The Southern Baptist Convention, with some 16.2 million members on the books, claims to be the nation's largest Protestant denomination. But the Rev. Thomas Ascol believes the active membership is really a fraction of that. Ascol, pastor of the 230-member Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., points to a church report showing that only 6 million Southern Baptists attend church on an average Sunday.
"The reality is, the FBI couldn't find half of those (members) if they had to," said Ascol, who asserts his own congregation attendance swells to at least 350 every Sunday. Ascol is urging his denomination to call for "integrity in the way we regard our membership rolls in our churches and also in the way we report statistics."
For religious organizations, membership figures are a lot like a position on the annual list of best colleges. A rise is trumpeted as a sign of vitality, strength and clout. And a drop probably means somebody somewhere checked the wrong box on some unimportant survey.
Vast differences in theology and accounting practices make it nearly impossible to really know how many members a church body has, whether active or occasional worshippers.
That, in turn, makes side-by-side comparisons nearly impossible.
"Church membership is not as straightforward as it seems," said the Rev. Eileen Lindner, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches. "It's not like, who's a member of Costco?"
Lindner, a Presbyterian, produces the NCC's annual Yearbook of Canadian and American Churches, which is widely seen as an authoritative source for church membership statistics. But even she knows there are limits.
"A person who attends the Church of God in Christ on Wednesday evening and an (African Methodist Episcopal) service on Sunday morning will likely be included in both counts," the 2007 Yearbook cautions.
Here's a quick look at some of the factors that go into collecting church membership statistics, and why they can be so problematic:
"Numbers are only as reliable as the church officials who collect them. "For some, very careful counts are made of members," the 2007 Yearbook says. "Other groups only make estimates."
For example, the National Baptist Convention of America Inc., a historically black denomination, has reported a steady 3.5 million members since 2000 — no additions, no deletions.
The National Missionary Baptist Convention's numbers have been frozen at 2.5 million since 1992.
Dale Jones, chairman of the 2000 Religious Congregations and Membership Study, which draws from 149 religious groups, said statisticians are wary of membership numbers ending in several zeros, though he declined to cite examples.
"There are groups that we just question, 'Where did they come up with those figures?'" he said.
Often a church's understanding of membership — how it is started, how it is maintained and how it can be revoked — influences counts.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), with 13 million members worldwide, is often reported to be one of the "fastest-growing" churches in the United States. Mormons start enrolling children as members through baptism at age 8. Members stay on the rolls — even if they move to another church — unless they ask to be removed or are excommunicated.
"Baptism is a sacred covenant. We believe it has eternal consequences," spokeswoman Kim Farah said. "Baptism is a very sacred thing, and it's a very personal thing, and far be it for us to take someone off the church membership except if they have asked."
Ascol, the Southern Baptist, takes issue with some churches that enroll people after they answer an altar call and commit themselves to following Jesus. He says it's a superficial means of joining the church and requires no real commitment. Even after those members disappear, the denomination counts them, he said.
"Just because you call yourself Southern Baptist doesn't make you Christian. Just because you go to church doesn't make you Christian," he said. "Our desire is to see people born again. Church membership and the Baptist understanding of that is a covenanted relationship."
Roman Catholics, the largest U.S. church with a reported 69 million members, start counting baptized infants as members and often don't remove people until they die. Most membership surveys don't actually count who's in the pews on Sunday.
To be disenrolled, Catholics must write a bishop to ask that their baptisms be revoked, said Mary Gautier, senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a research center affiliated with Georgetown University.
That means it is possible, for example, to be born Catholic, married Methodist, die Lutheran and still be listed as a member of the 1-billion-member Roman Catholic Church.
"The Catholic understanding of membership is that a person becomes a member upon baptism and remains a member for life," Gautier said. "Whether you show up at church or not is not what determines whether you're a member."
Mainline Protestant churches — the UCC, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others — are roundly criticized for hemorrhaging members for 40 years. And while membership has surely dropped, mainline churches are often the first to cleanse their rolls of the inactive to produce a more accurate figure.
The 15 million-member Seventh-Day Adventists, for example, saw their U.S. numbers drop in recent years in part because a church audit found duplicates on membership rolls, said Kathleen Jones, an assistant for general statistics for the denomination. Those duplicates are being purged.
Often, new pastors want up-to-date numbers because they don't want to be blamed for any drops, said Lindner of the NCC. And some denominations assess fees to congregations based on membership, so the smaller the numbers, the smaller the fees.
When asked about voting habits, belief in God or their feelings toward race or gender, Americans are notorious for answering what they think pollsters want to hear. Church demographers say the same rings true for church attendance.
Some studies show more Americans consider themselves Southern Baptist than are accounted for by the denomination's own numbers, said Roger Finke, director of the Association of Religion Data Archives at Penn State.
The same is true of Catholics and Presbyterians, Finke said. And while an estimated 53 percent of Americans consider themselves Protestant, "surveys of denominational membership find that only 35 percent (of the general population) are estimated to be members of a local congregation," he said.
"Many people who are not members of a local church still view themselves as being Protestant, Catholic or some other religion, even though they're not actively involved in a church."
Apples to oranges?
While the UCC prides itself on accurate membership data, the church's institutional honesty often leads to attacks by critics. Here's evidence that counting doesn't always add up.
UCC churches report annually on membership additions (confessions of faith, reaffirmations, transfers in) and deletions (death or transfer out). Most do not include children in their membership tallies until after they are confi rmed, and most periodically cleanse their rolls of inactive members, especially when a new pastor arrives.
The Roman Catholic Church reports all who have been baptized in the Catholic faith, from infancy to death. In order to be excluded from the count, lapsed Catholics must write a letter to a bishop requesting their membership be revoked.
Because it insists that baptism is eternal, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints never weeds out members from its tally. The Mormon faith only removes those the church has officially excommunicated or those who specifically request termination.
Some church bodies have used the same membership totals for years. The National Baptist Convention has reported its total at 3.5 million since 2000. The National Missionary Baptist Convention's 2.5 million count has not been revised up or down since 1992.
'To comfort the wounded and bereaved is a tremendous privilege'
The Rev. John Gundlach, a retired Navy Chaplain of 27 years, now serves as the UCC's minister for government chaplaincy. He ministers to the many men and women who are serving the U.S. military as chaplains and their spouses.
"The challenges to our chaplains and their families today are many," he says. "We have had quite a few of our chaplains serve in Iraq — Air Force, Army and Navy chaplains, active duty, reserve and National Guard. They have to be away from their families during deployments for a year to 15 months at a time. This is hard on marriages and families, and requires a period of readjustment even for the strongest relationships."
Gundlach adds that many chaplains who have served in Iraq have returned with symptoms of post traumatic stress. That's why he especially wants to thank UCC clergy who serve as chaplains in the Department of Veterans
"They minister in a myriad of ways to our returning veterans," he says. "They care for those who have been wounded by the horrors of war — those with physical wounds like traumatic brain injuries and amputations, with those who are mentally and spiritually bereft, and those suffering from [post traumatic stress] and a variety of addictions."
"In spite of the cost, there are joys in this ministry," says Gundlach. "Being in there with others in some of the most extreme circumstances any person can endure, and helping to remind them of their humanity as well as the humanity of the enemy, being there to offer the assurance of God's grace, to comfort the wounded and the bereaved, is a tremendous privilege. It's a mantle that few clergy are willing or able to take up, but for our clergy who are called to be military chaplains, it is truly a high calling."
Letters from our UCC military chaplains:
Editor's note: In a two-part series called 'Letters from chaplains,' United Church News has compiled reflections on their ministries from several UCC clergy who serve as military chaplains — at U.S. military bases and hospitals, as well as on foreign deployment. More 'letters from chaplains' will appear in our July-August issue.
The Rev. Rob Heckathorne, a local parish minister and son of a retired-reservist, didn't enter the Navy as a chaplain until July 2001, "at the ripe age of 46." Before that, he served local parishes in both Presbyterian and UCC churches, while volunteering with the Civil Air Patrol, the official auxiliary to the U.S. Air Force. Currently, he is the only UCC chaplain serving on active duty with the United States Coast Guard.
I strongly believe that God places his faithful where Christ's ministry can be realized. Though significantly older than the sailors whom I have counseled and loved (in most cases twice their age), my life experiences, my longevity in the parish, being a parent of similarly aged children, has proved to help me provide more effective ministry.
Ministry among the Coast Guard is unique to the other services in many regards. The Coast Guard's role is a multi-tasked maritime service with eclectic responsibilities from safeguarding fish hatcheries and environmental protection, to providing port security, to lifesaving missions. The diversity of its mission can change each day. During my tour I have had the blessing and opportunity to help in responding to a devastating tsunami and four major hurricanes. In each of these I have witnessed the exceptional integration of our military services with our civilian communities. And similarly have witnessed the collegiality of chaplains from diverse traditions melding seamlessly in an effort to meet the ministry needs of the service personnel and often the civilian communities.
I often wrestle with the concept of how and where can I meet a particular person where he or she might be in their journey of who God is to him or her. At the same time I realize that for many young people with whom I connect, I am of the very first Minister of the Word and Sacrament that they have ever met. That is a great responsibility and opportunity.
The Rev. David C. Nutt, a chaplain in the Connecticut Army National Guard since 1999 and its full-time state support chaplain since August 2005, was called into active duty out of Waterbury, Conn., in June 2006. Nutt is moved by the support from the UCC's Local Church Ministries and local UCC churches.
