When Drew Willard's family moved into its South Plainfield, N.J., home the same week in 1958 as their Jewish neighbors, the two families hit it off immediately. Each wanted a fenced-in yard – so they put up one fence around both properties with a gate that led to the open fields behind them.
More than 50 years later, the Rev. Drew Willard has led the UCC at The Villages (Fla.) in a celebration devoid of division and fulfilling in faith. Worshiping the past seven years at various sites – including the past three at the New Jewish Congregation of Temple Shalom a mile up the road – the UCC at The Villages took root in its new building Aug. 15.
"No more talk about 'when we get to the new building,' " says Willard joyously. "We had a mountaintop experience on Sunday."
Sumter County inspectors issued the church's certificate of occupancy just two days prior, which "turned out to be one of the luckiest Friday the 13ths you could imagine," says Willard. "We said amongst ourselves that if we couldn't get permission to do this, we were going to make the walk anyway. We still would have done an exchange of the cross, the chalice and the Bible in the narthex – like planting the flag on Mt. Everest," says Willard with a laugh.
The "walk" was a mile-long kadimah (kuh-DEE-muh), a pilgrimage of about 100 people from the temple to The Villages' new building. It followed a brief service at the temple where members of both congregations exchanged gifts. "We were singing songs like "Kumbaya" that first half-mile," says Willard of the march.
Once inside the new sanctuary, the sounding of the shofar (a ram horn used as a wind instrument) signaled a new era.
"Confirmed members and choir members lined up first," says Willard. "I presented the cross, Bible and chalice to the diaconate, and everyone had a chance to hold the elements." Jerry Fabian, building committee chair, presented the key to church moderator Phil Pierkowski, and the Rev. Dr. Bill Wealand, the church's founding pastor, offered the invocation.
"It was a wonderful way for my wife and I to visit with so many people with whom we shared five years of building the congregation, much less the building," says Wealand.
Willard's sermon included a recounting of the Sermon on the Mount. "We're neighbors and there's no fence between us now," he told worshipers. Reflecting on that moment two days later, he adds, "As I learn more about the Jewish religion, it helps me become a better Christian. The same holds true for learning about Muslims."
Members of the Jewish community sang a song of blessing, and communion was offered. Sheldon Skurow, spiritual leader of the temple, and Nancy Bell, a Villages member, read a verse from Exodus, alternating in Hebrew and English. Holding hands in song, celebrants closed the service by singing "Let There Be Peace on Earth."
"Sunday was terrific, it was just … fantastic," says Skurow. "We were almost sorry to see them go." Skurow recalled his congregants' own journey from a temporary space to their new synagogue with a 4-mile kadimah that went past the site where The Villages church now stands. At that time, members of The Villages stood and cheered the synagogue's congregation.
On July 20, 2003, the Rev. Ben New planted the seeds for UCC at The Villages by calling a meeting. Thirty people attended and four years later – after holding worship in a Villages conference room, a storefront office, a Seventh Day Adventist church and the New Jewish Congregation of Temple Shalom – the church rented the temple and purchased land for its own building. Ground was broken in August 2009.
The physical space of the new building reminds Willard of the temple. "The design of the sanctuary and narthex, with the fellowship hall off to the side, is actually the type of layout we have at our church building."
Willard, senior pastor at The Villages since May, traces the inspiration for the farewell event and the kadimah to his candidating service Feb. 21. "After that service, I met with the temple's music director, Rose Eberle. She invited me into their narthex for a demonstration of their acoustics." Eberle and Villages choir member MaryAnn Neder sang – and really struck a chord with Willard.
