State of the Conference 2015

State of the Conference 2015 – Rev. Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister
Last week I spent an evening with a stack of your church newsletters on my lap, reading through each one and getting a glimpse into your church lives. In that pile of papers were bits of news from small town churches and large urban churches, from congregations scattered from north to south, east to west and all across this Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ, congregations that would likely describe themselves as struggling and others that would define themselves as strong. There were columns from pastors and musings from moderators, and requests from treasurers to please not forget your giving even while away on summer vacation. There were announcements about pie socials and ice cream socials and summer BBQ’s and fish fry’s. Minutes of Council meetings and votes on items ranging from the mundane to the first hints of new and exciting possibilities. There were prayers for church members and their families, and prayers for Nepal after the earthquakes. There were calls to mission and service and mobilization for justice, invitations to spiritual growth groups and notices of fundraisers for roofs and boilers and in one case even for “rocks”.
With every article and story of life in your congregation, I was reminded again of how hard you work, of how sincerely you struggle, to be Christ’s Church in all our many places and ways, to find God’s purpose and calling in this time and amid today’s challenges. And so my first word for you now is this: thank you
Thank you for the day-in and day-out struggle you engage in to embody Christ’s love and Christ’s hope in your communities and in all the world. I am grateful for you, each one, and every single one of your congregations – no matter where you are or how big or how small — is a precious part of the United Church of Christ in Minnesota and of God’s hope for this world.
I know that there is much to be read “between the lines” of those newsletters. I know that between the fun of ice cream socials and the inspiration of Sunday worship there are for all of you hard decisions being made….about pastoral transitions, squeezed budgets, buildings needing repair and the best ways forward to revitalize and strengthen your ministries. And that’s not just true for smaller churches; it is true for all our churches. I know this to be so not just because of what I read in your newsletters but because of your phone calls and your emails and because of what you’ve shared with Rick and Steve and Wade and I when we have visited your churches or sat down with you for coffee. We are all, in one way or another, prayerfully seeking to discern God’s call to us as Christ’s gathered church in this time. Asking those important questions about how God calls to us now and what it means to be Christ’s church now is a spiritual practice as old as the church itself; it is essential to our ability to be a relevant, living and breathing Body of Christ in every age.
Later in our Annual Gathering you will hear a presentation about the feasibility study we engaged in over the last year. In some ways the study was itself a method of asking ourselves as the Minnesota Conference Body of Christ how God is calling us today. It was prefaced by months of dreaming and planning by Conference staff and leadership and time spent shaping that dream through the input of focus groups and other wide conversation. Then we cast that dream out into the waters to see if it would “hold up”, so to speak, under your scrutiny. The feasibility study made it clear to us that while there was a lot of energy and excitement about all we envisioned, a large-scale fundraising campaign is not advisable at this time. But what we learned in the process was extremely valuable for us to hear. For example, one of the questions asked by our consultants in a series of 55 interviews with people across the Conference was this: “What do you think are the most critical functions of the Minnesota Conference UCC?” Some of the top responses to that question were:
• Support for local churches and lay leaders
• Helping us to embrace our call
• Revitalization
• Conflict management & crisis intervention
• Helping with feelings of isolation that progressive churches have in conservative areas
• Search and Call, including pastoral transitions and
• Education, leadership development, and practical skill training
Over the course of the year, the Associate Conference Ministers and I heard echoes of all of this in time well spent with you. Between the four of us we visited 107 congregations since Annual Meeting last year. And that doesn’t count churches we encountered at Pilgrim Point Camp or at various events, or the hundreds of hours spent talking with you by telephone or email or in face to face conversations with you about all sorts of topics related to your congregation’s health and future or, in the case of authorized ministers and members in discernment to your vocational discernment. Supporting congregations during leadership transitions is of course is a very important part of the work. In search and call matters alone, Rick worked with 35 separate churches in the last year.
That resourcing and support you seek was provided in other ways through the year too. There were 4th Thursdays for leaders of Faith Formation, Conference Youth Events at Pilgrim Point Camp,Fall Convocation where the focus was navigating conflict in congregations Family Camps at Pilgrim Point and an enormous amount of ministry accomplished through our teams and committees and work groups. The New Beginnings program, which you’ll also hear more about later this weekend, was an opportunity we rolled out for congregations who sought fresh perspective and a new way forward. And at last year’s Annual Meeting I announced “Church on the Move”, a series of events in 3 different regions of the state designed to help us more deeply connect and be resourced on topics relevant to you. At each of these events in Owatonna, New Brighton, and at Pilgrim Point Camp, the energy was incredible! Members of congregations who would otherwise never have met found themselves together in small group discussions discovering common challenges and sharing new ideas. People who would never normally attend a wider church event came to COTM and actually enjoyed it! And in some cases, churches that have been feeling very isolated and alone suddenly realized they were anything but, drawing strength and encouragement from those around them. 146 people representing 59 congregations participated in Church on the Move. All four of the Conference’s professional ministry staff were present at each of these events and together we agree: COTM is worth repeating. Mark your calendars now for these three COTM events in the 2015-2016 year: October 24 at Peace UCC in Rochester; January 23 at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton; and April 23 at First Congregational UCC in Moorhead. I look forward to seeing you there!