The high points [of this ministry] come when a soldier 'gets it' that he or she can actually rely on Jesus Christ to help carry their burden when it gets to heavy. I know that sounds trite, but it is true.
I wish the media, in all its hype, would do a better job in explaining that there is a huge difference between the three R's (reunion, readjustment, and reentry) and post traumatic stress disorder. Moreover, what part about that it being forever don't they understand? You might not even experience it until you hit a trigger years later. And the 'cure' is learning how to deal with it, how to turn off the bad movies in your head. It's like grief. It's not cured — you just get better at dealing with it and it doesn't hurt as much.
All of this has not caused me to wrestle with my faith at all, but pushed me to rely on God more and more. Too often as pastors we are prone to dip into hyper intellectual Jesus psycho-babble when all we have to do is merely arrange the meeting between Christ and his estranged children.
The Rev. B.J. Myers-Bradley works at the Louis Stokes Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Brecksville, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. He specializes in substance abuse, gambling addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. He has served churches in the UCC's Florida and Indiana-Kentucky Conferences.
Being an instrument in the healing of past scars is a joy. Many veterans come into the VA seeking to become whole. The consequences of war, abandonment by family and friends, and the disappointment of failed expectations have resulted in self-destruction. God is viewed as either part of the abandonment, or clung to so closely that the veteran alienates him/herself from others. Joy comes from experiencing the transformation of a veteran forgiving the past, and expanding a concept of spirituality that does not push others away. Empowering healing by presenting an accepting and forgiving God that is larger than past stereotypes and viewing transformed lives because of the interplay between spirituality and counseling fulfills me.
I understand my role as chaplain as not providing explanations, but to empower questions and hope. Chaplain Mahedy, a retired VA chaplain, addressed the hope intrinsic within the dark night of the soul when he states: 'Easter occurred at night, not during the day.'
The Rev. Daniel M. Parker, is a chaplain colonel with the U.S. Army at the Fort Leonard Wood (Missouri) Installation.
I'm the kind of person who likes to get out and about — where the troops are, because I want to be with them, hear their stories, listen to their concerns, laugh with them, pray with them, hold worship wherever they are and help them in their pilgrimage as the multitude of others have for me, especially my God.
The high point of working with these dedicated women and men, brings me to reevaluate my own faith commitment. I've never worked harder than in this assignment, but I've never in my wildest imagination worked as hard as these chaplain and chaplain assistant women and men are working. For most it is often a 14-hour work day. During the summer surge season (May - Sept.) each chaplain covers as many as 2,000 soldiers plus at least 100 cadre and staff. Surprisingly, they don't complain. But I see and hear their pain, their groans.
The Rev. Anton (Tony) Ciomperlik is a chaplain assigned to the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. A reserve, he was activated and deployed to Iraq in 2003. A member of Woodland UCC in Longview, Texas, he is currently on sabbatical from Good Shepherd Medical Center as director of pastoral care. He writes:
I spent a year in Tikrit, Iraq during 2003 and 2004 and ministered to over 700 soldiers who were experiencing combat. I worked very closely with a combat stress team to reduce the levels of trauma our soldiers were in. I believe that many of our soldiers were blessed and strengthened by our efforts.
My faith definition has changed since my return from Iraq. I define faith as believing in God for what I cannot provide for myself. Faith took me through many mortar attacks and fire fights that broke out in the middle of the night. I can remember one night in particular when an ambush took place in Tikrit. I slipped out of my bunk onto me knees and began to pray, knowing that my soldiers were on patrol that night and now they were in harm's way. The fight lasted for about and hour and the next day a couple of the soldiers came in and told me how they were ambushed and almost lost one of their soldiers. We talked about the power of prayer and God's protection for them and we prayed together.
Later that week, Matt, a military police officer came in to see me and I could tell he was very troubled. He teared up and told me he was outside at the front gate to our operating base directing traffic. During a time when a convoy was coming in, several Iraqi terrorist fired upon the convoy and one individual fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) at Matt and his humvee. The rocket bounced off his humvee and hit a 10-year-boy who was standing alongside the road across the street. The RPG did not explode but the blunt force trauma killed him anyway. Matt was devastated. He said to me that he was prepared to see grown men with guns die but not a small boy. I led Matt to Christ and baptized him a week later in the Tigris River.
It's great to be here. I've been speaking to a lot of churches recently, so it's nice to be speaking to one that's so familiar. I understand you switched venues at considerable expense and inconvenience because of unfair labor practices at the place you were going to be having this synod. Clearly, the past 50 years have not weakened your resolve as faithful witnesses of the gospel. And I'm glad to see that.
It's been several months now since I announced I was running for president. In that time, I've had the chance to talk with Americans all across this country. And I've found that no matter where I am, or who I'm talking to, there's a common theme that emerges. It's that folks are hungry for change – they're hungry for something new. They're ready to turn the page on the old politics and the old policies – whether it's the war in Iraq or the health care crisis we're in, or a school system that's leaving too many kids behind despite the slogans.
But I also get the sense that there's a hunger that's deeper than that – a hunger that goes beyond any single cause or issue. It seems to me that each day, thousands of Americans are going about their lives – dropping the kids off at school, driving to work, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets, trying to kick a cigarette habit – and they're coming to the realization that something is missing. They're deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough.
They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They're looking to relieve a chronic loneliness. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them – that they are not just destined to travel down that long road toward nothingness.
And this restlessness – this search for meaning – is familiar to me. I was not raised in a particularly religious household. My father, who I didn't know, returned to Kenya when I was just two. He was nominally a Muslim since there were a number of Muslims in the village where he was born. But by the time he was a young adult, he was an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was one of the most spiritual souls I ever knew. She had this enormous capacity for wonder, and lived by the Golden Rule. But she had a healthy skepticism of religion as an institution. And as a consequence, so did I.
It wasn't until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma. In a sense, what brought me to Chicago in the first place was a hunger for some sort of meaning in my life. I wanted to be part of something larger. I'd been inspired by the civil rights movement – by all the clear-eyed, straight-backed, courageous young people who'd boarded buses and traveled down South to march and sit at lunch counters, and lay down their lives in some cases for freedom. I was too young to be involved in that movement, but I felt I could play a small part in the continuing battle for justice by helping rebuild some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods.
So it's 1985, and I'm in Chicago, and I'm working with these churches, and with lots of laypeople who are much older than I am. And I found that I recognized in these folks a part of myself. I learned that everyone's got a sacred story when you take the time to listen. And I think they recognized a part of themselves in me too. They saw that I knew the Scriptures and that many of the values I held and that propelled me in my work were values they shared. But I think they also sensed that a part of me remained removed and detached – that I was an observer in their midst.
And slowly, I came to realize that something was missing as well – that without an anchor for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.
And it's around this time that some pastors I was working with came up to me and asked if I was a member of a church. "If you're organizing churches," they said, "it might be helpful if you went to church once in a while." And I thought, "Well, I guess that makes sense."
So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called "The Audacity of Hope." And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.
It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn't suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.
But my journey is part of a larger journey – one shared by all who've ever sought to apply the values of their faith to our society. It's a journey that takes us back to our nation's founding, when none other than a UCC church inspired the Boston Tea Party and helped bring an Empire to its knees. In the following century, men and women of faith waded into the battles over prison reform and temperance, public education and women's rights – and above all, abolition. And when the Civil War was fought and our country dedicated itself to a new birth of freedom, they took on the problems of an industrializing nation – fighting the crimes against society and the sins against God that they felt were being committed in our factories and in our slums.
And when these battles were overtaken by others and when the wars they opposed were waged and won, these faithful foot soldiers for justice kept marching. They stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the blows of billy clubs rained down. They held vigils across this country when four little girls were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church. They cheered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. King delivered his prayer for our country. And in all these ways, they helped make this country more decent and more just.
So doing the Lord's work is a thread that's run through our politics since the very beginning. And it puts the lie to the notion that the separation of church and state in America means faith should have no role in public life. Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural without its reference to "the judgments of the Lord." Or King's "I Have a Dream" speech without its reference to "all of God's children." Or President Kennedy's Inaugural without the words, "here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own." At each of these junctures, by summoning a higher truth and embracing a universal faith, our leaders inspired ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things.
But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked. Part of it's because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, who've been all too eager to exploit what divides us. At every opportunity, they've told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design. There was even a time when the Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich. I don't know what Bible they're reading, but it doesn't jibe with my version.
But I'm hopeful because I think there's an awakening taking place in America. People are coming together around a simple truth – that we are all connected, that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper. And that it's not enough to just believe this – we have to do our part to make it a reality. My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won't be fulfilling God's will unless I go out and do the Lord's work.
That's why pastors, friends of mine like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes and organizations like World Vision and Catholic Charities are wielding their enormous influence to confront poverty, HIV/AIDS, and the genocide in Darfur. Religious leaders like my friends Rev. Jim Wallis and Rabbi David Saperstein and Nathan Diament are working for justice and fighting for change. And all across the country, communities of faith are sponsoring day care programs, building senior centers, and in so many other ways, taking part in the project of American renewal.
Yet what we also understand is that our values should express themselves not just through our churches or synagogues, temples or mosques; they should express themselves through our government. Because whether it's poverty or racism, the uninsured or the unemployed, war or peace, the challenges we face today are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten-point plan. They are moral problems, rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness – in the imperfections of man.
