How do you be the church in an ever-changing religious climate? That difficult and intensely personal question, posed to a United Church of Christ congregation in West Medford, Mass., is the focus of a story, "In Search of Sanctuary," published by The Boston Globe. Staff writer Lisa Wangsness was given the latitude to spend more than two years observing and interviewing the pastor and the people of Sanctuary UCC. The short answer: Transformation is hard.
"My editors believe in the importance of serious narrative journalism. They understand that it takes time to do it well," said Wangsness. "I think they saw that the Sanctuary story had the potential to be an absorbing human drama as well as a reflection on much larger phenomena in our society -- including institutional disruption, secularization, and the struggle to preserve community amid rapid change."
"The story lifts up the first important step for UCC churches – a reality check, a good hard look in the mirror at self and the changes in the communities around us," said the Rev. Wendy Vander Hart, associate conference minister of the Mass. Conference, UCC. She worked with Wangsness, introducing the writer to the members of the former Congregational Church of West Medford.
"The walk of the faithful, it also represents the 'two steps forward, one step backwards' nature of getting clear about and living into the 'why' of the church's existence in these days," said Vander Hart. "We can no longer take the 'why' for granted."
That is very evident in New England, where the United Church of Christ has its roots.
"In New England, Congregational churches are fixtures of not only the religious landscape, but of our physical and historic landscapes as well," Wangsness continued. "So I think many New Englanders feel some connection to them even if they have different religious affiliations -- or, for that matter, none at all. At the same time, I think there are faith communities from across the religious spectrum that can relate to the plight of the Congregational Church of West Medford -- particularly in New England, a region of the country where the drift away from formal religious affiliation seems especially pronounced."
Wangsness' story underscores both the pain and triumphs that emerge when churches take risks. "Taking back the spaces that the church has given up," as Sanctuary pastor the Rev. Wendy Miller Olapade has said, is a process of learning to live their faith differently. But just as important, say denominational leaders, the UCC has your back. Resources are available to help ease the struggles of trying to be the church in a whole new way.
The Crossroads /New Beginnings Assessment Service, mentioned in The Globe article, helped the New Medford congregation plot its new course. The 6-to-8-month process of assessment and discernment guides floundering churches that are stuck in their ministry as they make a bold decision about their future.
"The depiction is spot on – that is for a church that decided to move forward boldly," said Vander Hart. "It is all there – the tenderness, the angst, the compassion, the passive aggressive behavior, the asking good questions, the looking for quick fixes, the trial, the error, the mistakes, the forgiveness, the death, the hope. Our churches have humans in them! Finally, it illustrates the bravery required to step into God's future particularly when the way forward is misty."
If a church decides on rebirth, there is also financial help, like the $80,000 grant to Sanctuary UCC through the New and Renewing Church Fund.
"Churches taking risks for the sake of the gospel can look for support from the New and Renewing grant program," said the Rev. Chris Davies, who serves as the Coordinator of Congregational Assessment Support and Advancement (CASA). "We help congregations step out of 'the way we've always done it' to' we are living in a world of constant change'. The program is available for existing congregations who want to do something bold and new like Sanctuary UCC, who did the work of looking inward at their congregation and at the community surrounding and making a decision to move locations and better serve God's purpose for them."
"The power of the United Church of Christ is not our congregationalism - it is our collective," said Vander Hart, in her latest blog. "We can take some bold steps because we are held in a net of covenant that will not let us falter."