The collaborative spirit of church leaders from around the country who gathered in New Orleans last week helped bring the United Church of Christ’s conference staff and national staff to common goals at the Authorizing Ministry in the 21st Century Event (AM21).
The Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Ministry Team of the UCC hosted the week-long gathering Dec. 4-7. This was the first year for the new format for AM21, formerly known as Search and Call.
The goal of the program — to bring conference and denominational staff together to raise questions and seek common solutions to best support Authorized Ministers and Committees on Ministry in the UCC.
"Conference staff and MESA staff feel more connected with each other, and we had a glimpse of future possibilities," said the Rev. Holly MillerShank, the MESA team leader. "And I think we have a renewed commitment to this work."
Three elements shaped the work at AM21: Prayer and worship, reflection groups, and facilitated conversations. Conference and national staff worked together during the week to raise questions, and answer them as best as they could, on Authorized Ministers and Committees in the UCC. The reconfigured MESA team, which welcomed three new members in September, hosted conversations led by pairs of conference and national staff leaders on four different topics: Formation and Authorization, Post-Authorization, Search and Call, and Relationships of Committees on Ministry to Local Congregations.
There were more attendees at the 2012 gathering than in 2010, and about 70 percent of the people at AM21 were church leaders. But MillerShank said her key indicator of the event’s success was the feedback she received from attendees.
"The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and beyond our expectations," MillerShank said. "It was the embodiment of postmodern ministry, and highly utilized social media."
An ecumenical delegation, including partners from the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Canada, and optional immersion experiences in New Orleans and Back Bay Mission at the close of the gathering were the other new aspects for AM21. The biennial gathering was re-envisioned by a planning team of conference and national staff in response to meeting the needs of the 38 conferences throughout the UCC.
As an example of Christ's constant presence in our midst, congregation members from First Reformed UCC in Greensburg, Pa., are taking paper cutouts of Jesus with them on vacations, volunteer work and to worship at UCC events.
"'Flat Jesus' is a reminder that we need Jesus' presence with us everywhere we go," said Pastor Steve Craft. A range of the congregation's kids, from preschoolers to teenagers, have taken Flat Jesus with them while traveling this summer as a visible expression of their faith. There are also some retirees who have taken Flat Jesus with them on a disaster relief trip to North Dakota.
Flat Jesus, a spin-off of another paper cut-out character, depicts an excited Christ with his arms outstretched that kids can color, carry with them, and take pictures with. First Reformed UCC created the first Flat Jesus cut-outs four years ago, Craft said.
"We created a cutout of Jesus and gave every child one for the summer. You color it and laminate it, and in years past, they'd bring their summer vacation pictures back to share with the church," Kraft said. This year, Flat Jesus' adventures alongside a variety of families are showing up in pictures on a Facebook page the congregation created to quickly share those experiences.
The idea was inspired by Flat Stanley, Craft said. During the Flat Stanley Project, a literacy campaign that began in 1995, children cut out and color a paper Flat Stanley, then use a database to mail or email Stan and track where the cutout travels. Pictures of Flat Stanley and accompanying letters or emails circulate back to the starting destination.
Flat Jesus has been photographed in several locations around the country this year, with stops in West Virginia and Disney World in Florida in May, then Hershey Park in Pennsylvania and the UCC headquarters in Cleveland. From there, it was off to North Dakota for flood relief in June.
He went to the UCC's National Youth Event in early July at Purdue University in Indiana, ventured north for a trip to Alaska, and was recently spotted back in Pennsylvania at the Pittsburgh Steelers training camp.
The church also plans to continue using Flat Jesus through the end of the year.
"It was just supposed to be over the summer, and we were going to end it, but we're going to keep it going," said Valarie Poole, the church's director of education. "It's a great conversation starter. It's a great way to get church information out there in a different way, and it's not intimidating," she said. 'It's a different way to advertise what you're doing at your church."