And so long as we're not doing everything in our personal and collective power to solve them, we know the conscience of our nation cannot rest.
Our conscience can't rest so long as 37 million Americans are poor and forgotten by their leaders in Washington and by the media elites. We need to heed the biblical call to care for "the least of these" and lift the poor out of despair. That's why I've been fighting to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and the minimum wage. If you're working forty hours a week, you shouldn't be living in poverty. But we also know that government initiatives are not enough. Each of us in our own lives needs to do what we can to help the poor. And until we do, our conscience cannot rest.
Our conscience cannot rest so long as nearly 45 million Americans don't have health insurance and the millions more who do are going bankrupt trying to pay for it. I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term as president that will cover every American and cut the cost of a typical family's premiums by up to $2500 a year. That's not simply a matter of policy or ideology – it's a moral commitment.
And until we stop the genocide that's being carried out in Darfur as I speak, our conscience cannot rest. This is a problem that's brought together churches and synagogues and mosques and people of all faiths as part of a grassroots movement. Universities and states, including Illinois, are taking part in a divestment campaign to pressure the Sudanese government to stop the killings. It's not enough, but it's helping. And it's a testament to what we can achieve when good people with strong convictions stand up for their beliefs.
And we should close Guantanamo Bay and stop tolerating the torture of our enemies. Because it's not who we are. It's not consistent with our traditions of justice and fairness. And it offends our conscience.
But we also know our conscience cannot rest so long as the war goes on in Iraq. It's a war I'm proud I opposed from the start – a war that should never have been authorized and never been waged. I have a plan that would have already begun redeploying our troops with the goal of bringing all our combat brigades home by March 31st of next year. The President vetoed a similar plan, but he doesn't have the last word, and we're going to keep at it, until we bring this war to an end. Because the Iraq war is not just a security problem, it's a moral problem.
And there's another issue we must confront as well. Today there are 12 million undocumented immigrants in America, most of them working in our communities, attending our churches, and contributing to our country.
Now, as children of God, we believe in the worth and dignity of every human being; it doesn't matter where that person came from or what documents they have. We believe that everyone, everywhere should be loved, and given the chance to work, and raise a family.
But as Americans, we also know that this is a nation of laws, and we cannot have those laws broken when more than 2,000 people cross our borders illegally every day. We cannot ignore that we have a right and a duty to protect our borders. And we cannot ignore the very real concerns of Americans who are not worried about illegal immigration because they are racist or xenophobic, but because they fear it will result in lower wages when they're already struggling to raise their families.
And so this will be a difficult debate next week. Consensus and compromise will not come easy. Last time we took up immigration reform, it failed. But we cannot walk away this time. Our conscience cannot rest until we not only secure our borders, but give the 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country a chance to earn their citizenship by paying a fine and waiting in line behind all those who came here legally.
We will all have to make concessions to achieve this. That's what compromise is about. But at the end of the day, we cannot walk away – not for the sake of passing a bill, but so that we can finally address the real concerns of Americans and the persistent hopes of all those brothers and sisters who want nothing more than their own chance at our common dream.
These are some of the challenges that test our conscience – as Americans and people of faith. And meeting them won't be easy. There is real evil and hardship and pain and suffering in the world and we should be humble in our belief that we can eliminate them. But we shouldn't use our humility as an excuse for inaction. We shouldn't use the obstacles we face as an excuse for cynicism. We have to do what we can, knowing it's hard and not swinging from a naïve idealism to a bitter defeatism – but rather, accepting the fact that we're not going to solve every problem overnight, but we can still make a difference.
We can recognize the truth that's at the heart of the UCC: that the conversation is not over; that our roles are not defined; that through ancient texts and modern voices, God is still speaking, challenging us to change not just our own lives, but the world around us.
I'm hearing from evangelicals who may not agree with progressives on every issue but agree that poverty has no place in a world of plenty; that hate has no place in the hearts of believers; and that we all have to be good stewards of God's creations. From Willow Creek to the 'emerging church,' from the Southern Baptist Convention to the National Association of Evangelicals, folks are realizing that the four walls of the church are too small for a big God. God is still speaking.
I'm hearing from progressives who understand that if we want to communicate our hopes and values to Americans, we can't abandon the field of religious discourse. That's why organizations are rising up across the country to reclaim the language of faith to bring about change. God is still speaking.
He's still speaking to our Catholic friends – who are holding up a consistent ethic of life that goes beyond abortion – one that includes a respect for life and dignity whether it's in Iraq, in poor neighborhoods, in African villages or even on death row. They're telling me that their conversation about what it means to be Catholic continues. God is still speaking.
And right here in the UCC, we're hearing from God about what it means to be a welcoming church that holds on to our Christian witness. The UCC is still listening. And God is still speaking.
Now, some of you may have heard me talk about the Joshua generation. But there's a story I want to share that takes place before Moses passed the mantle of leadership on to Joshua. It comes from Deuteronomy 30 when Moses talks to his followers about the challenges they'll find when they reach the Promised Land without him. To the Joshua generation, these challenges seem momentous – and they are. But Moses says: What I am commanding you is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven. Nor is it beyond the sea. No, the word is very near. It is on your lips and in your heart.
It's an idea that's often forgotten or dismissed in cynical times. It's that we all have it within our power to make this a better world. Because we all have the capacity to do justice and show mercy; to treat others with dignity and respect; and to rise above what divides us and come together to meet those challenges we can't meet alone. It's the wisdom Moses imparted to those who would succeed him. And it's a lesson we need to remember today – as members of another Joshua generation.
So let's rededicate ourselves to a new kind of politics – a politics of conscience. Let's come together – Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Hindu and Jew, believer and non-believer alike. We're not going to agree on everything, but we can disagree without being disagreeable. We can affirm our faith without endangering the separation of church and state, as long as we understand that when we're in the public square, we have to speak in universal terms that everyone can understand. And if we can do that – if we can embrace a common destiny – then I believe we'll not just help bring about a more hopeful day in America, we'll not just be caring for our own souls, we'll be doing God's work here on Earth. Thank you.
Malayang, LCM Executive, to retire in November
The Rev. Jose A. Malayang, a veteran UCC leader and passionate encourager of local churches, has announced his retirement, effective late November.
Since 1999, Malayang has served as a member of the UCC's five-person Collegium of Officers and as executive minister of the UCC's Local Church Ministries, which he led into creation as part of the national restructure inaugurated in July 2000.
"It is not an easy decision for me to make because serving the UCC, and Local Church Ministries in particular, gives me a genuine sense of fulfillment and, yes, joy," he wrote in a Feb. 22 announcement.
This year marks Malayang's 45th ordination anniversary and his 47th consecutive year of ministerial service. Ordained in the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, Malayang spent nearly three decades as a local church pastor, serving both small and large congregations in the Philippines and in Michigan.
He later served as staff of the Southern California - Nevada Conference and with the former Office for Church Life and Leadership. He also was general secretary for the division of evangelism and local church development, an agency of the former United Church Board for Homeland Ministries.
Malayang earned a B.Th. degree from Silliman University in the Philippines, a B.A. from the University of the Philippines and a M.Ed. from Wayne State University in Detroit.
"Joe's long career demonstrates a deep faith in God and a joyful love for Christ's mission and Christ's church," said General Minister and President John H. Thomas. "In every setting where Joe has served, he has witnessed to a great passion for the ministry of the local church and I am grateful for the many ways he has strengthened our congregations and encouraged our pastors and lay leaders."
In consultation with Thomas, LCM's board of directors is responsible for selecting Malayang's successor, through a search and call process. That decision also must be affirmed by the 90-member Executive Council, which acts as the General Synod ad interim. Although unlikely, if a candidate for the office was named before General Synod in June, then the delegates at Synod, not the Executive Council, would formally elect LCM's new leader.
The Rev. Paul Minear, a renowned biblical scholar, died Feb. 22 at age 101. Author of more than 25 books and a key translator of the Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, he was a professor at Yale Divinity School and UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School. Minear's ashes will be interred in the memorial garden at First Congregational UCC in Guilford, Conn., where he was an active member. Survivors include his wife of nearly 80 years, Gladys, and three children.
The Rev. B. Davie Napier, a UCC minister, civil rights activist and former president of UCC-related Pacific School of Religion, died on Feb. 24 at age 91. A former professor at Yale Divinity School, he later was dean of the chapel and professor of religion at Stanford University, where he was active in the anti-war movement and joined others in blocking an entrance to a military recruitment office. Since retirement from PSR, he was a resident of UCC-related Pilgrim Place in Claremont, Calif., where he remained active in justice advocacy. Son of missionary parents, Napier became a "revered professor," according to current YDS Dean Harold Attridge.
A class of seven diakonal ministers - the most recent graduates of the Faith-Based Leadership Institute of the UCC's Council for Health and Human Service Ministries - were recognized on March 3 at St. Andrews UCC in Louisville, Ky., during CHHSM's 69th annual meeting. Those commissioned after completing the year-long service-based continuing education program were Mike Readinger, CHHSM's vice president for business services; Brian Magnone, UCC-related Retirement Housing Foundation; Mona Price-Huffman, UCC-related United Church Homes and Services, Newton, N.C.; John Garrett, UCC-related Peppermint Ridge, Corona, Calif.; Judy Alexander, UCC-related Emmaus Homes, Inc., St. Charles, Mo.; John Zinn, UCC-related Hoffman Homes for Youth, Gettysburg, Pa.; and Gayle Klopp, UCC-related Charles Hall Youth Services, Bismarck, N.D.
