Written by J. Bennett Guess
About 90 UCC pastors, representing every geographic region of the church, gathered at the UCC's Church House in Cleveland, Jan. 28-30, to discuss the denomination's future viability and visibility.
Both organizers and participants said the occasion was an important opportunity for pastors to offer advice about the denomination's first-ever, nationally- coordinated identity campaign and its potential impact for breathing renewal into the church.
But the heart of the discussions focused on the "Catalyst Project," a proposed plan to build on the identity campaign by increasing giving to local churches by $140 million by 2007, the UCC's 50th anniversary. The hope is that more money for local churches will translate into more dollars for Our Church's Wider Mission (OCWM).
The crux of the Catalyst Project is the deployment of a new team of relationship managers who will work one-on-one with local churches (or groups of churches, in some instances) to bridge the local-national divide and strengthen churches' sense of collective identity and shared mission. The project, still in its design phase, is being formulated with significant input from local churches and pastors.
The Rev. William C. Green of the UCC's Stewardship and Church Finances Ministry in Cleveland, posed the pastors a question: "What is so distinctive about the UCC that it could inspire far greater support for its own work and witness?"
For three days, pastors wrestled with that very issue.
The Rev. Lillian Daniel, pastor of Church of the Redeemer UCC in New Haven, Conn., told colleagues how she has been urging her parishioners to reclaim the importance of telling stories—and using faith language—as a way of connecting personal journeys of transformation with the day-to-day stuff of being part of the church.
Building on that theme, Bernice Powell Jackson, executive minister of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, invited pastors to share their own stories of how the UCC had impacted their lives and the lives of their parishioners.
"In 1994, I chose the church where I have always felt complete," shared the Rev. Jerry Bennett, a former United Methodist minister, who is pastor at Trinity UCC in Belleville, Ill.
The Rev. Jean Sangster of Topsfield Congregational UCC in Massachusetts, recounted how, at the age of 37, after the deaths of two husbands, she stepped back into a church after a 20-year absence. Three years later, she left her successful corporate job and enrolled in seminary. Her story, she said, was proof that "God is still speaking."
After more than a dozen pastors shared, Jackson said their stories represented thousands more across the UCC—stories that need to be claimed and shared by the church as important symbols of God's transforming mission in the world.
Pastors also discussed ways to improve the UCC's sense of family and the denomination's distinct "brand" in the religious marketplace.
The Rev. Yvette Flunder, pastor of City of Refuge UCC in San Francisco, said she yearned for more opportunities where "average church folk" could feel part of the UCC's national body. Recounting denominational gatherings from her Pentecostal upbringing, she said, "The children went, the mommas went, the choir went, the preachers went, everybody went, and everybody got juiced about the denomination."
The UCC lacks those kinds of soulstirring occasions, said Flunder, where every member feels connected to the larger church.
Commenting on the UCC's emerging identity campaign, the Rev. Jim Williams, pastor of Trinity UCC in Waynesboro, Pa., said, "This is a crossroads moment, and I'd hate to see this effort fail. Let's commit everything we have. Otherwise, there may be no more UCC left."
The Rev. David Warner, pastor of Plymouth UCC in Milwaukee, Wis., worried that, even if stewardship improves in local churches, it will not necessarily mean more money for OCWM. "It sounds a little like trickleup economics," he said. "While I can imagine that churches might see more money, it might be passed on to para-church organizations and not OCWM."
The Rev. Jenell Mahoney of First Congregational UCC of Bakersfield, Calif., expressed concern that the national identity campaign could deliver fi rst-time visitors but that local churches might let them down. "If we do this advertising, will the people who come fi nd our churches adequate?" she asked.
The Rev. Peter Cook, pastor of Plymouth Congregational UCC in Framingham, Mass., added, "This is a hook, a way to invite people into relationship, but we also have to trust in the Holy Spirit."
Some worried that the Catalyst Project would not be bold enough to address the UCC's mounting financial crisis and membership decline. "We're fearful that maybe we need to be doing a new thing," said the Rev. John Syster of First Congregational UCC in Sarasota, Fla., reporting on conversations that took place in one small group.
Pastors agreed that the "God is still speaking" theme was resonating with local congregations.
"I like the utility of the phrase" said the Rev. Dave Michael, pastor of Lake Edge UCC in Madison, Wis. "It is a phrase that can be used and make sense in Madison, Wisconsin, or in Penn Central [Conference]."
But some expressed concerns about how the theme might be misinterpreted, which led at least two pastors to suggest that resources be developed to encourage deeper conversations about the phrase's biblical and theological grounding.
Many said the gathering left them feeling optimistic.
"I'm leaving with a real hopefulness for the life of the church," said the Rev. David Charles Smith, pastor of Jordan UCC in Allentown, Pa. "It's a new model for the national church to bring pastors to the Church House and ask for advice. It's a new model of partnership that I don't remember, but it is helpful when it is lived out. This isn't something outside our ministry. This is our ministry."
The Rev. Angel Toro, pastor of Chapel on the Hill UCC in Seminole, Fla., said, "We hope that this initiative will become the prophetic voice that is needed in our church this day. As we come together, we have to believe that the best is yet to come. This is not a capital campaign to raise money for the national church, but to reach out on behalf of our local churches."
The Rev. Marja Coons-Torn, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Billings, Mont., said, "This has been a chance not only for pastors to talk with national staff but to talk with each other. I'm going home with some new ideas about reaching out into my community more effectively."
The Rev. Michele Rogers-Brigham, pastor of Federated UCC in Orleans, Mass., said, "I like this, and I'm excited about it. And I think my enthusiasm will help to build support in my congregation and in my Conference."
The Rev. Paul Robinson, pastor of Medford Congregational UCC in Oregon, said, "The UCC is not afraid to say who we are, and this is a brave thing to do. We've always taken on the future and the unknown because we're not afraid of unchartered waters."
To offer ideas or suggestions about the UCC's Catalyst Project, contact Ron Buford, interim coordinator, at 216-736-3180; e-mail email@example.com