The United Church of Christ Board met via videoconference March 27 for the first time ever, addressing familiar business – General Synod preparations, strategic planning, financial forecasts – but also leaning into the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and a coordinated UCC response.
The semi-yearly board meeting and its preparatory March 26 committee sessions had been planned as in-person meetings to be held in Cleveland. They were moved online for the safety of board members from around the country, to comply with U.S. Centers for Disease Control coronavirus guidelines and recommendations from Ohio and federal officials that sizes of gatherings be limited.
Some 50 Board and staff members from Maine to Hawaii logged into the video platform Zoom for the five-hour plenary on March 27. Among the leaders acknowledging the gravity of the pandemic was the Rev. John Dorhauer, general minister and president.
"When this ends, there will plenty to grieve," Dorhauer said of the pandemic. "When this ends, there will be plenty to celebrate."
As for grief, Dorhauer said, "With each day in our own contexts we see the numbers of cases and the number of deaths going up considerably and exponentially." He noted funerals are unable to be held for who have died, whether from COVID-19 or not, "which only compounds the grief and makes it all the more difficult for people to process and come to a sense of closure." Another kind of grief will arrive, he said, when, "come Easter, our churches are not going to be able to gather in the sanctuary."
Things to celebrate, he said, are not limited to how UCC churches are responding to the crisis with "acts of kindness and compassion that stir the heart." He noted the advantages some churches are discovering in worship via the Internet, with some "getting more people showing up in their online service than they would ever get in their sanctuary."
Dorhauer said he hoped that, "when this ends, the church doesn't just wipe its brow and say, 'We did what we had to do to get through COVID, thank God that's behind us, now let's go back to be being the church.' I really hope and pray that what we're discovering is a new way to be the church, not to replace what has been, but a both-and."
In several reports, the Board heard how various settings of the church are reckoning with the pandemic's financial impact – starting with local churches. Congregations vary in their preparedness to receive gifts digitally and many will see a decrease in member offerings, at least temporarily, while they are not gathering in person.
A team being formed by the Council of Conference Ministers is taking on the task of developing a UCC-wide response strategy to address such financial issues. Reporting for the council to the UCC Board, the Rev. Carrie Call of the Penn Central Conference said a virtual "situation room" is being formed, including national officers and executives of the UCC's financial ministries. Together, leaders from various settings of the church will try to answer questions such as:
- Who is most vulnerable?
- What do local churches need most?
- What needs and changes do we foresee in next 18 to 24 months?
- How do we envision what support for local churches might look like?
- How to talk about needs and changes of Conferences in the next 18 to 24 months?
In other business, the board:
- Learned that Justice and Local Church Ministries plans to host churchwide Zoom videoconferences every Thursday, starting April 2, with up to 1,000 participants. The first will be a call to prayer, said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister for JLCM. The second will focus on mental health.
- Passed a resolution submitted by the Hawaii Conference, marking the 200th anniversary of the arrival in Hawaii – in April 1820 – of missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a Congregationalist predecessor of the UCC's Wider Church Ministries.
- Received a progress report on a 2013 General Synod resolution calling for strategies to address the debt burden faced by seminary graduates. Dorhauer and Brian Bodager, CEO of The Pension Boards, reported they had signed a "document of collaboration" under which the pension agency aims to raise $3 million for that purpose. Bodager said the effort will become part of the Ministers' Financial Vitality Initiative, with the intention of making grants available to hundreds of clergy who participate in collaboration with their congregations.
- Took up matters related to the denomination's General Synod, including a "behavioral covenant" for the exhibit hall, possible modifications to how resolutions are handled and a 2021 theme and logo. (See related story.)