The UCC's Council for Health and Human Service Ministries recognized several persons and programs during its annual meeting, March 1-4, in Louisville, Ky. Honorees included the Rev. David Taylor, board member, UCC-related Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss. (Faithful Trustee Award); Ada "Sissy" Minor, an employee at UCC-related Good Samaritan Home in Evansville, Ind. (St. Stephen Award); Elinore Gold, a volunteer at UCC-related Phoebe Richland Health Care Center in Pennsylvania (Towel and Basin Award); and the Bridgeways Renewal Project at UCC-related Phoebe Home Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Allentown, Pa. (Exemplary Program Award).
The Julius Varwig Award, presented in partnership with the UCC Professional Chaplains and Counselors, honors the work of exemplary UCC chaplains. The 2007 recipient is the Rev. DeLois Brown-Daniels of UCC-related Advocate Health Care in Chicago.
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Alger, Dennis to Zion UCC, Gresham, OR
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Adams, John L., 88, 12/13/2006
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The Rev. Mary Luti wasn't supposed to be named "Mary" at all. Her parents' initial plan was to call her "Janice," after her grandmother Janetta. But Luti's difficult, painful birth - "I have very broad shoulders," she explains - left Luti's mother bargaining with God. According to family lore, Luti's mother was heard screaming: "Okay, just get me out of this and I'll name her Mary!"
Raised and educated a staunch Roman Catholic, Luti went on the spend 19 years as a Roman Catholic sister in religious community. She loves the story about her birth, she says, because it underscores the central role that Mary, the mother of Jesus, plays in the daily lives of most Roman Catholics.
"She really is, truly, the mother of the holy family," says Luti. "We prayed the rosary everyday, we had May processions, we stood before Mary statues and offered our lives."
In 1990, when Luti - then on the faculty at UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts - joined the UCC and was granted ministerial standing, she was curious by the silence that surrounds Mary, not just within the UCC but among Protestants in general.
"People don't even think about Mary, much less have misconceptions" says Luti, who became pastor of First Congregational UCC in Cambridge, Mass., in 2000. "In many ways, she's just invisible."
The Rev. Kate Huey, a former Roman Catholic, is an unabashed UCC cheerleader - to put it mildly - but, although she works with the UCC's stewardship ministry in Cleveland and serves as part-time interim pastor of New Vision UCC in Canton, Ohio, she still describes herself as a "cellular Catholic."
"For Protestants, Mary is just an idea, a concept," Huey finds. "To Catholics, she's much more of a real person. I can't begin to tell you how many different statues of Mary I had when I was growing up."
Huey says she spent her childhood singing "Mary songs" in ways not-so-dissimilar to Protestant kids who memorized "camp songs." And those kinds of formative religious practices, she believes, have a significant, lifelong impact on a person's spiritual DNA. It's something one can't just walk away from, just because you have changed church traditions.
"Mary is an emotional center for Catholics," says Huey, who has led a quarterly "bridging group" at Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland for Catholics entering the UCC. "Mary provides an emotional outlet. If God was viewed as distant or wrathful, then Mary was viewed as accessible."
"I was never taught that I could talk directly to God; I had to talk to a priest first," Huey recalls, indicating she's just old enough to have grown up before some significant reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) helped to alter Catholics' theological understandings and devotional practices. "But Mary was someone I could talk to. There was this unconditional love from Mary, the mother."
The Rev. Mark Suriano, pastor of Old South UCC in Kirtland, Ohio, and a former Roman Catholic priest, says there's a great deal of misunderstanding about Mary - among most Protestants and even among some Catholics.
Suriano - schooled at Cleveland's St. Mary Seminary, nonetheless - explains that Mary is not an object of "worship" in Roman Catholicism; she is an object of "devotion." A hero, one might say.
The degree and depth of Marian devotion varies throughout Catholicism, Suriano says, especially since Vatican II. Today, he says, Mary is a predominant "sub-culture" for those who grew up in the church prior to the 1960s. For many younger Catholics, she doesn't attract the same type of attention.
For members of the UCC, Suriano says, Mary raises questions about our devotional life - or, as sometimes is revealed, our lack of one.
Luti agrees. She believes the idea of "devotion" is a foreign concept for many born-and-raised Protestants - but shouldn't be.
"There seems to be this fear of elevating certain persons above, yet at the same time we are desperately yearning for examples of discipleship and heroic Christian life," Luti says. "We need a revived sense of edification. Why not look to certain bright lights?"
Often referred to as a "mediator," Mary is basically just an "influential" voice, Luti says. Just as others on earth or in heaven offer intercessory prayers to God, so does Mary.
Many Protestants, for example, wouldn't hesitate to ask a beloved pastor to pray for them - perhaps even with the belief that pastors somehow carry greater weight with God. So, too, do some request the same of Mary.
"For someone to ask for intercession from a saint, such as Mary, it's no different than asking a friend or family member to pray for you," Luti says. "In this way, the same argument could be applied. We don't need our friends to pray for us - because our prayers reach God directly just as their prayers do - but we find comfort in knowing that others are praying on our behalf."
The bigger issue, says Luti, is an "impoverished notion of the communion of saints, in general" which has affected the way we look at prayerful intercession.
Some of UCC members' discontent with Marian devotion, Luti believes, is more deeply rooted in a general discomfort with devotional practices across the board. We're uneasy with intercessory prayer and displays of devotion or piety, because we don't understand "how it works."
"Just do it. Just pray," Luti tells her parishioners. We gain insight from doing something, she says, not just by talking about it.
Poor one-dimensional Mary
Among the UCC's 5,700 local churches, there are hundreds named for Jesus' more-prominent male disciples - such as Peter, Paul, James and John. But only two churches are named for Mary - St. Mary's UCC in Westminster, Md., and St. Mary's UCC in Abbeville, La.
That doesn't surprise Professor Mark Burrows, a UCC minister and scholar who teaches about Mary in his course on medieval theology at Andover Newton Theological School.
If anything, Burrows is shocked to learn there are any UCC churches named for St. Mary - given the traditional Protestant fear for things that appear "too Catholic."
Anti-Mary sentiment, he says, has kept many Protestants wary of embracing the very-Catholic-looking Mary. When they do and where they have, he says, Protestants have largely caricatured Mary as a one-dimensional Christmas figure - as the mother of the baby Jesus only.
There is little talk of Mary throughout the church year as the much-present mother of the adult Jesus and, especially, as the mother of the suffering Jesus.
"If you think about the death of Jesus, for Protestants, Mary is almost completely invisible," Burrows says. "But there is this dramatic story of her watching her son suffer and die. Is there anything more powerful? What more dramatic way is there to connect with the story of human loss and sorrow than through the sorrow of a parent who has lost a child?"
It's ironic given that Protestant theology has been shaped significantly by the importance ascribed to personal experience.
"Mary was there," Burrows says. In Mary's pain, we are exposed to the depth of Jesus' passion - from birth to death to resurrection. Mary is the one eyewitness who was there for all of it.
During the Middle Ages, Mary's role as "mediator" proved extremely popular, Burrows says. It was even understandable given the era's negative portrayal of God as angry and wrathful. Jesus, too, was perceived to be much more harsh than today.
Mary, therefore, was regarded as the approachable one. "Truly our sister" - that was her persona.
In addition, during medieval times, saints played a more-significant role in the everyday lives of Christians than they do today. Allegiance to saints was akin to superstition.
"There were patron saints for everything - from hangnails to crises of faith," Burrows says. "And Mary is portrayed beautifully as being at the center of this communion of saints."
"The Middle Ages also were a period when everything about church structure was patriarchal, but the church was very much matriarchal in its piety and devotion," Burrows says, noting how nearly every Gothic church was built to honor Notre Dame, "Our Lady."
"What a lot of students don't understand is Mary is not the 'mediator of salvation,' but she is the 'mediator of access,' in the medieval understanding of God," Burrows says. "There's something very practical about getting the "mom" involved. Mary becomes, in a way, the constant companion."
All the priests and bishops were male, and the church ruled with a heavy hand. But the gospel's imperatives to love, to care, to serve were "overwhelmingly shaped by the maternal images of Mary," he says.
But, with the rise of the Protestant Reformation, which triggered counter reformations in the Roman Catholic Church, the image of Jesus is transformed; his edges softened. Jesus becomes approachable again. He, not Mary, is the mediator, and the Christian's need for "access" becomes confusing, if not heretical.
"For the most part, she disappears from Protestantism," Burrows says. "It's her role as mediator that people now can't understand. They see it as blasphemy. They can find no biblical justification for this."
Mary, the feminist?
The public face of Mary has evolved over the years, and Catholics and Protestants alike have altered their views of her.
For some, Mary - like Jesus - has been portrayed as overly perfect, and therefore dismissed as irrelevant.
Huey says that, in her mid-30s, she began to realize how Mary was portrayed unfairly as the unattainable "anti-Eve."
"Eve was the bad girl, and Mary was the pure one," Huey explains. "But Catholic girls were always taught two competing values about Mary - virginity and motherhood - but it wasn't possible for us to do both, like Mary did. It was out of reach."