The opening of The Villages' new space does not mean a close to its relationship with Temple Shalom, says Skurow. "We've had an interfaith Thanksgiving service with them on the Thursday prior to Thanksgiving the past few years, and a Methodist church and several others have joined us. In fact, Drew has suggested we have it at their church this year. "
The Rev. David Schoen, UCC's minister and team leader for Congregational Vitality and Discipleship, hails the UCC at The Villages as a rarity. "You just don't see a whole lot of this kind of thing anymore. They are to be congratulated on moving with such focus and intent to achieve a really beautiful facility within seven years. And the Florida Conference should be congratulated for having the foresight to purchase the land."
The UCC's Church Building Loan Fund provided UCC at The Villages with a $1.65 million construction loan.
It started out as a loving favor for her Navy chaplain husband. But now it has turned into an inspiring symbol of affirmation and connection for a growing number of UCC military chaplains serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2008, as Chaplain (CMD) Peter St. Martin was about to be deployed to Iraq, he asked his wife, Judy, if she would do him a favor.
When they were newly married and he was a young parish minister in Iowa and Maine, she used to sew practically all of their two daughters' clothing, as well as pillow cases, curtains, slip covers and other household materials.
Now, he asked, would she please make him a stole of camouflage material that he could wear when serving in the Middle East?
Of course she would.
Different branches of the military wear different color camouflage. Since her husband is in the Navy, his camouflage material is blue. If he was in the Army or Air Force, it would be green, or in the Marines, dark green.
Would she make more?
When he returned stateside, St. Martin attended the UCC General Synod in 2009 in Grand Rapids, Mich. There he took his turn staffing the UCC chaplains' booth in the exhibit hall.
Prominent on the display table was his camouflage stole, with its UCC symbol on one side and a God-Is-Still-Speaking comma on the other.
Among those who admired it was Chaplain John Gundlach, UCC Minister for Government Chaplaincies.
He had an idea. Did St. Martin think his wife would be willing to make a camouflage stole for every UCC chaplain deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan? The UCC, he said, would be willing to underwrite the cost of the materials if Judy St. Martin would provide the labor.
Gundlach saw the stoles as being a symbol of a denomination that supports the ministry of its chaplains.
"It's a very tangible thing to the chaplains," he says, "a continuing reminder that they are a part of the United Church of Christ and that their church stands behind them."
Again, Judy complied.
She has created about four dozen stoles to date. Two dozen have been for UCC chaplains and another 20 or so for chaplains of other denominations who have seen them and asked if they, too, could have one made.
"It's the least I can do," she says. "I'm happy to make them because I know that stoles mean a lot to chaplains and ministers."
Caroling in the desert
U.S. Air Force Chaplain (CPT) Heather Bodwell agrees.
"Receiving mine was very special," she says. "It was the second stole presented to me by the denomination, after the one I received when I was ordained, and I thought about the thought and care that went into the ministry of making these for deploying chaplains."
Once, in the Middle East, she even loaned her stole to an Episcopal priest chaplain for a Christmas service.
"We decorated a conference room in the base chapel, laid out baked goodies from home and wrapped little presents for people to open," she says. "Then those left on base, mostly 'wounded warriors,' went Christmas caroling in the desert."
'A wonderful reminder'
U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain (CPT) Deris Rice received his stole as "a pleasant surprise."
"It was a nice reminder of my covenant with the UCC," he says, "a reminder that I was connected to a group that cared about me and was praying for me."
"Towards the end of my first deployment I was having a difficult time," he remembers. "I was working in a mental health unit, and the stories were beginning to get to me. I wanted to go home.
"Then one day, as I was putting on my stole, I noticed the comma for the first time. It was a wonderful reminder that I was not alone, that God is still speaking to me. It reminded me of my continuing relationship to the UCC."
When Rice returned to his local church after his deployment, he developed a liturgy for changing his ministry from a military chaplaincy back to local church ministry in Sparta, Wis.
The liturgy included representatives from the Association, the congregation and the military and involved changing his camouflage stole for a pastoral stole.
Returning to parish ministry
St. Martin will retire from the Navy this fall, after serving 21 years as a military chaplain.