The “21st Century Church Fund” was also born since we last met in Annual Meeting, made official just over one month ago. The fund was seeded, as you may know, from the net proceeds of the sale of the building of one of our beloved congregations, Pilgrim UCC in Maple Grove. This new church start was planted in the early 1980’s and a building erected for the congregation about 10 years later. When the congregation discerned for itself that it could no longer keep its doors open and deeded the property to the Conference, we took several months to determine the best stewardship of this gift, including conversation with one of our other congregations about birthing a satellite ministry in that location. Ultimately the timing on that particular dream would not prove right, and the decision was prayerfully made to put the property up for sale. Those funds will now enable us to invest more strategically in the renewal of our existing congregations and to support the creation of new churches moving forward.
We give thanks for this legacy left to all of us by the Pilgrim/Maple Grove congregation and pray that the energy, hopefulness, and evangelistic spirit that began that church will now fuel all of us through the 21st Century Church Fund.
Support for local churches and leaders. Revitalization and resourcing. Help in pastoral transitions. Being with other healthy churches. When asked what the most critical functions of the Conference are, these were some of the headliners….and I think in this our work has been full and it has been good. But there was a theme to some of the other most frequent responses that also caught my eye. It pointed to something larger than each individual ministry in our Conference , to an acknowledgement that the enterprise of “church” is one best undertaken together. And it signaled a real hunger for more connection with one another. The essential function of the Conference, people also said in the study, is to link local churches with the wider church, and to bring people together to accomplish bigger things than churches can do alone. And this comment I particularly loved: Minnesota Conference, someone said, we want you to “unleash our power!”.
What would that look like, to unleash the power of our individual ministries by discovering the power of our ministry together? To realize that we are not alone in this amazing adventure of faith and ministry? What would it be like to understand the Minnesota Conference of the United Church of Christ– all 132 congregations and all our authorized ministers and lay leaders and community partners and magnificent talents – as a vehicle by which all our ministries could be stronger? What if we could really see our individual congregations each with our special challenges and gifts and promise as one piece of a much larger puzzle which only makes sense when all the pieces are fit together as a whole?
We are all of us together the Minnesota Conference UCC. We are the sum of all our parts… and more! Our individual abilities to do and share ministry are all wrapped up with each other. So what might it look like if we could unleash our power as one church together? Maybe individual congregations who’ve figured out how to do something really well – like intergenerational worship or evangelism or stewardship or social media – could mentor other churches needing help with just that thing. Maybe churches could join together to do things you feel you can’t really do alone, like mission trips or Confirmation or an amazing community project. Maybe clergy who are feeling overwhelmed and isolated could build real community with neighboring clergy through ministerial excellence groups or cluster gatherings. Maybe when there’s an opportunity to gather and learn with other congregations we could take it. Maybe together we can speak and act more boldly about all those things in our world that otherwise leave us feeling so utterly helpless….and make together an actual difference. What is your congregation’s gift that you have to share with others in this Body of Christ? What is your congregation’s dream that another part of the Body might help fulfill? And what passions and dreams for our communities and the world can we best realize if we join together in one voice and in common cause?
The language of Romans 12, as interpreted in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, says it like this: “In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as part of Christ’s body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other or trying to be something we aren’t.” (Romans 12:4-6, The Message)
Let’s just go ahead and be what we are made to be…. seeing each part of this Conference as a miraculous and blessed part of one body, each needing the other in equal measure. No metro versus non-metro discontent, no poor church/wealthy church divisions, no Conference versus local church mistrust or detachment. Just one marvelous body of Christ, each part gifted, each part needed and required in order to be the Church that Christ has called us to be.
Here’s the thing: choosing to build genuine and deep community is a lot easier to talk about than to do. We like being independent – especially in the UCC. Our tendency is to go it alone more than it is to reach out to others. We like to think we already know all we need to know. We choose to believe that what they’re going through over there has nothing to do with what we need over here. Living in real community requires a willingness to be vulnerable. It requires courage and intentionality. And it requires humility. I suspect we’re going to need a little bit of all of that this weekend, as we dare to confront in ourselves, in our Conference, our communities and our world the ugly reality of racism that still pollutes our lives and relationships. But that’s the exactly the kind of daring we are called to as Christ’s disciples in Christ’s Church. And that’s the kind of faithful work I’m inviting you to with renewed intent now.
You may have seen this banner outside as you arrived on campus. “Be the Church” it proclaims, listing the kinds of things that we in the United Church of Christ have discerned as part of our calling as Church today. I love this new promotion of the national setting, love that it hangs on the exterior wall of my own home church, Mizpah UCC in Hopkins and on many of your walls too. And so many of these faithful efforts are what I see evidence of in your newsletters and your daily work across this state, for which I am truly grateful. There’s just one thing I don’t like about this banner, just one small but very significant change I’d like to make to it.
There. That’s better. Be the Church….together! Celebrate the gifts each of us bring to our shared ministry in the world. Remember that none of you are alone. Pause when any of us become singularly focused on our own needs and concerns to remember it is not all just about us. Have courage to go deeper with one another and choose to trust rather than not. Know that we can accomplish more together than we could ever do alone. Let us embrace our life together, so that’s God’s power and God’s magnificent love can be unleashed.
Let this be our prayer in the Minnesota Conference UCC. Let this be our new discipline and way. Let us BE THE CHURCH…..TOGETHER!
Blest be the tie that binds,
Our hearts in Christian love,
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.