In early feminist writings, Luti says, Mary gets battered around quite a lot. She is rejected by many feminists for her lowly-servant reputation.
Despite the feminist significance of Mary's "bring-the-mighty-down-from-their-thrones" Magnificat in Luke, Mary was often criticized for being defined only by her relationship roles to men: wife of Joseph, mother of Jesus, or vessel of a male God.
"For Catholic feminists, Mary's image cuts both ways; there's the feminine image and there's the feminist image," Luti says. "There's Mary as the subservient, humble handmaiden and then she's the Queen of Heaven, the 'power behind the throne.'"
"In later feminist theology, there's a fairly positive portrayal of Mary," Luti says. "Vatican II was really a breakthrough in Marian theology in that way, when she became identified as the mother of the church and first among the disciples."
For some feminists, Mary is lifted up as somewhat of a Goddess figure. But, at the least, she has helped to temper the male dominance of Christian imagery.
"She embodies feminine characteristics of Christianity," Luti says, "and may have helped us to open up the talk about the Holy Spirit as feminine."
Susan A. Blain, who spent 11 years as a Roman Catholic nun, is the UCC's minister for worship, liturgy and spiritual formation in Cleveland. Her office and home are filled with Mary statues, and she acknowledges bringing a fair amount of Marian devotion with her into the UCC.
"Our family prayer was pretty much the Rosary. It was our mantra of protection," says Blain, who likes the tactile feel of the Rosary beads in her hand, the prayer's call-response design, the calming effect of repetition.
In 1983, Blain - at the urging of her Catholic religious community - began attending Union Theological Seminary in New York, where she studied liturgy and preaching. After graduating in 1986, she stayed on at Union, helping to coordinate the school's worship services and became active at the UCC's Riverside Church.
"For many years, as a Catholic, I was coordinating this Protestant seminary's daily worship," she says, noting the irony.
While at Union, however, she began to look critically at the strengths and weaknesses of both traditions. And while she appreciates Protestantism's pro-female position on clergy leadership, she is struck by how "male" its worship can be.
"The shock to me is how truly male it all was [in Protestantism]," Blain says. "In the Catholic tradition, it's important to realize that, although Mary can be co-opted by the patriarchy, she also helps to mitigate the patriarchy."
Although Mary's image and reputation have evolved, she remains one of the Gospel's central characters. She not only gives birth to Jesus, but she's present throughout the story, even mentioned among the disciples in Acts.
"I haven't really raised the Mary issue [in my church], says Luti, who acknowledges a "lingering affection" for her. "But I do allude to her from time to time."
Luti says she would be interested in "a gentle exploration" of Mary's role for UCC Christians. "If not to be emulated, then at least to be pondered," she says.
She attributes Protestants' lingering anti-Mary sentiment with unresolved anti-Catholic residue. In addition, she says, some of us aren't quite yet comfortable talking about Jesus, much less Mary.
"A lot of this is just unfamiliarity," Luti says. "It's through experience that a lot of people soften up."
Burrows sees a makeover in Mary's future, especially as denominational divisions blur between Protestant and Roman Catholic households.
"In modern times, there's been a marvelous resurrection of interest in Mary," he says, expecting interest to only increase in the UCC, especially in New England. He estimates that, in Massachusetts, about 80 percent of new UCC members are former Roman Catholics and he notes a significant increase among UCC seminarians who are former Catholics as well.
But while Burrows doesn't see the UCC's worship life being significantly altered by an influx of Catholics, it is important to remember that many carry with them a "cellular memory" of Mary that differs from that of cradle Protestants.
Huey agrees, saying that the UCC's usual references to the denomination's "four streams" - Evangelical, Reformed, Congregational and Christian - should give way to added conversations about the theological contributions in more recent years by former Roman Catholics in the North and former Southern Baptists in the South.
Luti believes talk of Mary and other saints is an opportunity to strengthen our prayer life and devotional practices.
"There is a real need to deplastify [the saints]," she says. "There is the opportunity to open ourselves to the riches of those traditions that the Reformation put aside. It's time to move beyond our super-hyped fears of all things supernatural, to return to what's more sensual, more sacramental about Christian life."
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund writes about the history of UCC-Roman Catholic relations in her column - Past as Prologue - published this month in the "opinion matters" section at news.ucc.org.
Sources: Religion News Service, Christianity Today, Catholic Answers, Catholic Bridge and Wikipedia
Raising 'ability awareness,' UCC youth produces educational documentary
Aperfect back flop knocked the wind out of Tyler Greene. "Then," remembers his pastor, "he let out this jubilant scream."
Even though Tyler had already gone horseback riding and water rafting, the Rev. Tim Ensworth of First Congregational UCC in Waterloo, Iowa, assumed Tyler would not jump off the rock into the water below.
"Cerebral palsy and all, he climbs the back of the rock and takes off," Ensworth recalls.
Surprised? Don't be. This is Tyler. This fall, Waterloo School Superintendent Dewitt R. Jones replaced his opening address to the district's 1,700 employees with a screening of a new DVD produced by one of Waterloo's own.
"I'm Tyler: Don't Be Surprised," a 15-minute disability awareness tool, was created by 16-year-old Tyler Greene as his Eagle Scout project, with the help of his father, Paul.
"I know the world needs to hear what it says," Tyler says, speaking to Tiffany Clarno, who serves as the UCC Disabilities Ministries representative to the UCC Youth and Young Adult Board. "My dream is to do good things that are right and of value."
"I want to work on equal rights," he says. "I'm not sure where that will take me."
Church member Dee Vandeventer and her staff at ME&V, an Iowa-based marketing, communications and fundraising company, donated time to assist Tyler with the video project. Tyler's cousin, Max Lind, with the help of a photographer friend, designed the DVD's cover art and a promotional website imtyler.org.
"We had an incredible production team," Paul Greene said.
In the video, viewers are introduced to significant persons in Tyler's life, all who see Tyler for what he can do, not what we can't. They are practicing "ability awareness," Tyler teaches.
Through promoting 'ability awareness,' says Paul Greene, Tyler is determined to change the disempowering way the world interacts with people with disabilities.
The "ability awareness" phrase came to Tyler from a Scout merit badge program called "disability awareness" that his dad teaches. "Except," Tyler explains, "my dad takes out the 'dis-.'"
David Clark, clerk of the church council at Boston's Old South UCC and a member of the UCC Disabilities Ministries board, describes Tyler's DVD as "an exceptional job for a person in his stage of psycho-emotional development."
Clark, who also has severe cerebral palsy, is fully integrated in the world. A web designer and computer troubleshooter since college graduation, Clark was on the original technology team that developed the web accessibility tool, known as "Bobby."
"I don't want people to be amazed that I get up every morning and have a job," Clark says. "Having a job to me is ordinary. When anything is viewed as extraordinary, expectations are not the same."
Tyler shares Clark's view, saying that, once people get to know him or once he gets to talking with his friends, any initial preoccupation with his disability quickly fades away.
"It really does not take long," Tyler says. "Like a minute and it is gone."
Reality over perception
The Rev. Jeanne Tyler, co-pastor of Saint Paul UCC in Keokuk, Iowa, who also manages cerebral palsy, has said she views the realities of people with disabilities as being similar to those "living on the margins."
"It is being an outsider, someone to fear or humiliate," she said in 2004, speaking at the UCC-related Leaven Center in Troy, Mich. "Humiliation is about disempowering someone."
That's why Tyler's church, First Congregational UCC in Waterloo, focuses on empowerment.
More than 12 years ago, when Ensworth became its pastor, the church's 150-year-old building already had been adapted architecturally for inclusion, including the addition of an all-floors elevator, covered entry way, ramp approach and automatic door.
"Attitudinal inclusion started with the attitudes of Tyler and his own family," Ensworth recalls. "They are comfortable with him and he is comfortable with himself, so the church echoes that."
Tyler was born in 1990 as the third child of Gina and Paul, and the brother of Lucas and Molly. The family has been deeply connected with their church for five generations.
"Everything about Tyler is about perception rather than reality," says Tony Lorsung, Tyler's Boy Scout leader, who has known Tyler since his pre-Cub Scout days.
"At first, I felt sorry," Lorsung says. "When Tyler joined Cubs, I realized, why should I feel sorry about him if he does not feel sorry for himself?"
"Tyler is an outgoing person about who he is and about his vision of his future," Lorsung says. "Why should he be separated and not do the things he wants to do? To me, he does not have a disability any more."
Tyler, an active teenager who has earned Karate's yellow belt with a blue stripe, plays softball and enjoys the internet. But he's also direct. His activism speaks to what many disabilities awareness advocates are saying: "Will you be able to see past my wheelchair and my speech challenges to appreciate my abilities?"
Tyler's confirmation co-teacher, Hannah Carse, remembers Tyler's frank response when some spoke to him about "a cure."
"If I were constantly waiting for a cure," Carse remembers Tyler saying, "I would think that I am not okay or whole now. I don't ever feel like I am waiting to be whole. This is who I am."
The Rev. Bob Molsberry, pastor of St. Paul UCC in Belleville, Ill., and vice-chair of UCC Disabilities Ministries, acknowledges that disabilities are a part of a person's identity.
