At the “Meet & Greet” for the Rev. Bill Worley, the candidate to be Penn Southeast’s Conference Minister – click to learn more about him — (at Old First last Wednesday night – thanks for all who turned out, and for those who prepared food and helped host!), the conversation was lively and important. I found most helpful our straight talk about covenant and leadership in the United Church of Christ.
Bill’s starting point — and a basic premise of the search committee in its work identifying him — was that the denominational system as we have known it (from our local congregations on into the middle judicatories of Associations and Conferences all the way to the national setting) isn’t serving the situation in which we find ourselves. It’s outdated.
And the ways this antiquated system often fails to serve us causes stresses and cracks in the covenant – our commitment and effectiveness working together to accomplish the ministry of Christ’s church. There’s not the trust we need between us. Or the deep relationships of give and take. And without those human resources, both the changes we need to figure out and face… and the future waiting for us… are harder to get to. Maybe even beyond our reach.
None of this is news at Old First. It’s a path we’ve been on since we began our Covenant Ministry in fall of 2009. For those who were not around during Covenant Ministry, and for those who maybe just forgot!, we discovered some good news:
1) The church can change – evolve really, step by step, at a pace incremental enough for those its members to keep up and not fall or feel left behind.
2) Many changes can be made without losing the best of our past or what is most dear about our faith community. In fact, we found ourselves proud and excited when we got some new things under our belts.
3) Many changes turned out not as earth-shaking as we feared. Yet, they ended up having a far greater effect than we had imagined. Relatively small changes sufficed for finding new people where they were, and speaking to them in ways they could hear… for creating doors and rooms wherein new people could join us.
It’s not so surprising once you realize it, but there’s more life and hope in — and reason to be involved with — a living, developing growing community (even if that growth hurts sometimes) than a hope against hope, moribund institution that’s white-knuckled, clenching on to what had been and wondering, worried if it can survive.
Bill asked the search committee why we chose him. I want to share my answer… about Bill’s leadership in this time of mending relationships and transforming settings for ministry:
“In both the role play and the challenging vision you offered — and how it answered our situation as portrayed in the profile — you showed the leadership that the Conference and the church as a whole need.
You are someone who can stay focused on what is most necessary– for the Conference and its Conference Minister. You are not afraid to discomfort and agitate us. You desire to bring a greater sense of accountability to the life of our churches – introducing goal-setting and regular evaluation into the fabric and life together of our church.
Against some of our own political and spiritual sensibilities, we understood your explanation that the Marines taught you to get things done, and that the UCC had taught you the heart of a pastor.”
At one point, Bill asked those gathered to meet him on Wednesday night, “If the Conference disappeared overnight, what difference would it make the next morning for the ministry of your local church?” The short answer is “none,” at least not the next morning.
But for a place like Old First, that is very UCC-identified, over time, the absence of the broader faith and practice of the UCC would leave our ministry impoverished.
In this denomination, with all the autonomy in its culture, it’s easy to feel we can do it or are doing it on our own. But that’s a bit naïve. And arrogant. We stand on so many shoulders. And have a whole network of people supporting and adding to us and our effort.
As we welcome Bill in his leadership ministry among us, may I ask us to consider… or better to recognize how much we receive from the wider UCC.
Yes, we have a lot to offer too: we’ve gotten enough right to see new people show up, renewed energy and greater resources organized for ministry.
But without the UCC context and mission and relations, we could not be doing what we are.
As together, we try and figure out how to serve in a world that’s gotten ahead of the church… as we try to become more fruitful in our local church and wider church ministries… can become more intentional about, or committed to our covenant and how we can work with the UCC in ways that are both faithful and rewarding?
Here’s something concrete: how many of you would be willing to try experience a bit of the wider church and join us on Sat., May 31, for the Conference Spring Meeting where Bill will be voted on? (If you are interested, let me know!)
Imagine, a couple years out, if the churches of this Association and Conference are working hand in glove, each and everyone playing their different part and also helping the national setting too– what if we really were presenting heart and hands, body and spirit, offering our all — together — to accomplish everything God intends with the United Church…
See you in church,