
"Watching her deal with this exponentially larger Synod and all it implies has been quite an experience," Crabtree says. "She gives clear leadership and establishes good understandings of who is responsible for what, but somehow she manages to flex as needed and still maintain that clarity."
And, for many repeat Synod goers, Guffey has become its most-familiar face.
"Her enthusiasm for the General Synod, its importance in our life together and the people and experiences who comprise it is absolutely contagious," Crabtree says.
Synod's city-wide campus
This year's "Synod in the City" on Saturday, June 23 — with multiple venues and performances throughout downtown Hartford — offers new opportunities and challenges for Synod planners.
"The planning committee began to think outside the box, 'What if we thought about the city as our campus [for General Synod]'" she remembers.
The result is an amazing line-up of speakers, preachers and performers who will take to stages and classrooms across downtown Hartford — even while clowns, jugglers and musicians mix it up with Synod attendees at Bushnell Park and its surrounding streets.
One of the greatest challenges for General Synod 26 has been its enormous size and scope, coupled with a late-in-the-game decision to relocate to the Hartford Civic Center from the newer Connecticut Convention Center, due to a still-unresolved dispute between management and a labor union.
"They were not able to come to terms, and the General Synod has been very clear over the years about a worker's right to organize," she says. "So the Executive Council made the decision, and since the issue still has not been resolved, it turned out to be a good decision."
Guffey acknowledges that the church's justice stance will mean a little less comfort for Synod goers, who will be challenged to make "personal accommodations" because of the decision.
"If I were looking for a place to go, I'd never choose the [Hartford] Civic Center," she acknowledges. "It's been a long time since we've been in an arena like this."
Of particular concern to Guffey is the challenges that people with disabilities might face. Although the facility is accessible, it's an older venue and therefore less navigable, she says.
"It's going to be a challenge to people, especially since we're expecting more than twice the number of people we've ever had before," she says. "But we have a history of standing with low-wage workers, so how could we not do this?"
In hindsight, the move could have unforeseen positives: The Convention Center holds only about 6,000 in its main hall, while the Civic Center — the city's arena — accommodates 12,000. The additional plenary space may be a bonus, with registration already soaring above what the Convention Center could have handled.
Her advice for the masses?
"Look for volunteers in the bright blue shirts to help you," she says. (Why not red shirts? "Because everyone else will be wearing red!")
"And take a deep breath," she advises. "Nothing there is life and death. Just go with the mindset of 'have a good time.'"