"Human beings are not perfectible," Molsberry said in a nationally-televised interview that aired in August. "Disability is not the defining aspect of any life. It is part of our human diversity. What we need is inclusion so everyone can be at the table. Fix the steps, bathrooms, doors - whatever needs accommodation."
Tyler is a national member of the Kids as Self Advocates' speak-out task force. He wants to see young people with disabilities and those with special health-care needs have control over their own lives and futures.
"KASA has been a huge factor in my realizing the rights I actually have," Tyler says.
Tyler's 'theology of hope'
It was theologian Paul Tillich who once said, "We have learned how hard it is to preserve genuine hope. We know that one has to go ever again through the narrows of a painful and courageous 'in-spite-of.'"
And, UCC minister Dosia Carlson, whom polio paralyzed as a youth, once said, "There has to be a balance between the things that we accept and those we fight."
So Tyler knows that 'hope' is a big factor in his life.
"If you have hope you have a reason for doing things instead of aimlessly wandering around," he says. "We, as a family, ruled out 'can't' a long time ago. I think if we [used] that word, we wouldn't be very far. For us it's always not a matter of whether 'I can,' but just a matter of 'how.'"
Tyler says he hears competing messages in our society: "You can do anything" and "You can't do anything." "It is really hard, when you hear all the messages to figure out, who should I listen to?" Tyler says. "Dad helps with that."
"You cannot go through life not questioning anything," Tyler believes. "If you really, really want to do what is right, you may have to take a few risks."
For Tyler, God is "like your father, your best friend, the one who created everyone. God watches over us and will always be there to love and protect us no matter what."
"I kind of believe that God has a plan for us," he says. "I think God believes that the world needed some help. I think what God has planned for me is to help people understand, to educate people about ability awareness. It is life-long."
Surprised? You shouldn't be.
The Rev. Dee Brauninger, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Burwell, Neb., is editor of "That All May Worship and Serve" and an executive committee member of the UCC Disabilities Ministries.
Learn more @
For information on "I'm Tyler" DVD, visit imtyler.org. Learn more about UCC Disabilities Ministries at uccdm.org. For more about computer accessibility issues, visit davidaccess.org. Kids as Self Advocates' website is or phone 773/338-5541.
Somewhere in the post-General Synod clamor about "marriage equality" and "economic leverage," a few frustrated voices wondered aloud how their equally weighty resolution on disability ministries could win delegates' overwhelming approval but miss the wider church's spotlight.
Ministry with and among those with physical, mental and developmental disabilities needs more than mere lip service, they say. Real work is needed across the church.
"We want the initials A2A [accessible to all] right up there alongside ONA [open and affirming] and M&M [multiracial, multicultural]," the Rev. Grant F. Sontag of Mountain View, Calif., wrote to United Church News last year. "Our presence, our witness and our ministry are essential to the life of the whole UCC and not just a part of it."
To the detriment of the church's self-proclaimed "extravagant welcome," argues Sontag and others, the UCC has not given enough energy to accessibility issues. But the solution, they insist, is not competition with other justice movements, but a multi-pronged emphasis on inclusive evangelism.
"We treasure the church's up-front approach on major social issues," says the Rev. David Denham, pastor of Bethel UCC in Arlington, Va., and UCC Disabilities Ministries consultant, "but the time has come for the church to lead on this issue, just as it has on many other key issues throughout our history.
"My greatest frustration is that we do not give parallel attention to A2A as we do M&M and ONA," Denham says. "The disability issue crosses all races, cultures and sexual orientations. Disability is not a separate issue. It is woven into the fabric of our humanity. I feel and observe that we miss these things as a church."
Since General Synod, Denham says, the UCC Disability Ministry (UCCDM) has been meeting with UCC leaders "to develop a strategy to alter the course on this issue."
The approved General Synod resolution, "Called to wholeness in Christ: Becoming a church accessible to all," submitted by the Minnesota Conference, calls on UCC Conferences, Associations, congregations, seminaries, campus ministries and colleges, camps, covenanted ministries and all other UCC organizations "to become accessible to all; to embody a philosophy of inclusion and interdependence; and to support and implement the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.
The resolution reaffirms and strengthens a 1995 statement that had earlier called the UCC to embrace the "spirit" of the ADA.
Ministry 'with,' not 'to'
The Rev. Jo Clare Hartsig of Wayzata, Minn., who took a lead role in writing and editing UCCDM's congregational resource, "Any Body, Everybody, Christ's Body" - published last year - says the church's mindset, above all, is what needs attention.
It's not ministry "to" persons with disabilities, she says, but ministry "with" and "by" persons with different types of abilities. Her teaching mantra? "Never about me without me."
"I guess the first thing to consider is, 'Who do we become when we become accessible to all?' says Hartsig. "We become more inclusive, more like Martin Luther King's 'beloved community.'
"The reality of disability is that it fills a spectrum," she says, "from people who have significant kinds of impairments, those with purely physical disabilities, those with learning disabilities, those with brain disorders to those with hidden - not immediately visible - disabilities, those with disabilities from birth, those with disabilities from trauma or illness, to those with the diminishments of capacities as part of aging.
"At some point or another, especially if we live long enough, most members of the UCC will acquire some kind of disability," Hartsig emphasizes.
The Rev. Dearthrice DeWitt, a UCC disabilities ministries advocate, agrees. "It is important for a minister to understand the difference between ministry to, ministry for, ministry with and ministry by people with disabilities."
Dewitt, who is African American, says his passion for disabilities ministries stems from several circumstances, but especially a life- changing friendship with a seminary classmate with cerebral palsy.
"We learned a lot from each other about disability and race," DeWitt says. "There was always humor between us as well.
"I'll never forget the time a relative visited me and made an ignorant comment about my friend," DeWitt remembers. "I was embarrassed, but did not excuse them. I acknowledged how ignorant the comment - and person - was. Now [my friend] and I can laugh about it."
DeWitt says the place for individuals and churches to start is with the celebration of "somebodiness," as he calls it, borrowing a term from his Black Church experience - "a somebodiness that is as gifted to serve themselves, me, the church and God as any of us who are temporarily able-bodied."
The Rev. Joan C. Jones, a chaplain at UCC-related Emmaus Homes in Missouri, the region's largest provider of assisted-living housing for adults with developmental disabilities, says there are plenty of resources available to help churches, if only they'd ask. The UCC's Council for Health and Human Services has 77 member institutions that offer a range of services.
"Invite us in, and let us help give some ideas about how churches can be welcoming," she says.
Jones, along with fellow chaplain the Rev. Christy May, offers weekly worship, Bible study and spiritual care at Emmaus' seven campuses across southeastern Missouri. They've developed a "spiritual life inventory" that helps them assess how Emmaus' ministry - and other ministries - can benefit from the gifts and graces of residents.
"We have the tool to interview individuals and more deeply discover what matters to them spiritually," Jones says.
Similarly, Jones suggests that churches find specific ministries that persons with disabilities might be interested in pursuing.
"They are not to be pitied," Jones insists. "They have lives with lots of potential. I learn everyday something new as long as I am willing to listen and not think that I have to teach or instruct."
Jones recalls one resident who, early on, seemed to be regularly acting out by taking others' bulletins during worship. Soon, Jones realized the Emmaus resident actually wanted to be a greeter and distribute bulletins.
"To this day, she hands them out and collects them when we're done," Jones says. "She feels part of things, and we periodically recognize and affirm her."
A commitment, not a 'check list'
The Rev. Peg Slater, the UCC's minister for diversity and inclusion, believes no one is "opposed" to the UCC's A2A commitment, but some in the church do not know where to begin.
"It seems quite overwhelming to some people when I speak with them," Slater says. "Others just want resources - a check list - but do not want to go too deep into the issue.
"Getting the church to understand that people with disabilities are just people is a primary step in becoming accessible to all," Slater says. "Many people are uncomfortable or afraid of persons with disabilities. Disability seems 'out of control.' People are afraid it is 'catchy,' people want to know what 'went wrong' or who is 'at fault' in the case of disability. Others don't want to 'hurt' disabled persons more than they are already 'hurt' or 'broken.' In many of our congregations there is a fear that people with disabilities will take 'too much of our time.'"
And then there's the practical concern about which changes a church should try to implement first.
"There is huge spectrum of disability in our midst," Slater says. "Trying to do the right thing is also overwhelming."
Hartsig observes that many evangelical churches are ahead of mainline churches when it comes to effective disabilities ministries.
"I am part of a large, interfaith inclusion group here in the Twin Cities," Hartsig says. "I have been so deeply impressed with the array and complexity of disability ministry offerings in the large, evangelical congregations around town. One church hosts support groups for families, one-on-one peer helpers for Sunday School children with disabilities, respite care, lectures, support in school settings, financial help, special needs consultation, special camp sessions, hospitality space for disability advocacy groups, social events. . Contrast this with our local council of churches - my people - which has very little to say about disability ministries, and they've been asked."
The Rev. Priscilla Bizer, vice president for development at Emmaus Homes, says many churches forget that public policy advocacy is crucial step that churches can take. Government cuts to Medicaid and Medicare dramatically impact residents at UCC facilities, as well as others with disabilities, she says.
Likewise, Jones says advocacy is often overlooked by churches as ministry.
"We need to engage congregations to do more advocacy," Jones says. "This is the most vulnerable population, along with children. It's crucial."
