Conference News

Community UCC, Saint Paul Park

140817 Summit-Pullman Intersection PhotoCommunity UCC was founded as a Presbyterian mission start in October 1888, making us 128 years old. Our congregation has long had a heart for the well-being of children in our community. It was founded first in order to provide children with Sunday school, and hosted kindergarten classes until they were main-streamed into public education in the 1950s. We currently have members who volunteer in elementary school classrooms, we host Girl Scout troops several nights a week, and for the last two years have offered a weekly after-school program for elementary school aged children. We intentionally craft worship and other events in ways that children can feel fully welcome and able to participate.

We have an average of 50 people in worship each week.  We offer a radical welcome to each person who comes through the doors of the church. We say in worship each Sunday, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”, and then we try to live that out every day of the week. We are at our best in creating caring relationships with the people who come to the church. The congregation is very generous when they have the power to meet tangible needs. Even when the answers to prayer are not immediately evident among the people gathered on a Sunday morning, the church always extends the intangible but essential gift that is sacred community, where sorrows shared are halved and joys shared are doubled.

150609 Growing with God Altar DisplayPeople worship with our congregation because they are drawn to our genuine care for other people and for the broader community. They are also drawn to a child-friendly sanctuary, preaching that connects Scripture with public events, and vulnerable/strong/honest sharing during Joys and Concerns. People can easily make genuine connections on a Sunday morning, and the service is small enough to allow even newcomers to feel like their participation makes a difference. If a child who’s only come to worship 1-2 times wants to light the altar candles, we will support and guide them so they can succeed in their leadership too!

The church is located at 1145 Summit Avenue in Saint Paul Park, at a prominent intersection. We are next to railroad tracks, on top of a hill, 6 blocks from an elementary school, and 6 blocks from lower-income and subsidized  rental housing (“down the hill”, and “across the tracks”).

Our pastor, Rev. Oby Ballinger, has served us since December 2009 and will leave us August 21, 2016. Our interim pastor will be announced in the next several weeks.

COMMAnts from the Conference Minister – August 2016

IMG_7353Last week I had the privilege of joining 59 youth and 22 adults representing 9 congregations* in our Conference at the UCC’s National Youth Event (NYE) in Orlando, Florida.  It was awesome! Our 81-person delegation from the MN Conference joined 3000 other youth and adult advisors from across the nation, including about 300 from our partner church, the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ.

Imagine the intense energy and vibrancy of those spaces where we gathered… voices raised in song, bodies moving in dance and clapping to the music, minds fully engaged as youth and young adult speakers shared their absolute brilliance and their passion for making a difference.  In between worship and speakers and quick dips in the pool there were dozens of workshops on topics ranging from the war in Syria to choosing a college to what the Bible says on a wide range of social issues.  The place positively buzzed with life and enthusiasm!  And it was all couched in the language of faith, all directed at compelling our youth to see their faith as a launching pad for action, to help them see themselves as the amazing and talented Children of God that they are.

IMG_7332Yesterday I read some of the blog posts our youth participants from Linden Hills UCC made during NYE.  As NYE finished up, they were asked to reflect on the question, “How has your life changed because of your experience at NYE?”  Here are just a few glimpses of how some responded:

“All the lessons and speeches inspired me to find my passion and help change the world. I’m going to remember this experience for the rest of my life.” – Adam

 “I finally can see the impact that words can have and I hope to live in a world where we use our action to fight for the rights of all people and to end the violence in the world.” – Beryl

 “I realize that being young is not an excuse for doing nothing about today’s problems.” –Briana

 “I feel more comfortable to show who I really am & not to be scared to hide my talents & passions.” –Gayl

I teared up when I read those remarks.

IMG_7328Whether we are 15 or 75, I hope all of us feel empowered and driven as people of faith to go out there and change the world.  And I hope that as individuals churches and as a Conference, we heed God’s call to be a people of passion and compassion.  As an old UCC bumper sticker used to say, “To believe is to care, to care is to do.”

With gratitude and hope for all the ways you care, and for all you do to make a difference-

Shari signature



Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister

Our Minnesota Conference participants at NYE received grants from the Conference to help them attend, and our Conference was a major sponsor of the event itself.  This support was made possible by our Ashley Endowment, dedicated to faith formation with children and youth.

*Many thanks for the following congregations for sending delegations to the National Youth Event this year.  Your prayers, fundraising, and commitment to your youth were outstanding!

