This weekend there will be an historic meeting taking place in Hartford. The Connecticut Conference, Massachusetts Conference, and Rhode Island Conference of the United Church of Christ will gather together for a Tri-Conference Annual Meeting. It’s the first time that these conferences will hold annual meetings together and the first time that delegates will be asked to endorse the idea of forming a brand new conference since the UCC was formed in 1957. If the resolution to form a new conference passes, there will be a detailed proposal drawn up and we would vote on the specifics at Annual Meeting in 2018.
The truth is, there are many changes taking place in Mainline Protestantism. The scary statistic from the latest national report of the UCC noted that we’ve lost 696 congregations and 318,897 members in the last ten years. I don’t have ABC statistics in front of me as I write, but I would bet that they are similar as we’re seeing these trends across the board. The Southern Baptist Convention (our country’s largest Protestant denomination) had a decline in membership for the ninth straight year so it’s effecting Evangelicals too.
Now I’ve never known the booming churches of the 1950s given my age. As part of the Trinity UCC, Wadsworth, Ohio Confirmation Class of 2000, ours was considered a larger class–and there were just 9 of us confirmed! As part of my leadership development with the Next Generation Leadership Initiative (NGLI) of the UCC, we’ve focused on learning adaptive leadership and church revitalization, on communication strategies and community outreach. Long gone are the days when ministers went to Seminary or participated in Continuing Education after Seminary and just learned scripture, history, ethics, and worship! We learned all that too, don’t get me wrong. But just as church is changing, so is ministry. In fact, the UCC now has “multiple paths to ministry” and the Church will have more people serving who don’t have a formal Seminary education in the future. Because how can you go to Seminary and incur all that student loan debt only to serve a church that may not be able to afford a full-time Seminary educated minister anyway?
To say that seismic changes are taking place in the Church is not an understatement. Being with leaders across the UCC in New England as we consider forming a whole new conference affirms this reality for me. HOWEVER, we are not defined only by this narrative of decline! And guess what? I find that people in church are here for compelling reasons–not because it’s the only thing to do on a Sunday morning or because it’s what you’re “supposed” to do or because you look cool. Moreover, we’re never a people who live without hope–not when we have Jesus’ transformative life and teachings as our guide! We’re Easter People who believe in the power of new life. More than ever, the work of our church matters. The work to proclaim that God is Still Speaking and that we provide an extravagant welcome to ALL people. The work of being the hands and feet of Christ in the world. We are living in a time of great change, and there’s new possibilities ever before us.
If I could ask for a favor, please pray for all of us gathered in Hartford on Friday and Saturday. Pray that we will listen to one another with compassion and act with courage, following the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thank you for your prayers and stay tuned as to what will come after this historic meeting.
(This Week’s Thoughts 6.16.17)
Update–the Resolution passed in all three Conferences. To read more, check out the Connecticut Conference Press Release!