Before coming to Emmaus eight years ago, Jones was pastor of a rather-proper UCC church in Pennsylvania. But, now, in a ministry that serves persons with development disabilities, Jones has learned to appreciate the disruptions can occur in church, especially one that's accessible to all. And that's okay.
"I was very particular about the liturgy, and then I came here and that all came undone," she says. "I had to learn to accept that. I had to accept that disruption will be a fact, even though you can redirect it."
"You can either be spontaneous about it and have a sense of humor about it, or let it get it you," she says. "That's not to say it has to be chaotic, but it can be a challenge."
"But I was called here, and I love it," Jones says. "It has changed my life."
Hartsig, who was "chosen" by the disability advocacy community in 1999 when her oldest son was diagnosed with autism, says she yearns for the day "when a set of stairs in any public facility, even a church, will be looked upon as a reminder of the dark days before Universal Design."
During her 25-plus years as a justice advocate, Hartsig has approached social change as a multi-issue campaign.
"What I appreciate so much about the UCC is our alphabet soup approach to our covenanted community," Hartig says. "We are seeking to be all these things - A2A, M&M, ONA - because they all matter, we all matter. I think we can help each other along and assure ourselves that we are providing the deepest kind of welcome and sense of belonging possible."
Slater, who learned 12 years ago that she has Rheumatoid Arthritis, says her disability has taught her a lot about herself and others.
"I have learned that community is built when I need help and when I give help," Slater says. "I learned to swallow pride and develop pride in myself - as I am."
More than a ramp up
Practical tips for improving your church's accessibility
Stress the person, not the disability.
Always speak directly to persons with a disability instead of talking only to their companions.
Don't hesitate to ask a person if you can help. Then follow his or her instructions.
Provide seating so family and friends can stay together, not separate. Shorten some pews so that persons in wheelchairs can sit with/among other worshipers.
Do not move a wheelchair, cane or crutches out of reach of the person who uses them.
If you must lift a wheelchair, follow person's instructions carefully. She or he knows what works best.
Honor decisions. A person who uses a wheelchair may, at times, choose to walk.
When greeting a person with a hearing disability, never speak directly into the person's ear. Speak clearly, slowly and normally. Provide audio aids, as necessary and requested. If necessary, communicate in writing.
Resist the urge to complete words or sentences for persons with a speech disability. Give your full, unhurried attention.
When greeting a person with a visual disability, identify not only yourself but your role (usher, greeter, pastor, etc.). Offer a bulletin whether the person can read it or not. Make sure large-print bulletins and hymnals are available.
Some persons with mental illness may be disruptive. Designate one or two church members willing to approach such a person quietly. Accompany them to a place where they can talk aloud.
If some are uncomfortable assisting those with developmental disabilities, find those more inclined to help. Empower those who can explain the service, share a hymnal or be a companion at lunch or times of fellowship.
In case of seizure, don't attempt restraint or put objects in the person's mouth. Move objects or furniture to prevent injury. After seizure, offer reassurance and a comfortable place to rest.
Keep contact numbers posted by church telephones. A seizure could be a sign of epilepsy, stroke or a reaction to medication. Quickly find a nurse, doctor or informed family member to attend to the person's needs while emergency medical assistance is contacted.
To invite full participation, make accessible not only the major areas of the church facility, but also the choir loft, lectern/pulpit and chancel.
Adapted suggestions from "Any Body, Everybody, Christ's Body," a congregational resource created by the UCC Disability Ministries. Order by calling United Church of Christ Resources at 800/537.3394.
Learn more at uccdm.org.
Take the accessibility test
Is your church taking steps to become accessible to all? Critique your congregation's progress.
1. AWARENESS. Recognition by some congregation members or the ordained religious leadership that certain barriers were preventing children or adults with physical, sensory, psychiatric or intellectual disabilities from accessing a full life of faith (including worship, study, service and leadership).
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
2. ADVOCACY. (Internal) Growing advocacy within the congregation to welcome people with disabilities as full participants and to remove barriers (architecture, communications and attitudes) to this participation.
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
3. DISCUSSIONS. Concerns raised regarding ability of the congregation to meet the challenges (e.g., Are there enough people with this need to justify the expense? Will people with disabilities feel comfortable in joining us once barriers have been removed?) and then solutions identified--ideally with input from people with disabilities and other experts.
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
4. PLANS. Invitation of people with disabilities to join the congregation as full members (including participation in rites of passage and initiation), action plans devised to achieve barrier-removing goals, and formal commitment made to welcome people with disabilities.
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
5. ACCOMMODATIONS. Accommodations made to improve the participation of people with disabilities (e.g. large print bulletins, trained ushers, accessible parking spaces, ramps and pew cuts, improved lighting and sound systems, appropriate religious education for children with disabilities).
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
6. WELCOMING ENVIRONMENT. Appreciation expressed for the changes being made and friendships extended to people with disabilities and their family members by increasing numbers within the congregation.
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
7. HURDLES. Identification of architectural (e.g., elevator, accessible restroom, ramp to the altar, chancel or bimah), communications (e.g., sign language interpreter or alternative formats for materials), transportation (e.g., wheelchair accessible van), financial, or other barriers and ways found to move forward in spite of them.
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
8. INCLUSION. Increased participation of people with disabilities in worship, study, service and leadership, as well as increased comfort levels of members with a more diverse congregation.
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
9. OUTREACH. (Local) Options explored and action plans formulated for partnership opportunities with local agencies and organizations serving people with disabilities.
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
10. LEADERSHIP. Recruitment of lay members with disabilities for leadership roles within the congregation and a willingness demonstrated to accept and accommodate an ordained leader with disability.
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
11. NEW CONSCIOUSNESS. Resistant barriers of attitude within the congregation toward people with disabilities addressed (e.g., through adult education forums, consciousness raising by the leadership of the congregation and one-on-one friendships).
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
12. TRANSFORMATION. Ongoing transformation of the congregation (through enriched opportunities, responsibilities, and friendships) into a place where children and adults with disabilities are welcomed, fully included and treated with respect.
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
13. ADVOCACY. (External) An expanded advocacy role for congregation members regarding the needs and rights of persons with disabilities in the community-at-large.
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
14. OUTREACH. Successful strategies, insights, and effective practices compiled and shared with other congregations and communities.
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
15. SHARING THE STORY. The story of the transformation of the congregation publicized through articles, presentations, and/or media events.
Not started | Getting started | Well on our way | We're there
SCORING: Invite several within your congregation to take this test, including persons with disabilities. Compare your individual assessments and group findings, then set a course for action.
Source: National Organization on Disability's Accessible Congregations Campaign
Learn more at nod.org.
Beyond unspeakable mysteries, Easter remains the promise of new life
Last Eastertide, five baby Carolina wrens took their first flights off the top of the cardboard tomb we made at church. Let me explain.
It started as a creative idea for our Easter Festival: we would make an empty tomb for the kids to walk in and out of, so they could see for themselves that Jesus is not there. We didn't have much to go on; none of us had ever made a tomb before. We did have one experienced artist and a lot of enthusiasm, as well as a small model tomb we used during our Lenten program. The big tomb, we thought, would be a replica of the little one.
Our materials were simple: cardboard, brown contract paper, spray paint and lots and lots of masking tape. We cut three big boxes - originally used to deliver three-drawer filing cabinets to house the church's archives - into a tomb-like shape, and corralled the youth groups into scrunching up brown paper and taping it all over, to give the tomb a more textured look.
Then we spray painted the paper with a speckled gray and brown rocky color, put a cardboard slab inside with a white linen cloth draped over it, made a few rocks to go around the outside, arranged some plastic ivy on top and rolled the "stone" away from the opening. By the grace of God our final product bore a remarkable resemblance to the real thing.
The tomb was a big hit at the Easter Festival, so much so that we decided to put it out front on Easter morning. People gathered around it all morning long; they stood silently around it, peeked into it, took pictures of it. They even took comfort in it: one man who had just been through a major loss said that seeing the empty tomb as he came down the path to the church was the best part of his Easter.
After Easter, however, came a question: where are we going to store this thing? Lacking any sufficient answer, we simply let the question go and placed the tomb up against an outer wall.
Weeks went by and I finally decided that next year another youth group might enjoy making a new tomb; in other words, I decided the time had come to bury the tomb. So, on the day before Ascension Thursday, our youth director brought in his saw and we were all set to begin.
But when I went to move the tomb, a strange thing happened: a bird rustled and flew right past my head. I looked closer, and - lo and behold - I spotted a nest, with five brown-speckled eggs looking right back at me.
The tomb had taken on a life of its own, and I realized the Spirit was telling me to let go of my plan for demolition and play my part by respecting the unfolding drama before me. We moved the tomb - nest, eggs and all - back against the wall and decided to stop interfering.
The next day, the Ascension reading took on a whole new meaning for me: there is no point in "looking toward heaven" (Acts 1:11) when God calls us to pay attention to life on earth. As luck or providence would have it, our first-ever "Blessing of the Animals" was scheduled for the last Sunday of Eastertide. Completely without intention, we had a ready-made backdrop. With the tomb behind us, we sang "All Things Bright and Beautiful," read the story of Creation and then blessed those eggs first (among the 42 other animals, from a duckling to a standard poodle), saying: "Blessed be God who loves each living thing; may God bless these baby birds."
Two days later, I stopped by the tomb, and panicked. The eggs were gone. Then I listened, and I heard one of the most sacred cadences in all of God's earthly wonders: the first chirps of a newly-hatched Carolina Wren.
