Some Thoughts Regarding the Parameters of Diversity and Inclusion in the United Church of Christ

Fifteen years ago, when I was a pastor in the Southern Conference, I overheard someone remark that the trouble with the United Church of Christ (UCC) is that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a liberal church or a diverse church. I’ve often thought about those words, and I’ve often recited them to others. More recently, I’ve wondered about their validity: How diverse is the UCC? How liberal (or progressive) is it? And what do we mean by diversity? Is UCC diversity just about ending racism and getting congregations to become Open and Affirming (ONA)? Is it about intergenerational worship? Is diversity about our churches’ different worship styles and theologies?

For starters, UCC diversity doesn’t mean that when our denomination advocates for social justice concerns, it speaks for every UCC congregation and member. Nor does it mean that because General Synod does not speak for everyone, it should remain silent and never take a stand.

And diversity doesn’t defy the laws of logic. A church cannot endorse and simultaneously reject a certain viewpoint or commitment. Nor can a theological idea or church practice be both true and false, or exist and not exist. Nor can a pastor embrace change and tradition at the same time. Nor can UCC leaders advocate for LGBTQ rights and racial justice in urban and multicultural churches—and not talk about these commitments in rural congregations.

There are many ways in which we are diverse.

Diversity is evident in the “radical welcome” and “extravagant hospitality” that UCC churches extend to all who come through their doors: first-time visitors and forty-year members; the young and the old; atheists, doubters, and true believers; gays and straights; people of color as well as white people; the poor and the rich; people of disability and the able; and saints and sinners of every kind. UCC churches do not restrict participation, membership, or Christ’s Table to the “saved.” Like the banner says, “Jesus didn’t reject people—and neither do we.”

The United Church of Christ is diverse in the sense that our congregations are all different from one another. There are Congregational UCC churches, Christian UCC churches, and “E&R” UCC churches. There are white, Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian/Pacific Islander UCC congregations. UCC churches are large and small, urban and rural. Each has its own unique colors, textures, language, and traditions, but all are welcomed into our denomination’s expansive fold.

Source: Pixabay.com

Source: Pixabay.com

The UCC demonstrates its diversity in the cross-section of Christian denominations that it invites into its inclusive fellowship. We enjoy full communion with our ecumenical partner, the Disciples of Christ, and through a formula of agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Canada. In addition, the UCC seeks to establish full communion relationships with several other Protestant and Anglican denominations.

Our denomination’s diversity is evident theologically, in the way that conservative and Evangelical UCC churches and congregants partner together in fellowship and ministry with progressive and liberal UCC congregations. To be sure, many of our churches and people have different perspectives about a host of issues—and sometimes we struggle to live into our diversity.

There are also ways in which we’re not as diverse as we should be.

When we look at individual congregations—rather than entire Conferences or the National Church—we see that far too many UCC churches are monocultural: most white churches are totally white, many Black churches are almost entirely Black, and so forth. In addition, the median age of UCC congregants seems to be about 60, and their median hair color seems to be about…gray and balding. There are glorious exceptions—multicultural churches that sparkle with demographic and theological diversity—but too often, in too many churches, we see more homogeneity than diversity.

Then too, some Conservative and Evangelical UCC churches and congregants say that the United Church of Christ is not truly diverse—they feel patronized, or condescended to, by UCC liberals and progressives, and by the National Church. To be sure, these are UCC churches, and many are culturally and politically conservative as well as theologically conservative. Indeed, they say they are uncomfortable with our denomination’s use of gender-neutral language, with its condemnation of Islamophobia, and with its unwavering support of LGBTQ rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, economic justice, women’s reproductive rights, and various other social justice issues.

In other words, just because we call ourselves a diverse church doesn’t necessarily mean we are one. We need to work harder at being diverse.

I believe that the acid test of UCC diversity—and what defines the parameters of our diversity—may well be our Church’s search-and-call and hiring practices, particularly at the Conference and National settings. We cannot call ourselves a diverse church and at the same time call only progressive and liberal persons to staff our Conference and National Church vacancies, and to fill the pulpits of our “best” and largest churches. UCC conservatives and Evangelicals should be filling some of these positions.