In the meantime, while he is serving with the 24th Marine Expeditionary unit (the Two-Four) on a ship in the middle of an ocean, his UCC profile (resume) is circulating among churches seeking a pastor.
Upon receiving a call to a local church, then he will exchange his camouflage stole for a pastoral stole.
"My stole has been in Afghanistan and on the high seas," he says. "It has been 'present' in memorials to those killed in action as well as in Sunday worship, both in the dirt and on a rocking deck.
"I will wear it occasionally in the parish that will call me," he adds, "not to mark the uniqueness of my experience as much as to identify a continuance of my call to ministry, connecting one chapter to the next."
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.
(Part one in a two-part series on the future of the UCC)
While the United Church of Christ continues to lose both members and congregations, the decline may be slowing. Denominational leaders are eyeing these numbers while staying focused on vitality and considering ways to connect with an up-and-coming generation for whom the traditional model of church membership may be obsolete.
Recently-released Yearbook figures for 2009 show a net loss of 33 UCC congregations and 31,492 members. Total membership as of December 31 stood at 1,080,199, with 5,287 congregations.
In 2008, the UCC saw a net loss of 57 congregations and 33,590 members. In 2007, the denomination declined by 141 congregations and 51,193 members — its biggest loss since 1961. The 2005 General Synod affirmation of marriage equality fueled losses in 2007 and 2006, but also led to some new affiliations, church leaders say.
How is the UCC faring compared to other mainline denominations? According to the 2010 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches published by the National Council of Churches, no mainline denomination saw a net gain in members in 2008 (the year for which the NCCs 2010 Yearbook data was collected). The UCC lost 2.93 percent of its membership; the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 3.28 percent; the Episcopal Church, 2 percent; and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1.92 percent. The United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination at 7,774,420 members, lost 1.01 percent in 2008, according to its own figures.
During the same year, the Catholic Church, the Latter-day Saints, the Assemblies of God, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) gained between 1 and 2 percent. The largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Church, lost 0.24 percent of its members.
Denominational leaders in the UCC are paying attention to the decline, but are interested in other factors besides the number of people in the pews. "We're not looking at membership as much as we used to as an indicator of church vitality," says the Rev. Stephen Sterner, executive minister for Local Church Ministries.
One sign of vitality is a diversity that increasingly reflects the changing U.S. population, says Sterner. Within local churches, worship attendance, the number of adult baptisms, and members' involvement in mission or service are also key indicators, he says. A small church that looks like its community and is engaged in ministry there may actually be healthier than a larger church that does not reflect its community's racial mix and is located where people must drive some distance to attend, Sterner added.
One trend impacting churches is the religious habits of young adults. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research, says young adults are marrying and starting families later. They live with roommates or partners and juggle busy schedules, but appreciate opportunities to get involved with groups and issues they care about, Jones says.
Jones and others who study religious engagement patterns among Millenials (ages 18 to early 30s) say young adults don't have strong denominational loyalties. Those who claim any religious involvement are likely to connect with a number of different faith groups and organizations for service, mission, study and worship.
"This is different than a membership model, where you're at services or Sunday School on a weekly basis," says Jones. While Millenials' affiliations may be less regular or institutionalized, "those connections are important to them," he says.
The UCC's progressive stances on issues such as marriage equality have led some members and congregations to leave. These stances may attract youth and young adults, says Jones, because the treatment of gays and lesbians is "a huge factor in how younger generations are evaluating religious institutions."
His findings are similar to The Barna Group's survey of 16 to 29 year-olds outside the Christian faith about their perceptions of contemporary Christianity. The results were the basis for the 2007 book unchristian, by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman. Barna's subjects described contemporary Christianity as "anti-gay" "judgmental" and "hypocritical" — qualities they saw as antithetical to Jesus' life and teachings.
The Rev. Geoffrey Black, general minister and president of the UCC, says the challenge of connecting with youth and young adults often comes up in his conversations with local churches, conferences and associations.