There are, of course, rational explanations for all of this, and there are also more lovely creatures than Carolina Wrens. As an ornithologist friend put it, baby wrens "are a bit of a disappointment if one is expecting the resurrected Christ." True enough.
Even so, these little creatures have reminded me in stunning terms that all of our Christian Education projects and programs are held in a larger story of faith whose meaning is usually diminished by words and whose promise of new life can awe us at every turn.
The Rev. Susan Steinberg is director of children's ministries at United Church of Chapel Hill in North Carolina.
In its television ads, the UCC bears witness to a deep evangelical impulse that is already rooted in the commandment of Sinai: "Love your neighbor."
Of course there are, in the Bible and beyond the Bible, endless wonderments about the identity of our neighbor. There is no doubt, however, that the deepest impulse of the Bible is toward inclusion, that all of God's creatures be accorded dignity, respect, safety and a sense of belonging. That deep biblical impulse gives the church its primal mandate, a summons reflected in these ads.
The issue of inclusion is not only disputed among us; it also is urgent. It is urgent because we U.S. Christians live in a society that is profoundly exclusionary in ways that debilitate. While we popularly celebrate the large vision of democracy among us, it is the case that the reality of socio-economic-political power works primarily to divide and exclude, to distinguish between "haves" and "have-nots" so that the "haves" always have more and more and the "have-nots" have less and less.
The same exclusionary propensity in our society is evident in the fear of "immigrants," even if we maintain our ambiguous response because the fear of new immigrants is curbed by the usefulness of cheap labor. On issues of race, ethnicity and class, there works among us a vision of a safe society that consists only in people "like us," a phrase that most often refers to the ruling class of white Euro-Americans.
That same exclusionary propensity that violates both "the American dream" and the gospel is now alive and well in the U.S. church, albeit with a kind of moral ferociousness that is not matched in the civic community. The fear of "the other" in the realm of U.S. religion now pertains not only to race, class and ethnicity, but also to sexual identity; as the church practices God's holiness, it finds that sexuality is in odd and deep ways linked to holiness.
In the face of such an exclusionary inclination rooted in fear and in inchoate anxiety, a church faithful to the gospel is summoned by the Lord of the church to challenge such exclusion and to practice an inclusiveness that is as broad as humanity and as deep as God's generosity. In the current "battle for the Bible," biblical texts and themes that witness to God's generous inclusiveness are not much known or cited among us:
In Isaiah 56, the prophetic poem reflects an argument about inclusion and exclusion. The prophet witnesses to inclusion by insisting that foreigners and eunuchs — "others" in an ordered Jewish community — are to be welcomed precisely because the community gathered around God is "for all peoples."
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people;" and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isa 56:3-5)
The New Testament church early faced the same issue as it moved beyond its Jewish origins to include all those loved by God, even Gentiles who were for some the abhorrent "other." Thus it is reported in Acts 10 that Peter — that great stalwart of the proper church — was visited by God in a dream and urged to accept what his community had regarded as "unclean." We may imagine that the dream from God was deeply upsetting and that Peter found the mandate shocking: The voice said to him again, a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." (Acts 10:15)
But Peter obeyed! And since the time of Peter, the church in its faithfulness has refused fearful, societal categories and has been open to this practice of God's graciousness.
Alongside Peter, Paul became the great missionary for evangelical openness, recognizing — against his own fearful tradition — that none can be ejected from the church because they threaten us and are unlike us. Paul draws the conclusion: For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. (Rom 10:12)
The Jewish church had to make room for the very Gentiles it recognized it had categorized as "impure." So in our day, conservatives must make room for liberals and, in a harder challenge for our church, liberals must make room for conservatives. And all must make room together for those whom society dismisses as "impure."
Out of Paul's new awareness there came an inclusionary trajectory in the church, not uncontested but eventually accepted. We are offered, in the letter to the Ephesians, a new characterization of holiness that is not related to race, ethnicity or any other category of uncleanness, but rather to participation in a community of grace, tenderness, forgiveness and generosity:
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. (Eph 4:30-5:1)
Such a practice, in an exclusionary religious scene amid an exclusionary society that is fearful of the other, is an enormous challenge to the church. A bent toward inclusion runs great risks, but they are risks faithful to the gospel. In the long run such risks serve the kingdom. In the short run, they are the requirements of fidelity among us. Such fidelity will every time override fear and every time subvert anxiety. In doing so we remember that he said, "I tell you, do not be anxious."
The Rev. Walter Brueggemann, a UCC minister and scholar who authored more than 25 books on the Bible, is a professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta.
'Magi Project' hopes to double donations within three years
The UCC's Pension Boards is launching the Magi Project, a three-year initiative striving to double donations to the Christmas Fund, one of the denomination's four special mission offerings.
For decades, the Christmas Fund — formerly known as "Veterans of the Cross" — has helped provide supplemental monies for pension and health insurance premiums to low-income retirees. At Christmas, the offering provides gift checks to hundreds of annuitants, but it also provides emergency assistance to clergy and lay employees and their families throughout the year.
The Rev. M. Douglas Borko, director of ministerial assistance at the Pension Boards, says that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent rising cost of energy, now is a good time for churches to think about upping their annual giving to the Christmas Fund.
After Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast, the Christmas Fund was able to allocate funds to completely pay two quarters worth of insurance premiums for 10 retired clergy who were displaced in the FEMA-declared zip codes. An additional $5,000 went towards premiums of active clergy in those same affected zip codes.
Borko says the Christmas Fund is also sponsoring an energy grant, which will be distributed after the first of January 2006. All retired lay employees and clergy who have accounts with the Pension Boards will receive a one-time gift of $50 towards the cost of energy this winter. Those receiving ministerial assistance will receive $75.
"We're recognizing that the impact of Katrina was far beyond New Orleans," Borko says. "Everyone is going to be affected by the energy crisis that came out of it." He notes that all retired clergy with existing accounts with the Pension Boards will automatically receive the grant; retired UCC clergy without accounts may apply to receive it.
Of course, Christmas is not the only time a church can remember the Christmas Fund. While most churches find Christmastime to be an opportune time to lift up the special offering as a seasonal emphasis on mission giving, other churches opt for the Christmas in July Offering. Posters, PowerPoint presentations and worship materials for both December and July options are available through the Pension Boards' office.
The legacy of giving
Legacy Gifts, in the form of bequests or other planned gifts, are another way that churches and individuals are supporting the Christmas Fund.
This summer, Chicago's St. Phillipus UCC, located on the south side of Chicago, voted to close its doors. The proceeds from the sale of the building and assets were divided among five different ministries, among them the Christmas Fund. This fall, Borko gratefully accepted a check for $120,000 on behalf of the Christmas Fund.
"The income from the investment will be used to enhance the annual giving to the Christmas Fund each year," he says.
Back in the 1800s, when the program was established, the lives of clergy were different, acknowledges Borko. Right now, the Christmas Fund is looking at two major trends that are affecting clergy and their finances.
"We are looking at the impact of second-career clergy who have shorter careers," Borko says. "Our pension program is built on the assumption of paying 14 percent of your dues over a 30-year span to provide adequate retirement income. Length of ministry now is far below 30 years."
In addition, the climbing divorce rate has touched the lives of clergy just as it has the rest of the population.
"The number of divorces in clergy households is higher than most people would guess," he says. "That has dramatic impacts on both the spouse who is non-clergy and the clergy spouse. We are evaluating how our program of benefiting through the Christmas Fund applies in those situations."
No matter how much money is in the Christmas Fund, says Borko, it's paramount that clergy, spouses/ partners and lay employees know that it is there to help them.
"We want to provide the highest quality of life possible for the people we work with, while preserving their dignity," he says.
Borko has seen families overwhelmed by the sudden financial strain brought on by illness, an automobile accident or a fire. In the business of caring for others, Borko says many clergy feel uneasy asking for help for themselves.
"I try to reassure them that they've worked their whole lives for the church," he says. "The church is an institution that cares for its people, and they've been doing that through their whole ministry. Now it's time for them to be cared for in their hour of need."
'My father, a UCC minister, had a very small pension'
Iowa church gets personal, boosts offering
Urbandale UCC in Iowa has taken a significant step toward increasing the church's support for the Christmas Fund, the denomination's special mission offering that assists retired church workers in need.
During last year's Advent season, Richard Boyer, the son of a UCC minister and Urbandale's mission chair, shared his family's story with the congregation.
"[My father] had a very small pension," says Boyer. "After he died, my mother called to ask me what the 'second check from the Pension Boards' was for." Boyer explained to her that it was probably a Veterans of the Cross (Christmas Fund) gift.
By sharing how the offering had helped his own family and explaining how the Christmas Fund is used to help UCC retirees and their families, people opened their hearts — and their wallets.
The previous year, Urbandale UCC had allocated about $250 in support of the Christmas Fund. But, after Boyer and his committee made special appeals (including asking all retired ministers and all children of ministers in the congregation to stand), giving increased by over $3,000 in 2004.
Afterwards, Boyer excitedly reported the results to the Pension Boards. "Next year,"
Learn more about the Christmas Fund
For promotional materials, contact UCC Resources at 800-537-3394 or 800-325-7061
Contact the Rev. M. Douglas Borko, at email@example.com or 800/642-6543 x2716