Strengthen the Church offering supports congregations across the UCC in many ways
There are many ways to strengthen the church.
In the last year, investments in technology allowed many United Church of Christ congregations to enhance their online worship services.
Other funds enabled new and renewing churches to grow their communities, one in a gentrifying neighborhood, others on a college campus and a town square.
COVID-19 grants empowered 50 churches to better serve their neighbors and their congregants gathering virtually during the pandemic.
All of these ministries were supported through gifts to Strengthen the Church.
A life saved
“The (COVID) grant literally helped to save the life of one of our members,” said the Rev. Troy Sanders.
“During the pandemic it afforded us the opportunity to provide an online weekly therapy support group with licensed professionals to help our members cope with isolation, fear and other issues triggered by COVID-19 and other social/economic determinants of health.”
Because of those virtual check-ins, the Bishop-elect of Rehoboth Fellowship of Atlanta UCC said the team discovered that someone was suicidal and needed medical attention. The church support network connected that person to the help that saved a life.
Gifts to the Strengthen the Church offering, traditionally received on Pentecost Sunday, support leadership development, new churches, youth ministry, and innovation in existing congregations.
In 2020, $150,000 in STC funds provided COVID-19 relief.
Faith UCC in Washington, D.C., used its grant to buy computer equipment to enhance its virtual ministry. Adding new cameras, editing software and Zoom accounts also gave the church the ability to launch Tech Thursday sessions, so members could learn how to use the technology.
Food — and a marriage
New Covenant Community UCC in Baltimore used its grant to help pay worship staff and offer services online. It also kept a food distribution program going in the neighborhood.
“Without our help, the food program would have ended in early November,” said Pastor Brian Murray. “Families would have had a worse struggle feeding themselves through the rest of the year.”
Murray also noted that a couple living in two different cities grew their relationship in part through New Covenant’s shared weekly worship and Bible Study. Now the couple is getting married.
Supporting Indigenous students
Plymouth Church in Lawrence, Kansas, partnered with Haskell Indian Nations University to address student needs during the pandemic. Partially funded by a Strengthen the Church grant, the congregation supported the travel, rent and food needs of more than 50 Indigenous students in their community.
One Navajo student was helped getting home for the funerals of five family members, with an emergency flight and a place to quarantine. Others got rent assistance when the campus closed so they could finish up internships needed to graduate. Gift cards were distributed to cover student emergencies.
As Rev. Sara Taliaferro worked closely with university counselor Manny King to help specific students on the Haskell campus, she also built community.
“You have truly touched these student’s lives,” King wrote. “It is truly a blessing; thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Ten new and renewing church recipients
In addition to pandemic relief, Strengthen the Church gifts provided $200,000 in grants to 10 churches in 2021, part of a group of 14 that also received New and Renewing Church funding in 2020 through the Faith Education, Innovation and Formation team of Justice and Local Church Ministries. The 10 are:
- Gilead Church, Chicago. Co-pastored by the Revs. Vince Amblin and Rebecca Anderson, worshipers gathered pre-pandemic to share stories in a community space on Chicago’s North Side. The church is now gathering Sunday evenings on Zoom.
- Campus Ministry in Champaign, Ill. It serves students at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Parkland College. The student-led campus ministry is housed at Community UCC.
- Cathedral in the Light, Greenfield, Mass. The Rev. Lance Humphrey helps guide a ministry that gathers outdoors on the town square to be accessible to all. Sunday service encompasses a community meal.
- Touchstone Community Church, UCC. This new church start in Boerne, Tex., near San Antonio, is pastored by the Rev. Billie Watts and Rev. Kerry Kirtley, who left other denominations to birth this church in June 2019 to serve all people.
- The Oasis UCC, Jefferson City, Mo., is pastored by the Rev. Rushan Sinnaduray.
- Taos United Community Church is a new church in New Mexico under the leadership of the Rev. Pamela Shepard.
- First Congregational Church, New London, Conn., is a 400-year-old congregation co-pastored by the Rev. Sara Ofner-Seals and the Rev. Catherine Zall. The grant helps fund the church’s urban outreach program.
- Pilgrim Congregational Church, UCC. Serving in the heart of St. Louis, Miss., for 150 years, it is being reborn under the leadership of the Rev. James Ross II.
- Ministerio Latino, an Open and Affirming, Spanish-speaking congregation led by the Rev. Rhina Ramos, is housed at Plymouth United Church of Christ in Oakland, Calif.
- The Center for Sustainable Justice at Lyndale UCC in Minneapolis, led by the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, was created in 2015 to bring religious leaders and communities together to work on racial, pro-LGBT, food and environmental justice.
Ministry issues; youth programs
The offering also helps programs at the national setting.
“In 2020, this allowed us to shift from in-person to digital training of Committees on Ministry and Conference staff, and supported our best-attended AM21 gathering,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Dilley, team leader of JLCM’s Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization team.
Authorizing Ministry for the 21st Century brings together Conference staff, seminary presidents, deans/directors of regional theological educational programs, with leaders of affiliated ministries and Committee on Ministry chairs for a several-day intensive.
“The group explores issues of ministry in both theologically reflective and practical ways,” Dilley said. “This biennial event was held digitally in 2020, allowing for our best-attended meeting!”
Funds from Strengthen the Church will also help support the two programs for Youth and Youth Adults at General Synod in July.
Tools for making the ask
Many congregations will take the offering on May 23. Resources, a sermon from General Minister and President John Dorhauer, and a call to the offering from Associate General Minister Traci Blackmon are available for download.
“The Strengthen the Church offering reflects the shared commitment of people across the United Church of Christ to cooperatively build up each other,” said the Rev. Andrew Warner, UCC generosity officer. “As parents, my husband and I worked to ensure our children grew up in a strong congregation. We gave and volunteered to our local church. Our children benefited from a congregation that loved them. Now my children are grown and live in other cities. As a family we give to Strengthen the Church because we want there to be strong churches where ever we go.”
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