  • Bethlehem UCC, Maple Lake
  • Congregational Church of Detroit Lakes
  • First Congregational UCC, Brainerd
  • Linden Hills UCC, Minneapolis
  • Lynnhurst Congregational UCC, Minneapolis
  • Plymouth Congregational, Minneapolis
  • St Paul’s UCC, St Paul
  • Congregational Church, Rochester
  • First Congregational UCC, Princeton

Antiracism Team Update

The Antiracism Team has met twice since the Annual Meeting last month to discern best ways for us to work together on behalf of the Conference. We currently have five members: Gary Kwong (New Brighton UCC/Union UCC in Hackensack), Steve Pavich (Mendota Heights UCC), Khalid Moussa Foster (New Brighton UCC), Kim Graff (Community UCC in St. Paul Park), and myself (soon to be at Edina Morningside Community Church). Associate Conference Minister Steve Boorsma also joins our meetings as a staff liaison when possible. We recognize that our work relies on a far greater circle of partners and allies in this work throughout the MN Conference, and that’s where you come in!

In upcoming months, I anticipate sending occasional emails sharing requests for action that would help our Team’s work, highlighting helpful resources, and sharing info about antiracism activities throughout the state. We individually know about great resources, events and needs, so this may be one way to share with each other and build broader awareness of efforts throughout the Conference. You are likely on many email lists, so to avoid duplication I’ll prioritize news about faith-based activities and needs here in Minnesota. If you’d like to add your name to the list for future emails, please email me your name and congregation (preferably). In the meantime, here are several requests you might consider acting on, and an upcoming event we hope you’ll consider attending.

Action Items:

  • Responding to requests throughout the Conference for resources to aid antiracism efforts in faith communities, the Team is developing a list of resources to be posted on the Conference website and updated regularly. Our goal is to have those available by this fall. Will you help us by submitting resources you recommend, through this form?​​
  • We’ve received an invitation from MARCH, a “newly-emerging rapid response network of people of faith in the Twin Cities”, for folks to add our names to a text/email list. “The idea for this list is that religious leaders and people of faith who are interested in being mobilized for action in support of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and other racial justice work will be connected through a list-serve (and possibly text messaging if we can develop that capacity). Actions are sent out and members of the network are asked to participate as they are able and led.” If you’d like to be added to the list, please email Arif Mamdani at the Kaleo Center, an initiative of United Theological Seminary.
  • We are looking to increase the Antiracism Team’s official membership by 1-2 people in order to achieve broader representation of the entire Conference. We are particularly looking for people of color, women/gender-nonconforming folks, and/or folks in greater Minnesota. Most important, of course, is that potential Team members have the time and passion for this ministry of the Conference. We’ll do great work with our current Team and you as partners, but we’ll do even better work as we continue to reflect the diverse voices of God’s people in Minnesota. Might you be able to recommend someone interested in this work who would help increase our breadth of experience on the Team?Please reply to this email with contact information if you’d like to nominate someone (including yourself). Even if we’re not able to bring someone on to an official role, you will be helping us expand this network of partners and allies–thank you!

Upcoming Events:

New! Overcoming Racism Conference: October 28-29 (Metropolitan State University, St. Paul)

This is an annual event started some years ago with the leadership of Cherokee Park United Church in Saint Paul. It now gathers hundreds of Minnesota and national folks acting to dismantle racism.

Know of another Minnesota antiracism event of interest to people of faith? Please share it with us!

Thanks so much for your partnership in the antiracism efforts of the MN Conference! Please let me know what else would be most beneficial to your congregation or small group.

With gratitude,

Oby Ballinger, Chair

First Congregational United Church of Christ, Baudette

First Congo UCC BaudetteAnother of the congregations started by Rev. T. W. Howard and his wife Susan Collier in the early 20th century, the original church building was destroyed in the fire of 1910 that burned through the area and destroyed most of the towns of Baudette and Spooner, along the Rainy River.  A new church was one of the first buildings to be built following the fire and is still in use as the sanctuary of the current church.  Additions have been made over the years including a basement and a new entrance that contains a lift for all three levels of the church.  Throughout its more then 100 years, the church has seen both good times and bad.  During much of the middle of the twentieth century the church flourished because of the DEW Line Radar bases in the area.  An end to the cold war and the closing of the bases meant a downturn in the area and the church.  It again flourished when a drug company came to town and produced an important drug for women, but when the company downsized, again the church hit hard times.  Currently, Baudette is the largest community in Lake of the Woods county with an economy based on tourism.  The church works to provide a progressive ministry to the community.

As the central church in the Rainy River Regional Parish, First Congregational serves as the base for the parish pastor.  When the proposed amendment that would define marriage as being between one man and one woman came to a state wide vote, it was the Deacons of First Congregational (using resources provided by the Conference) that organized the opposition to the amendment in Lake of the Woods County and the surrounding area.  It also lent support to the effort to make same gender marriage legal in the state.  More recently, it has offered a workshop on telling the truth about the religion of Islam as part of its Lenten study series.

