Task force: Synod frequency change could allow new possibilities for connection
If delegates of the United Church of Christ pass a series of bylaw changes at this summer’s General Synod, taking place in Indianapolis June 30-July 4, it could change the frequency of Synod from every two years to every three.
It could also create opportunity for new types of connection across UCC settings.
That’s the message from the special Task Force on General Synod Frequency, Form and Function as it wraps up a series of Town Hall webinars focused on the changes. The task force was formed in 2020 and is comprised of UCC Board members, though some completed their board terms over the course of this work.
Yvette Wynn, who chairs the task force, said members are grateful for those who attended the webinars to discuss the proposal that would change the frequency of the denomination’s national gathering.
“It was really helpful for us to hear directly the grief, but also the excitement or willingness to look at what it could be and the opportunities there,” she said. “From the first town hall to the last, there seemed to be some level of becoming more comfortable with the idea of change. This collective discernment and conversation is helping us all wrestle with the idea of change.”
‘How we connect’
A question that arose several times in the discussions focused on how this change could impact staff time and their work, according to Call. “One thing we said is we hope this would free some of the staff to do other things that might have benefit for the local church,” she said. “I hope they will be doing more of the ministry work they are supposed to be doing.”
Task force members highlighted how a less-frequently-held Synod could allow time to create new possibilities of connection.
“We’re really talking it about as an opportunity for how we connect,” Gaughan said. “There is concern about a loss of UCC identity and a sense that some small churches aren’t that connected to the UCC, and Synod isn’t reaching those folks either. I really see it as an opportunity to find other ways to connect with the 99.5 percent of folks not attending Synod.”
The opportunity to add smaller or more regional gatherings could potentially engage local churches in a way that better stewards resources, according to Cranbury. “It’s about effective resource use,” she said. “It’s not just that we want to save money. But we are saying that we want the national setting to be present for the other settings of church, or the church at large, in a way that is meaningful. At the current model, a lot of people are saying the national setting isn’t there for local settings in the way that they want the local setting to be supported. Some people are saying that expanding time between Synods could damage that relationship, but we’re hoping that doing this would repair the relationship by giving more space for the national setting to do the work that local settings expect.”
‘A different environment’
The world has also changed since the denomination’s decision to hold a biennial meeting when it was founded in 1957. “This is a different environment,” Wynn said, acknowledging that sponsors and other UCC entities are facing similar challenges with high costs as the national setting. She also noted that taking five days for this kind of gathering can be difficult for people who are less likely to use this as a family vacation than in the past “when people did something with their faith on a more regular basis.”
Town hall attendees posed questions about other options for changing Synod’s frequency, many of which the task force had considered. Some asked about keeping it at two years but making it virtual. “We didn’t see any savings there with the cost and work – production costs of a virtual event are still very high,” Wynn said.
Some wondered about lengthening the time between Synods to four years, Call said. “We did talk about doing this, but there was a pretty strong consensus that this would not be a positive thing to do right now. Starting with three seems manageable,” she explained.
‘Now is the time’
The final decision will be before delegates later this month in Indianapolis. If two-thirds of the Synod delegates approve, the 36th Synod would be the first adjusted to the new schedule, taking place in 2028 rather than 2027.
The UCC Board voted to recommend the bylaw changes in October 2022. “Board members and the Council of Conference Members were all in general agreement that now is the time to seek a new rhythm and pattern for our national meetings,” Board Chair the Rev. Cameron Barr wrote in a report to the church following the meetings. The vote followed months of work by the task force.
Past Synod votes on the topic of Synod frequency have not received enough votes to make a change. This Synod’s proposal includes greater detail and bylaw updates that give clarity on how this would impact elements like terms of service and the resolution process that had not been previously addressed, according to Barr.
The town halls, recorded and edited into one video, are available here.
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