Black, Sterner and others are in the final stages of preparing a denomination-wide strategy for youth and young adult engagement. That strategy, Sterner insists, must go beyond trying to figure out how to get 18 to 30 year-olds into the church. "What we need to figure out is how do we get the church to youth and young adults," he says.
This could require "a rethinking of what it means to be church," he adds.
Black's travels around the country during his first year as general minister and president have given him much reason to be hope-filled about the denomination's future, he says.
"We're trying to work through some things, but the church, in its many configurations, is really alive and vibrant and poised to engage those questions and to do that reaching out."
[Part two in this series will explore the question: Can the UCC grow and stay true to its identity?]
The Rev. Rebecca Bowman Woods is a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor, former news editor of DisciplesWorld Magazine, and a regular contributor to United Church News and StillSpeaking Magazine.
|Capt. Donald P. Troast, U.S. Navy chaplain|
"We need UCC chaplains in the military," insists the Rev. Donald P. Troast, a U.S. Navy captain and commander of U.S. submarine force chaplains, offering his own "commercial" at the outset of his sermon at the UCC's Amistad Chapel on May 26.
"We need the diversity that they bring. We need the openness that they bring. We need the sense of mainline tradition that they bring."
Preaching to about 100 worshipers in advance of Memorial Day weekend, Troast recounted moving moments when military chaplains have been both mediators and recipients of God's grace during war, loneliness, suffering, death and survival.
Speaking with tears in his eyes, Troast recalled a time recently — during a tour in Afghanistan — that he returned to his quarters and found a handwritten note from an officer requesting a few minutes of his time.
The officer, an Episcopalian, wanted to receive Holy Communion on the night before his troops were being sent into battle, yet the officer's unit chaplain — a Missouri Synod Lutheran — was not comfortable serving him because of their denominational differences.
But, because of the UCC's open-table approach to the Eucharist, Troast — unlike some chaplains that come from more-restrictive traditions — was able to oblige.
"He was afraid of making wrong decisions in combat that might result in the loss of life," recalled Troast, who reassured the officer of his intellect, training, and support of his soldiers. "And then we had Holy Communion," said Troast, who used the Book of Common Prayer to prepare and consecrate the holy meal "in the tradition he was accustomed to."
"You see why we need UCC chaplains?" he said.
Troast, who has served 19 years in military ministry and was selected last year to lead the Navy's submarine chaplains, was one of 15 military chaplains who gathered last week for a retreat at the UCC's Church House in Cleveland.
"It feels like we've come home," said Troast, speaking of his first visit to the UCC's national offices.
The UCC has 55 chaplains serving throughout the U.S. military and another 25 chaplains serving veterans and their families with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
While it is presumed that chaplains exist primarily to provide worship services for service members and their families, "we do so much more," Troast said.
"Every day a service member approaches a chaplain and says, 'Hey Chap, you got a minute,' and we always do," he said.
According to the Geneva Convention, chaplains — who do not carry weapons — are classified as non-combatants. Yet they train and work alongside military personnel in every respect. The constitutionality of chaplains has been upheld repeatedly by U.S. courts, because the establishment clause ensures that citizens have "free exercise" of religion — something that might prove impossible in the military, given tours of duty, isolating locations and restrictive conditions, without the presence of chaplains.
"Imagine if your minister showed up with you at work everyday," Troast said. "That's exactly what we do."
The Rev. John Gundlach, a retired Navy Chaplain of 27 years who now serves as the UCC's minister for government chaplaincy, hosted the retreat in Cleveland.
"It has been our privilege this week to have 15 of our finest clergy with us, our military chaplains," said Gundlach, in introducing the chaplains to Church House staff and visitors.
While in Cleveland, chaplains met with church officers and called for UCC churches to reach out to military families, especially those returning from tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We need to take care of our returning warriors who are hurting mentally, physically and spiritually," Troast said.
