John Thomas: Nomination Acceptance Speech

Six years ago in Providence, Paul Sherry told the original five members of the Collegium that “we would have the enormous privilege of leading the United Church of Christ into the twenty-first century.”

The privilege has indeed been enormous. I have had the opportunity to visit local churches across this land and be inspired by pastors and lay leaders who embody the extravagant welcome and evangelical courage that has been and must be the distinctive vocation of this church. I have led clergy retreats, been present in countless conference and association gatherings, taught seminarians, visited our health and welfare institutions and our colleges, and represented our church in important ecumenical settings. I’ve visited American Samoa, Colombia, China, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Puerto Rico and Vieques, our Native American churches in the Dakotas, Ghana, and India, learning from our partners and offering the encouragement and support of the United Church of Christ. I’ve experienced the ministry of the church and the mission of God in ways few can. It has been an enormous privilege.

I’ve had the privilege of helping shape our new structure, a demanding task yet one we believe we have done faithfully and well. I’ve given special attention to nurturing relationships with the Conference Ministers and the Seminary presidents and have cherished the privilege of working with these fine colleagues. I’ve had the privilege of being part of The Stillspeaking Initiative, guiding, encouraging, and sometimes just trying to be smart enough to stay out of the way of a movement that is renewing our life together. I’ve met with hundreds of UCC members in small gatherings as part of our growing financial development ministry, expressing gratitude for generosity while calling for even greater generosity in the future.

The privilege I’ve treasured the most has been teaching the faith of the church as a preacher, lecturer, and writer, interpreting the unique traditions, stories, and vocation of the United Church of Christ, articulating the distinctive identity of this beloved church, and naming the challenging justice commitments of the United Church of Christ. In all of this I have been touched by the profound gratitude of many in this church and beyond for whom we are an often surprising and life giving sign of grace and hope.

Yes, it has been an enormous privilege. Paul told us the truth. But Paul didn’t tell us the whole truth. For it’s also been an odd privilege, even an unwelcome privilege. The institutional demands of leadership during this time of financial challenge have been daunting, and they have required making painful decisions affecting people I care deeply about. Our inability to align governance expectations in the new structure with the limits of our polity has meant that frustration has often overshadowed the work of the Executive Council and some of the Boards. Questions still swirl around the role of the GMP in the church, and no one seems to be able to get my title right. The best blooper, printed in a Sunday bulletin, was “President and General Manager!” I wish.

The need to make decisions for the sake of the health of our mission, especially in these past two years, has placed me in the position of saying painfully hard words to friends and colleagues, in some cases damaging cherished relationships perhaps irreparably. The enormous privileges have lured me away from appropriate time and care for myself and for my family, leaving me with very real regrets. Resistance to our church’s justice vocation has sometimes engendered cruel hostility and meanspirited attacks. There are those in the church who sometimes go beyond legitimate criticism, questioning both integrity and intent. I have found myself facing angry United Church of Christ members whose words and behavior fall far short of our covenants, and whose notion of the Gospel is, at best, constrained. I feel these wounds and wouldn’t want it any other way; leaders in the church don’t need a thick skin, they need a centered spirit. God has given me such a spirit, but it is often hard. And there have been times when the oughts and the shoulds and the duties of this office have deterred me from following the deepest desires of my heart. Yes, it’s an odd privilege, at times an unwelcome privilege.

If you elect me to a third and final term, I will, in the eyes of the world, begin the life of a lame duck or, as Dale Bishop famously put it, given the nature of our church’s membership and commitments, a “lamé duck!” But four years does provide ample time to use the privilege of this office, particularly as we move toward and through the fiftieth anniversary of the United Church of Christ. Today I make these commitments to you:

– I will use this privilege to continue to help us extend, fund, and harvest the gifts of The Stillspeaking Initiative as a renewal movement for the United Church of Christ that understands extravagant welcome and evangelical courage to be central to its life.

– I will use this privilege to encourage a revived commitment to evangelism and to urge us to claim the surprising opportunities for church development identified in the response to our Advent and Lenten commercials.

– I will use this privilege to call our church toward faithful generosity and, yes, to the goal I set two years ago of seeing total giving to the ministries of the whole United Church of Christ reach $1 billion by 2007.

– I will use this privilege to respond to the call of our global partners, to challenge our government and its allies, as well as the global economic institutions we control, to address the poverty that robs the majority of the world of the promise of abundant life, including urging the leaders of the G-8 to implement the Millenium Development Goals.

– I will use this privilege to sound an urgent call to stop the war in Iraq, an unholy war of deceptions and shame, a war that continues to destroy, demean and abuse. This week’s statement which I drafted and signed along with several of my national ecumenical colleagues, and which has been endorsed by over ten thousand people, issues a strong challenge to this dishonorable war where so many honorable men and women have died. We are in danger of losing our soul to a global imperialism and a domestic greed that is nothing short of idolatrous. Some days I fear it may be too late.

– I will use this privilege to continue to call this church to theological integrity and to liturgical excellence, for without either of these our welcome will grow self-congratulatory and our courage will wane. Worshipping Into God’s Future and The Living Theological Heritage series will be highlighted at this Synod. Each embodies a crucial element of our future vitality.

Six years ago Paul presented me with a stole that originally belonged to Bob Moss. It was a reminder that this privilege does not really belong to me. It is not my possession; it is on loan. No later than four years from this September I will hand it over to another. I hope I have worn it in a way that honors those who have gone before me, and that I will be able to hand it over to someone who will find new and creative ways to exercise this privilege.

Ultimately, it is the privilege to bless. Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Gilead and member of our church in Iowa City, has her narrator, the Rev. John Ames, speak about the joy of touching another creature with “the pure intention of blessing,” not “enhancing sacredness, but acknowledging it.” He then says of ordained ministry that, while “you don’t have to be a minister to confer blessing, you are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position.” Regardless of how odd or unwelcome, this office has often placed me in the position of blessing, of acknowledging sacredness in our church and in our world. That has been and continues to be an enormous privilege. Thank you.

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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