The church is working to rebuild its Christian education program and boasts one of the youngest if not the youngest acolyte in the Conference (a four-year-old girl, usually barefoot and helped by her father, puts out the candles on the alter and carries the flame out).  The Sunday School is primarily very young girls and is multi-racial.  Worship is informal with a come as you are attitude.  After church, coffee usually is available and visitors can catch up on local happenings and the latest fishing news.  Located just a few blocks from the Port of Entry into Canada, First Congregational is an older congregation trying to renew itself as the main voice of progressive Christianity in the area.

Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ, Williams

Williams - Pilgrim Congregational UCCPilgrim Congregational UCC is only 101 years old and is also a combination of two congregations started in the early 20th Century.  One was from Graceton and the other was from Williams.  Like many congregations in rural and small town settings, the church began and still remains in what was originally a school house that has been added on to and made handicap accessible.

The church members come from a wide area that extends along Hwy. 11 from Graceton to the town of Roosevelt and up to the shores of Lake of the Woods, about 12 miles away.

Williams is a dying town that was once the center of seed potato production.  while still agriculturally based, the crops now are grass seed and canola.  Williams also serves as a bedroom community for Marvin Windows in Warroad and Polaris in Roseau.  Tourism also plays a part in the Williams economy, as it does throughout the region.

The congregation is an elderly congregation but continues to provide leadership in the community and surrounding area.  The church helps fund the summer Bible school in the community and hosts the Memorial Day celebration.  When other churches brought in speakers trying to convince people that Islam was a religion of violence, the members of Piltrim asked their pastor to offer a study that told the truth about Islam.  The event was well attended by members from the entire parish and other community churches.

Williams is known by lovers of wild flowers as a center on the wild flower trail that runs across northern Minnesota.  Each spring in June, the Williams Gardeners sponsor a “Wild Flower: trail that helps visitors find different kinds of wild flowers, including a variety of orchids, including the state flower “The Showy Ladyslipper Orchid”.  Church members help provide the leadership for this event.

Again, this small United Church of Christ plays an important role in being a platform for Progressive theology to be heard and social justice proclaimed and given witness to.

United Congregational United Church of Christ, Birchdale

Birchdale United Congregational UCCThe Rev. T. W. Howard and his wife Susan Collier came to the Rainy River Country under the sponsorship of Minnesota Conference of the Congregational Church in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, to proclaim the Gospel message and start Sunday schools and churches.  Before there were roads, using the Canadian Rail system, the river and forest trails, the Howards were responsible for starting several Congregational Churches from International Falls to Warroad.  Their home and their base was at Birchdale.  United Congregational UCC is a combination of three of the churches they started at Indus, Boarder, and Birchdale.  The main part of the current building is over 100 years old and has been added on to.

While the town of Birchdale has very few residents, it serves as the center of a community that stretches along the Rainy River from Lohman to Clemetson in Koochaching County.  United Congregational operates a Sunday school where all children are welcome and where children from other congregations in the area attend.  The pastor of the church serves as the Chaplain to the area and all people are ministered to.  The Congregation maintains a fund to be used for local people who are in need.  Recently it purchased an emergency response system for an elderly woman (who was not a member) so that she could remain in her home.  The congregation is known for its church dinners and breakfasts, all done on a free will offering system, where no one is turned away.  The congregation looks for ways to minister to people and is totally accessible.

Worship is informal in style, often with special music provided by the members of the local bluegrass family band, Sloughgrass.  School children of all ages often get practice playing in front of an audience by providing music for church on the piano, bells, or other instruments like the banjo.

Located on Hwy. 11, halfway between International Falls and Baudette, United Congregational is a church that still leaves its door unlocked as a potential place of refuge for those traveling through far northern Minnesota.  It’s members provide leadership for Community Festivals such as “The All American Fourth of July, with the World’s Greatest Potluck, Pioneer Days with its bluegrass and Gospel music and outdoor worship service, and The North American Sturgeon Fishing Tournament.  Checkout the Deer Hunter’s dinner on the opening day of deer hunting for beef or port roasts, various home grown vegetables, home made bread and desserts – especially pies.  In Spring it is s homemade soup supper.  Or come to church the following day when we normally have the left overs.  Remember worship is always “come as you are” and you will know who the minister is because he’s the one wearing a tie.

A Pastoral Letter from the Conference Minister – July 8, 2016

Philando Castile.  He was a person, not a headline.