Participating in the chaplain retreat were Lt. Cmdr. Peter E. Bauer, USAR (Southern Conference); Capt. Heather A. Bodwell, USAF (Northern Plains Conference); Col. Stephen B. Boyd, USAR (CA-NV Southern Conference); Capt. Countess C. Cooper (Central Atlantic Conference); Capt. Aristides Fokas (Penn Central Conference); Lt. Cmdr. Leila H. Gomulka, USN (Calvin Synod); Capt. N. Charlene Johnson, USAF (Minnesota Conference); Maj. R. Michael Lake (Kansas-Oklahoma Conference); Cmdr. Luis A. Perez, USN (Florida Conference); Capt. Deris L. Rice, USAR (Wisconsin Conference); Lt. Cdr. Leticia P.J. Rouser, USN (Hawaii Conference); Lt. Col. Grant W. Speece, ARNG (Minnesota Conference); Lt. Cmdr. Beth A. Stallinga, USN (Minnesota Conference); CDR Ronald C. Sturgis, USN (South Central Conference); Capt. Donald P. Troast, USN (Massachusetts Conference); and Col. John L. Trout, ARNG (Penn Central Conference).
As the recession puts added financial pressure on seminaries, the case for online theological education might seem like simple math. Add more students, subtract costly services such as housing and food — which online students don't need — and improve the bottom line.
All seven UCC-related seminaries already have or will soon offer some form of online or distance learning. None expect the move to bring a quick financial payoff, due to the investments in technology, training, and support staff needed to go online.
Nonetheless, school administrators say the shift is absolutely necessary to serve both students and the wider church.
"There's a greater and greater need within the church to access, if not whole degrees, then at least a certain amount of theological education, without having to pull up stakes and move elsewhere," says the Rev. Richard Weis, dean of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Many United students travel from the Dakotas and Iowa. Online courses will lessen their commuting burden, Weis says.
Because Web-based courses are primarily asynchronous — students can do the work when it's convenient — the online format is well-suited to people whose work and family schedules don't synch with the normal teaching schedule of a seminary, says Mary Tolbert, dean of Pacific School of Religion.
About half of Protestant seminaries with membership in the Association for Theological Schools are engaged in some form of online or distance education, says William C. Miller, one of ATS' three accreditation officers. ATS requires at least one-third of a degree program to be residential. But as schools experiment with different delivery models, including those involving online technology, the definition of "residential" is changing.
Many web-based courses employ a hybrid model, combining one or two on-campus sessions with online reading, video lectures, podcasts, forum discussions, and live chat.
Theology professor the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite has taught several hybrid courses at Chicago Theological Seminary. Students come to campus for a two-day intensive at the beginning, but the rest of the course takes place on the web.
Kathi Elliott, a commissioned minister serving a congregation in a small Indiana town, took Thistlethwaite's Public Theology course online last fall. Elliott has been pursuing ordination, and her committee on ministry is letting her supplement her Master of Arts in Lay Ministry degree with a few courses, rather than going back to earn a Master of Divinity. So Elliott took a course at a seminary in Indianapolis, balancing church work and family life with commuting and studying. "The class was fantastic, but it almost did me in," she says.
Elliott convinced the committee on ministry to let her to take Thistlethwaite's course. After a two-day intensive in Chicago, the class met online weekly for two-hour chats. Students downloaded podcasts, experimented with social media, and set up blogs.
The committee on ministry worried that an online course would not provide enough interaction with other students, Elliott says. But she found plenty of opportunities through email exchanges, blog comments, and the bi-weekly chats.
The Rev. Jeff Jones, director of distance learning at Andover Newton Theological School, has taught online for six years and has experimented with helping students build community. Jones allows more time for personal sharing at the beginning of a course, and expects some discussions unrelated to course material. "I have a forum called Coffee Break, where I encourage students to post issues they'd talk about during a break between classes," he says.
