Vermont church plans group participation in UCC’s September summit
Who are we, and why are we here?
A congregation in Randolph, Vt., is asking that hard question and hopes the United Church of Christ all-church summit in September can help find the answers.
Charlie McMeekin, moderator of Bethany Church, UCC, has been thinking about that “big picture issue” question and expending a considerable amount of time and energy working to resolve it.
So when he heard the national setting and General Minister and President John Dorhauer were planning an online gathering Sept. 19-21, he got an idea.
“Bethany Church is in the very early stages of envisioning our direction as we begin to move out of all of the COVID restrictions,” McMeekin said. “And lo and behold, the national church announced that it is hosting a virtual conference, entitled ‘The Space Between: The Emerging Church in a Post-Pandemic World.‘ I was so psyched that I called them and asked for their help.”
After conversations with Chief Strategy Officer Cheryl Williams, McMeekin decided to see how Bethany UCC could participate in the online summit as a church.
Dividing up the sessions
“I wanted to challenge all members of our church to register, as the conference promises to present a mix of ideas, programs and directions that different churches around the country are doing or exploring,” he said. “Then we could gather as a local congregation and discuss/decide what we heard that we want to act on.”
Bethany, he said is still quite active, but as members age it needs to explore ways to become more dynamic in the eyes of those who are not attending church. He and other leaders are already surveying congregants, via a questionnaire, about their vision for the future. McMeekin hopes to build on that experience through participation in the three-day summit.
McMeekin plans to schedule five groups to participate in the conference. One will join the first evening session, three will divide up several sessions on the second day, and the last one will be involved in the closing session. Sign-ups began in church on Sunday, Aug. 7.
“My thought is that each group will convene right after their attendance block to discuss what they heard, where they felt some passion, ideas worth pursuing, ideas we could tweak to fit our own needs and directions,” McMeekin said. He’ll enlist a representative from each of those five groups to join a wrap-up conversation.
“My current thinking,” he said, “is that we’ll share the key points of our takeaways at a scheduled church service.”
“We are delighted to be encouraging participation from the whole church in the UCC Summit, and are so grateful for the generous response to our request to make that possible,” said Bethany Church Pastor Kimberly McKerley. She is just back from sabbatical and was heartened to see the interest in “how to ‘be church’ in a new day.” Many members of the church have already signed up to participate.
“Like many other churches, Bethany has experienced both bane and blessing during the COVID years, and there is much to process,” she said, noting that the conversations about the church’s vision for the future began long before the pandemic changed everything.
“The new day we now find ourselves in holds more challenges that we could have imagined, and it calls for our most thoughtful and faithful response. Having other UCC companions to explore with along the way is a welcome and exciting possibility. And what a great way to begin my ministry post-sabbatical!”
The Vermont congregation, she said, does big things well. She pointed to a recent endeavor to assist the people of Myrhorod, Ukraine.
Under the leadership of two members, Bethany recently sent 5,000 pounds of requested supplies to their town’s sister city. The congregation collected medical supplies, crutches, walkers, clothing and kids’ toys — then raised $5,000 to ship them.
Members also created an apartment to provide short-term housing for homeless families on church grounds. McMeekin said it has been used this first year about 20% of the available time, or one out of every five days.
“Our mission as a church, as stated in our mission statement, is ‘to follow our call to be the hands and feet of the living Christ at work in the world today,’” he said, “and we honestly do work to live up to that.”
‘To open up’
But knowing that the church had some decisions to make about the direction in the future, Sabbatical Pastor Greg Briggs encouraged them to define who they want to be.
“It’s tough to be honest about how many congregants we have, to be truthful, which is in part why this summit is important to me,” McMeekin said. “As with so many churches, I suspect, we have yet to recover from COVID. Attendance, which a decade or so ago hovered around 115, now averages 65 to 75 with in-person and zoom participants, and we’ve started an endeavor to reach out and listen to some of our ‘missing’ to learn what’s up with them.
“We know some are still staying home because they’re not ready to be in unmasked settings. We welcome masks, but no longer require them.”
“This is definitely a church that didn’t close up during COVID,” Briggs said. “They opened in new ways.” He noted what they were able to do to help the people in Myrhorod. “This (discernment period) is part of the process … how to open up the worship that way in the life of the church.”
93-year-old signs up
Briggs said often the challenge is getting exposed to new ideas and new thoughts. He said the summit provides that opportunity “to talk about how to be church in a post-COVID age and you really don’t need to leave your living room.”
He noted that on his last Sunday, Aug. 14, 18 to 20 people had already signed up. Irene Schaefer, 93, one of the organizers of the Ukraine shipment, is planning to participate on Tuesday, Sept. 20.
A member of Bethany for 22 years, Schaefer said she “signed up for that date as it was the only one that suited my schedule — and Charlie is pushing us all to sign up for one of the times!”
All registrants will have access to all the recordings from the online event, which will feature keynote speakers, worship and discussion sessions planned around presentations from several prominent UCC pastors, preachers, leaders, advocates and organizers.
‘Re-examining our call’
McMeekin is hoping to get at least 50 people involved. “We’re hoping that this is the first step in re-examining our call as Christians,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out how we can be more available to a wider audience as a body of Christians, as we believe there are folks out there who would respond positively if we could figure out how to reach out to them in appropriate ways.”
He pointed out that when he and Pastor McKerley had the chance to speak to every freshman at the local high school as part of a class exploration of world religions, they discovered “that of the 74 kids who came to visit; only eight had ever been inside a church.”
“We look forward to joining with our siblings in Christ to commiserate and celebrate, to inspire and to innovate together and, as the summit announcement suggests, ‘to work together in further exploration of what fits now, where we need to stretch ourselves, and how we build capacity to resource the church’s needs as it evolves,’” McKerley said. “We can’t wait! “
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