The bottom line here is respect—first, mutual respect for all our sister and brother UCC members and their congregations, whether they are conservatives or liberals, progressives or Evangelicals, Democrats or Republicans, White or Black, gay or straight, and ONA or non-ONA—and second, respect for traditionally marginalized individuals and groups, including LGBTQ people, people of color, Hispanics, Asians, women, Muslims, foreigners, the homeless, and atheists and skeptics.

The United Church of Christ embraces all people. We welcome all congregations and worship traditions, and we encourage urban, suburban, and rural churches of all sizes and theological perspectives to celebrate their UCC identity, connect with their sister UCC churches, and acquire Christ’s passion for inclusion—for embracing and serving “the least of these” in the world.

Our Church welcomes progressives and Evangelicals, and conservative and liberal churches, theologies, and worship traditions—but there is no room in any setting of the UCC for racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, sexism, or homophobia.

 

Chris XenakisRev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.

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3 thoughts on “Some Thoughts Regarding the Parameters of Diversity and Inclusion in the United Church of Christ

  1. When I initially read this I was interested to see what the definition of diversity meant to the writer. At the same time I am wondering where the Disability Community and those suffering with mental illness come in? Claiming diversity for physical / visible differences are wonderful but I am often concerned that the term being a “diverse church” is only measured in the tangible signs, tangible signals, visual understandings.

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    • You are absolutely correct, Danielle; saying that we are diverse is very different from actually being a diverse denomination–and it is different still from the experience of attending a given UCC church and finding that it is, or that it is not, truly diverse. Saying that we reject ableism, and that we stand up for the rights of people of disability is different from actually repaving our sidewalks and walkways and installing cutaways at the curbs. I am delighted that more and more of our churches are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act–many churches actually are installing curb cutaways, ramps at entrances, and elevators, and are retrofitting bathrooms to make them accessible to all. But of course, many churches still have work to do in order to improve access. In my understanding of diversity, the communities that surround our churches are much more like a “salad bowl,” or if you prefer, like a skillfully woven and sewn tapestry of many colors, than they are like a “melting pot.” Our neighborhoods, our communities, and the people who walk or drive past our church buildings every day are multicultural: They are Black, White, affluent, poor, gay, straight, young and old. They are people of ability and they are people of disability. There are members of single-parent families, blended families, traditional nuclear families, and same gender families.

      There is a great deal of diversity in the communities and neighborhoods that surround our UCC churches. And just as there is no one single correct way to be a family, there is no one single correct way to be a Christian or a churchgoer. So when I write about diversity in the church, I mean that I would like for our churches to be mirror images, culturally, socially, and economically, of the neighborhoods and communities in which they reside and which they serve.

      Long answer, but there it is.

      Chris

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      • I fully agree that that “our churches [should] be mirror images, culturally, socially, and economically, of the neighborhoods and communities in which they reside and which they serve.” For some successful churches, this is true to a fault; there is little in the form of theological leadership critiquing the culture, social norms, and economy of the community. Other churches, islands of a past culture in a socially changed, often poorer neighborhood, find it impossible to communicate their understanding of the gospel to their neighbors. Exceptions to these stereotypes are rare enough to be highlighted in denominational periodicals.

        More important, however, than how our churches are progressive or diverse is what kind of a future for the world, and therefore for our neighborhoods, do we pray and work for? We are all coming from different and contrasting places, but to assume that “our” places are blessed by God in one way or another is to deny the prophets’ message of God’s “new heaven and earth,” and Jesus’ announcement of “God’s kingdom,” perhaps beyond our comprehension. In these expectations, all current convictions are relativised.

        Our mutual respect for one another is based not on political correctness but on our common incorrectness, traditionally called sin. In reality there is racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia in and around many UCC settings. The hard question is how to practice Christ-like commensality with their advocates in light of our common destiny. By the way, Jesus did tell us how: “whoever wishes to become [successful] among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all.”

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