JJ HillLast night I stood with hundreds, perhaps thousands of others outside the J.J. Hill Elementary School in St. Paul where Philando was an employee.  One by one, individuals stepped to the microphone to bear witness to his life.  They called him “Mr Phil” at the school, his co-workers said; with trembling voices and falling tears, they described him as a gentle, caring, hard-working, and loving person who had an amazing way with the children.  A cousin spoke of the large family reunion Philando had just attended, returning to the Twin Cities just a day before he was killed.  And then his mother spoke, and his girlfriend, their grief and anger wrenching and raw.

Philando Castile was a person, not a headline.  I’m sure he wasn’t perfect, but I’m equally certain his life was precious.  He loved and he was loved.  And now his name becomes part of that gruesome litany of names that includes Alton Sterling,  Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Jamar Clark, and Walter Scott….

I scarcely know what to say any more.  What words can really matter in the face of what feels like an endless onslaught of senseless violence and death, against a backdrop of racism in our nation from which I benefit as a person of white privilege?  And now what can one say as we wake up to the news of Dallas police officers being attacked, resulting in 5 dead and several others injured?

JusticeI really don’t have words that are adequate.  But the words that have haunted me ever since I watched that horrific video of the moments after Philando Castile was shot are the ones spoken in the small voice of that four-year-old girl who’d been in the backseat of the same car where it happened.  As her mother dissolved into tears, crying out in shock and grief, that little girl sought to bring comfort with a courage far beyond her years.   “It’s ok,” she told her mama, “I’m right here with you.”

There is deep wisdom in that tiny voice for all of us.  Maybe our role now is to find every way we can to show those whose anger and grief are most palpable that we are indeed “right here” with them.  Maybe we’re called to summon our own courage to be profoundly present in the middle of this colossal mess, to absorb the raw emotion and not walk away.  Maybe our task is to avoid the temptation to jump too quickly from the pain to the healing, and rather to do the hard work that healing actually requires.

We claim faith in a God who became incarnate and lived among us, who shared intimately in our suffering and  grief.  We believe in a God who brings resurrecting power to the most desperate places.  Let us witness to that faith now.  Let us bring that same manner of profound presence and transforming love to this moment in time. Pray for the families and friends of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, for communities filled with anger and despair, for the families of police officers killed and injured in Dallas last night, and for law enforcement here and everywhere.

May our words and our deeds reflect the promise of that brave little girl Wednesday night:  “I’m right here with you.”

Shari signature




Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister

July COMMAnts from the Conference Minister

[Note: this column excerpts portions of the sermon delivered by Conference Minister Shari Prestemon at Annual Meeting last month.  Find the full text of the sermon, reflecting on Matthew 14:22-33, here.

“A Call to Courage”

Rev. Shari PrestemonWhat would you do if you weren’t afraid?  That was the question I posed to Annual Meeting delegates in our closing worship on Sunday, June 12.

Across the country, fear has taken hold of us….and it’s popping up in all sorts of surprising and sometimes horrifying ways.  We in the Church are far from immune from this; we have our own set of fears.

In our congregations, the fears are sometimes very practical.  You watch the numbers who attend worship or give faithfully decline and you fear a future for your congregation that looks nothing like its more robust past.  You fear not being able to pay the bills or keep the pastor you love.  If you are the pastor, you might fear that niggling sense you have that no matter what you attempt or do, it’s just not enough, that somehow you are not enough.  You might fear saying something too bold, too prophetic from the pulpit lest someone in your pews gets angry.  Or perhaps you fear the knowledge that the changes you know must be made if your congregation is to have a bright and vital future, are the very changes some of your folk will resist with a vengeance.

So what are we to do with all these fears?  How are we to faithfully navigate the rocky waters we are in amid our own continuum of worry and of fear?  What might it look like to meet those understandable and perhaps inevitable fears with a persevering spirit of faith-fueled courage?

I commend to you three calls to courage :

  1. Have the courage to wrestle with the things that are ‘rocking your boat’. Sometimes we have to be willing to go where we really don’t want to go, to talk about the things we’re scared out of our wits to talk about, to stay in that uncomfortable place for awhile to understand what’s really happening inside ourselves or inside our churches and communities.  Whether that uncomfortable place is a hard financial spot for your congregation, conflict that is dividing your church, or a social issue that is calling you to respond, confront it with love and mercy and with open, gracious spirits.  Call on the strength and wisdom of God to be with you in the mess.
  2. Have courage enough to reach out and ask for help when you need it. Call on God’s power and purpose through a steady practice of prayer and discernment.  Call on your wider church family—a neighboring congregation, a colleague in ministry, your Conference staff.  Build relationships with others in the Conference and draw on them for support and assistance.
  3. Have the courage to persevere in service and in ministry. While fear itself can paralyze us, courage makes room, conversely,  for risk and innovation and cultivates a wild openness to the movement of the irrepressible Holy Spirit.  Faithful courage compels us to discern where God is calling us next, how God is calling us to best steward whatever gifts we have in service to God and others.  Courage puts us out there on the front lines of need and injustice because that’s where our faith would have us be.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?  Beloved Church: don’t let your fears keep you from pursuing God’s bold call on your life and your congregation’s ministry.  May God grant you and all of us unflinching courage for these days.