Thistlethwaite's students get to know her and each other really well during online courses, she says. "The online chats often have some very moving moments. In some ways the discussion is more focused, since people have to type their thoughts out."
Students sometimes underestimate how much time an online course really takes, says the Rev. Nadine Pence, who previously taught theology at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind. The school's attrition rate for online courses dropped after they began counseling students in advance, telling them to expect to work 10 to 15 hours per week for each online class.
Pence is now the director at The Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. The center trains faculty to use the tools of online teaching, and to tailor their modes of teaching to the online medium. Teaching an online course often takes more time than teaching in the classroom, because it has a tendency to become almost individualized, Pence says.
Mary Hess, a faculty member at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., does research on digital technology and teaching, and has led workshops for the Wabash Center. Going online can allow seminaries to offer a richer curriculum, and collaborate more effectively, says Hess.
The move online could also lead to increased competition between seminaries. If geography is no longer a key parameter, schools will have to differentiate themselves in ways that are non-geographical, says Miller of the Association of Theological Schools.
The Rev. Barbara Essex, the UCC's Minister for Higher and Theological Education, says the UCC's seven seminaries are interested in finding ways to work together. Each school has different strengths, she says.
Essex sees several possibilities for the seminaries to offer courses jointly online. A UCC History and Polity course, for example, could be hosted on the denomination's web site, available to both seminarians and laypeople. Several seminaries are working closely with UCC judicatories to meet the growing need to train lay leaders — another area where online and distance learning could be a good fit.
Here's a look at what UCC-related seminaries are doing online:
Andover Newton Theological School started its distance learning program in 1998, and now offers 12-14 courses a year online, according to Jeff Jones, director of distance learning. Most of those are fully online; a few are hybrid. Between 5 and 10 percent of those taking online classes are not Andover Newton students, Jones said.
Bangor Theological Seminary does not offer online classes yet, but trustees have appointed a committee to evaluate the technology and faculty training needed. The seminary plans to have four courses designed, and possibly implemented, by the spring of 2011, says T. Richard Snyder, academic dean. The primary motivation is to better serve students, many of whom commute from remote areas of Maine.
Chicago Theological Seminary has offered a few hybrid courses, and some faculty are incorporating web-based components such as online forums into traditional courses. The seminary's impending move to new building with technology upgrades has prompted conversations about next steps, including offering some classes strictly online, says Ken Stone, dean for academic administration.
Eden Theological Seminary's introductory biblical studies course has been offered online for several semesters. The school is developing online courses with an eye toward those that are most useful and engaging for future church leadership, according to Deborah Krause, academic dean and New Testament professor. Eden's strategic plan calls for expansion of online and distance learning, in both degree and non-degree programs and in lay education.
Lancaster Theological Seminary is in the early stages of exploring distance learning opportunities, says James Siburt, the seminary's director of communications, educational technology, and marketing. This fall, Siburt will teach a hybrid course on new media theory and design as part of the school's new Youth and Young Adult Ministry Program. They are experimenting with iTunesU and Google Apps, and are deploying a new open-source collaboration platform for distance learning. Donors and grant money from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation are funding classroom upgrades.
Pacific School of Religion recently petitioned to the Association of Theological Schools for approval of a full online and distance learning program, according to Laurie Isenberg, director of community and continuing education. Pending approval, PSR will begin offering an online certificate in theological studies this fall. Students who earn the certificate can transfer into the Master of Divinity program with a full year of study completed. Long term, PSR plans to develop a more extensive MDiv program online, so that students won't have to spend two years in residence, Isenberg says.
- United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities first ventured into online education through its continuing education programs. Two years ago, the seminary introduced its first online academic course — congregational spirituality — using a hybrid approach. This year, they offered two courses, and will expand to three next year. UTS intends to move from hybrid to fully online, but wants to keep an eye on the needs of the church and allow its plans to evolve organically, says Richard Weis, dean of the seminary and professor of Old Testament theology.