What Ministers (Should) Expect in an ONA Denomination

This week’s post is written by Rev. Malcolm Himschoot who supports cross-conference infrastructure for Search and Call as the denomination’s Minister for Ministerial Transitions. He works with the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Team in Cleveland. Once upon a time as a new ordinand, he was featured in the United Church of Christ-produced transgender-related documentary Call Me Malcolm.

United Church of Christ associations as they grant authorization for ministry do not confront any denomination-level prohibition on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) or same-gender-loving identity. Instead, the UCC as an Open and Affirming (“ONA”) denomination recommends full inclusion in the life and leadership of the church for persons no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Committees on Ministry have the responsibility to assess candidates on relevant aspects of faith, theological and spiritual formation, and professional skills and competencies.

The ONA movement has meant more possibilities for ordained ministers of Word and Sacrament within the UCC than some other North American Protestant traditions from the 1980s to now. Members in Discernment seeking ordination and individuals seeking denominational Privilege of Call in and on behalf of the United Church of Christ bring various understandings with them on that path. Occasionally however, assumptions differ from a context which is more complicated than full inclusion, because of local-led polity and the historical unfolding of the ONA process.

Not every church in the United Church of Christ is Open and Affirming (ONA).

Denominational statistics as of December 31, 2015 showed that 1,304 out of 5,032 congregations had a policy statement approved by the ONA Coalition making them officially an ONA church. Coalition staff and volunteers provide support for a relational and educational process as part of the local church’s experience before making a decision (typically by vote of the congregation).

ONA started in 1985, with a General Synod resolution encouraging all settings of the church to study and adopt such statements for themselves. The first year, just a few churches chose to do so. The next year, a few more. The number doubled roughly every five years, crossing the threshold of 1,000 churches more than two decades later.

The total of ONA churches in the 2016 Statistical Profile came to 25.1%. This percentage is larger when looking just at new ministry settings. Of congregations organized since 1970, the tally shows 34.9% of UCC churches are ONA.

New congregations come into being gradually, and may gather around a founding pastor before being formally recognized as a calling body. Authorization decisions for new church start pastors depend upon local covenantal relationships including a local church of the UCC and the association holding ministerial standing and oversight.

Membership in and calling by a local church is an essential part of ministerial authorization.

Ordination depends on a first call, supplementing an association’s discernment of readiness with ecclesiastical relationships of covenant. Upon ordination, some ministers maintain active standing with a Three-Way Covenant, serving as pastor in a local church. Some maintain active standing with a Four-Way Covenant, serving in a specialized ministry on behalf of their local church of membership.

The ministry of ONA churches widely varies, whether incorporating many LGBTQ members or few. Predominantly LGBTQ congregations in the UCC tend to be served by one or more pastors identifying as part of the LGBTQ community. The large majority of congregations in the UCC, however, are predominantly heterosexual.

The designation of a congregation to be Open and Affirming may not correlate with the settings in which LGBTQ ministers actually serve. One study by David Bahr (2006)[1] surveying those pastoring predominantly straight congregations found just as many gay and lesbian respondents were called by non-ONA churches, as were called by ONA churches. If a congregation has actively chosen not to consider the ONA process or has voted down an ONA statement, that decision is taken by a search committee as guiding for their work. However, churches are not necessarily precluded from calling LGBTQ candidates if the church has not yet conducted an ONA process or has not yet made an ONA decision.

Based on total pastoral vacancies posted (currently 254), the ONA ratio given above (25%), the number of ministers available per year (256), and a common population statistic for LGBTQ persons (10%), probability predicts that more churches – including ONA churches – will call straight-identified ministers than will call LGBTQ ministers.

Search and Call experiences vary.

Local churches of the United Church of Christ call the pastor(s) who they believe God will use to serve among them, with no bishop or appointing body. The local church process includes a search committee reviewing UCC Ministerial Profiles and interviewing candidates.

At times LGBTQ candidates report that congregations with a formal ONA statement hesitate to call an LGBTQ minister, despite their formal non-discrimination policy. Leadership skills and qualifications can be subordinated to other factors.

In studies on the psychology of leadership, an implicit race and gender bias persists in favor of white males in hiring decisions across the United States. Similarly, Search and Call can be harder for those viewed through lenses of society’s stereotypes. Recent figures compiled by CARD (the denomination’s research team) show that whites are over-represented, males are over-represented, and heterosexuals are over-represented in finding a call within 18 months of ministers’ search process in the UCC, compared to people of color, females, and non-heterosexuals.

Ministers who self-identify with disabilities are confronted with ableism. Candidates who are people of color are impacted by racism. Women are impacted by sexism. Barriers against transgender people exist early in the process. Accordingly, despite guidelines to the contrary, some LGBTQ ministers report that discrimination exists from the level of screening profiles, through interviews, neutral pulpits, and final calls. In this context some LGBTQ pastors choose to only circulate their profile to churches that have done work around ONA topics; others would consider serving a variety of churches with a variety of work to do. Ministers can choose to “come out” in their ministerial profile; or in the interview process; or over time in contexts and relationships where appropriate. Successful ministers direct the circulation of their ministerial profile with care, and patiently discern where and whether they are called to lead.

Despite the history and presence of discrimination, authorized ministerial leadership by LGBTQ people of faith is affirmed throughout the United Church of Christ. Every conference of the United Church of Christ already contains diverse ministers serving unique communities from rural to urban settings. Each year more people of all ages and races and genders and abilities are led into the vocation of church ministry, in a denomination which will become ever-more ONA as time goes on.

[1] David Paul Bahr, “Openly Gay and Lesbian Pastors Called by Predominantly Straight UCC Congregations,” DMin Project, Wesley Theological Seminary, 2006.

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