Courage in the struggle,

Shari signature



Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister

Macalester Plymouth United Church, St. Paul

Mac Plymouth peopleMacalester Plymouth United Church is an Open and Affirming, Just Peace, and Earthwise congregation located in the heart of St. Paul, adjacent to the campus of Macalester College. Their history mirrors that of the United Church of Christ: four congregations joining together as one. We carry the history and traditions of Macalester Presbyterian Church (1887), Plymouth Congregational Church (1858), Merriam Park Presbyterian Church (1884), and Lexington Parkway Presbyterian Church (1911), and they delight in creating new traditions and experiences together.


The congregation is passionate about community engagement and social justice. Their Caring for Creation group, racial justice book study, and regular service projects in and around St. Paul are just a few ways this congregation seeks to grow God’s love in the world. Just last week they became a co-sponsoring congregation for a refugee family from the Congo via Rwanda. From collecting furniture and household furnishings, to deep-cleaning the family’s new apartment, to meeting them at the airport, to accompanying them on the many difficult “settling in” errands, the dedication to this new relationship has been beautiful to witness.


Sunday mornings at Mac Plymouth are characterized by authenticity, curiosity, and community. On average, 130 of people join together each week for worship services that engage hearts and minds in equal measure, with diverse musical offerings and opportunities for intergenerational connection. Sermons come from their pastors, Rev. Adam Blons (Lead Minister) and Rev. Corinne Freedman Ellis (Minister of Congregational Life), as well as guest preachers, often members of their congregation. This Advent they are excited to welcome Process Theologian Rev. Jeanyne Slettom to their staff as the first Theologian in Residence. Mac Plymouth offers education opportunities for all ages after worship, from a Music Garden for the littlest congregants to powerful guest speakers on issues impacting their community and the world, and so much in between. You are invited to connect with them on Sunday mornings at 10 am or at book groups, Bible studies, and community groups throughout the week!

A Pastoral Word after Orlando from the Conference Minister

Rev. Shari PrestemonDear Minnesota Conference UCC,
Just days ago 300 of us convened for the 54th Annual Meeting of the Minnesota Conference.
On Saturday, Reverend Traci Blackmon called us to step into the breach to repair what is unjust and heal what is broken; she challenged us to step out onto the streets where such brokenness and injustice rage daily. Then on Sunday morning, as we gathered for celebration and worship together, we received the tragic news from Orlando. 49 children of God were killed in a LGBT nightclub by one hate-filled gunman. More than 50 others were injured, and across that Florida city and all over this nation scores of people were stunned by yet one more incident of mass gun violence.
We wept together Sunday morning, the last day of our gathering. We prayed. We lifted our laments to God. And then I preached of a fear that has taken our country and our churches hostage, and of a faith that calls us instead to undaunted courage.
We need that courage now more than ever, because the fear and anger and deep grief we feel in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre is viscerally real. We should indeed be angry. This was not a ‘random’ act of violence. This was violence
specifically aimed at the LGBT community, a community that has for too long been the target of vicious hatred and violence. We should be angry that insufficient gun laws made it easy for someone who had actually been on the FBI’s watch list to get assault weapons and use them to express his twisted version of how the world should be.
But let us not let our anger — as justified as it is — be the last or only word. Let us not let our fears about a world that seems to be going stark raving mad paralyze our response. Instead let us raise a different voice, and witness to a different way. Let us stand in the face of this hatred and violence and grief and speak of a God whose love is extravagant, whose welcome is wide. Let us declare that LGBT persons are precious children of God, made in God’s image, held in God’s bountiful grace. Let us refuse to fall prey to an interpretation of this horrific event that paints all Muslims as terrorists, and rather stand with our
peace-loving Muslim neighbors in stubborn solidarity. Let us hold vigils and strengthen community and lift our prayers together. And let us sign petitions and preach sermons and join protests that signal our refusal to accept gun violence and gun worship as normative in our nation.
This is a moment for our kind of faith — loving, passionate, and unifying. This is a moment for
Holding you in peace,

Shari signature
Reverend Shari Prestemon
Conference Minister