To some, they're the answer to a thirsty congregation's prayers. To others, they too often turn out to be self-serving opportunists who lead their flocks into a hostile wilderness. They are pastors, ordained in other denominations, who accept calls to lead local congregations of the United Church of Christ.
But some of them also might be key players in a seemingly never-ending drain of members out of the denomination, which, like all of the other mainline denominations, has suffered losses every year for nearly 30 years.
Theories stem from new UCC data on the 172 congregations (about 2.5 percent of the total) that have left the UCC since 1996. A surprising 79 percent of these churches were led by non-UCC pastors or reported no pastor at all. Only one in five (21 percent) had a UCC-ordained pastor at the time. More than one in three (35 percent) had a pastor ordained in another denomination. The rest (44 percent) had "no reported leadership," meaning they either had no pastor at the time or already had such loose ties to the UCC that they filed no information.
Go slow with data
Attempting to make sense of this "non-UCC pastor factor" can lead to some thorny terrain. For decades the UCC has championed ecumenical projects to share ordained ministries among various denominations. To suggest that non-UCC pastors have become a "foreigner-in-our-ranks" problem or an unwelcome group could cut against the church's long-term vision for ecumenism.
Wary of implications, researchers urge caution when interpreting the data.
"We can't say there's a causal relationship between calling a non-UCC pastor and church withdrawal" from the denomination, says Sheila Kelly, Minister for Research Information and Services in the UCC national office. "It could very well work the other way, with churches unhappy with the denomination intentionally calling non-UCC pastors as one step in distancing themselves from the UCC."
Two schools of thought
As data beg explanation, two schools of analytical thought emerge within the UCC.
The first says congregations must beware of a breed of charismatic pastors who have entrepreneurial designs to make local churches independent of the denomination. The second says non-UCC pastors have merely become fall guys for a denomination that makes life difficult for evangelical pastors and thereby alienates evangelically-minded congregations.
In 1999, First Congregational UCC of West Brookfield, Mass., called Assembly of God pastor the Rev. Harry Staiti to lead them. Staiti got the job, according to interim pastor the Rev. Patricia Glore, because "they were so anxious to get somebody in place." But although the church didn't end up leaving the denomination, she says Staiti seemed to have such a departure in mind.
"I think he thought he had an opportunity to lead them out [of the UCC] and they would follow anywhere he would lead them," says Glore. "They forgot who they were for a while, no doubt about it."
But Staiti tells a different story—one of being shunned by the local UCC.
"I accepted after nine months that we were on our own here," Staiti says. "I had seen the UCC as a place that celebrates diversity and everyone can be included. But I got the impression that evangelicals are not included." Nevertheless, he adds, "I had no intention of taking the congregation out of the UCC."
During his one year there, Staiti says, average worship attendance swelled from 30 to 175. Yet the old guard of the church bristled at his style, which, he says, included asking worshipers to open their Bibles during sermons and asserting that salvation comes only through faith in Jesus Christ.
In February 2000, he says, a disgruntled faction voted him out. He now pastors a storefront church, wedged between a deli and a Chinese restaurant in an East Brookfield strip mall.
Feeling unwelcome is sadly common for non-UCC evangelical pastors serving UCC churches, according to the Rev. David Runnion-Bareford, Executive Director of the Biblical Witness Fellowship. His organization has requests from 40 to 60 UCC congregations seeking evangelical pastors at any given time, he says, and must often look beyond what he sees as a liberal-heavy pool of UCC candidates to satisfy demand.
"Once they become more accepted, they'll become more loyal," Runnion-Bareford says, referring to non-UCC, evangelical pastors. Meanwhile, he says, "we need to re-examine our denomination's commitment to diversity and whether it would be willing to embrace more evangelical viewpoints."
Already on slippery slope
One such church seeking an evangelical pastor was First Congregational UCC in Clinton, Mass.The church already had stopped sending delegates to denominational meetings when the Rev. Grif Vautier, a Presbyterian, became pastor more than eight years ago.
When the congregation voted this fall to withdraw, it cited as final straws the denomination's liberal interpretations of scripture and its scholarship fund for gay and lesbian persons to attend seminary.
"We didn't feel we could stand behind the [UCC] organization," said Jill Wong, co-chair of the search committee to replace Vautier. "The decision to leave the UCC was a membership decision and was not influenced by the ministers at all."
Others suspect pastors might sometimes have a lot of influence and must be aware of it—especially in an age when shared leadership across denominations is coupled with diminishing denominational identity.
"We in the UCC say we pastors have only one vote," says the Rev. Patricia Smith, moderator of the Massachusetts Central Association that saw two of its congregations leave the UCC in autumn 2001. "That's silly. We have a lot of influence. My congregation is coming along now to embrace the UCC, and I know it's because of my influence."
Clear pattern confirmed
Ron Buford, UCC Public Relations and Marketing Manager, agrees with Smith. Buford often handles calls from members whose congregations are in the process of leaving the UCC.
"This new data confirms a clear pattern I see among those callers," says Buford. "Here's the typical profile: The church calls a pastor who has never embraced UCC values; long-standing UCC members get alienated—they stop coming and some leave; a new congregation emerges as new people come and the balance shifts; people call me, desperately trying to hold on to their congregation, but it's too late."
Buford continues, "We have many great non-UCC pastors. However, church and ministry committees must identify those who do not come in good faith. These entrepreneurial types, less common among mainline clergy, come instead with an eye toward doing something they never could have done in the denomination they left—take a church out of the denomination, building, endowment and all."
Denominational ties crucial
Lack of commitment to one another ensures some pastors and congregations remain on the denomination's fringe, according to Ohio Conference Minister the Rev. Ralph Quellhorst. He says 40 Ohio congregations have left the UCC in the last 10 years. In his estimation, 90 percent of the congregations that fled the UCC had non-UCC pastors at the time.
"The pastor says, 'You don't have to stay in the UCC,'" Quellhorst says. "The pastor doesn't work to help them learn more about the UCC." Meanwhile, he says, UCC pastors too often regard their evangelical, non-UCC pastors as "second-class citizens" who "don't feel they're allowed very far into the fellowship."
"When you had a strong denominational loyalty, you could work it out," Quellhorst says, adding that those days are gone.
One facet of that UCC identity and loyalty is a prophetic vision, according to Buford, which comes, he says,when God reveals a new way to see an old situation.
"The new growth data suggests that the people will embrace a prophetic vision when strong and committed pastors boldly proclaim it," he says. "Prophetic vision is often unpopular. If the pastor does not believe it, the people will be cast adrift."
In the end, the correlation between non-UCC pastors and congregational departures might point to two or more solutions.
The BWF's Runnion-Bareford says the onus is on the denomination as a whole to "examine whether it values diversity or conformity" in a time when clergy shortages require creative solutions.
The Rev. Richard Sparrow, Search and Call Coordinator in the UCC's Parish Life and Leadership Ministry, disagrees. "The onus is on churches," he says, to know their history of commitment to "outreach, ecumenism and justice" through the United Church of Christ and therefore retain close covenantal ties.
"The issue is not just non-UCC pastors," he says. "Too often churches' ties are already loosening and they're on a slippery slope. Then they are vulnerable to a charismatic type pastor, who might already be in trouble with his or her own denomination."
One thing seems clear: if the pastor strongly identifies with the denomination, then the congregation probably will, too. What's not so clear is which comes first.
The Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald is pastor of Union Congregational UCC in Amesbury, Mass., and a free-lance journalist, regularly contributing to Religion News Service.