The United Church of Christ Looks at Sixty: You Can’t Dismantle an Idea Whose Time Has Come

A year ago, on June 14, 2016, our Conference Minister, the Rev. David Gaewski, delivered his “State of the Conference” address to annual meeting delegates of the New York Conference (UCCNY). His words had a curious relevance for the United Church of Christ (UCC).

The UCCNY was “sewn together as a quilt from different swaths of cloth,” Rev. Gaewski noted; historically, its churches and Associations “had neither a common identity nor a common commitment.” And while diversity can transform a Conference into a beautiful tapestry, “if the stitching is weak or loose, [it] will not last.” Indeed, too often, “we have taken pride in identifying” ourselves regionally, but not as a Conference. “And this has [weakened] the seamwork of our quilt. Pride in our separateness is a misconception of the Body of Christ. In Christ there is no east or west, no north or south, no Congregational Christian or E&R, no urban or rural Christian.”

Broaching the subject of Conference finances, Rev. Gaewski outlined “a multi-dimensional plan” to eliminate the UCCNY deficit. Key elements of the plan included a new “Covenant Share” offering, which is “a hybrid to per capita giving;” a special appeal to “Friends of the Conference;” an annual “‘Fair Share’ in OCWM giving” program, which calculates an appropriate pledge amount for each UCCNY congregation; the incorporation of new church starts and affiliations into the Conference; and several staffing and administrative efficiencies.

Rev. Gaewski then expressed disappointment that the UCCNY’s Covenant Share appeal had not attracted more dollars from more congregations and individuals, but he speculated that many churches and Conference members still didn’t know about the new offering. Finally, our Conference Minister issued a warning: “We have three years to resolve our fiscal direction. And if we don’t, we’ll need to begin dismantling this Conference”—or at least, drastically reorganize the way it operates.

Rev. Gaewski was right to deliver this inauspicious message, and as I say, I think his statement is relevant to the entire UCC. I suspect that the financial challenges we are facing in the UCCNY are ubiquitous—they are evident in all UCC churches and in all mainline denominations—and we need to talk about them rather than ignore or hide from them. And we need to see how they relate to broader societal trends.

We are experiencing nearly-unprecedented levels of anxiety and frustration in our national and local politics, in society, and in our churches and denominational structures these days. Everywhere we look, there is a gnawing social paralysis: the old tried-and-true social arrangements, democratic processes, and religious techniques don’t seem to work anymore. And in response to this gridlock, angry and frightened people are resorting to desperate solutions and immoderate alternatives. They are talking about tearing down the institutions of the past. They are turning to authoritarian leaders who boast, “I alone can fix this!” And some are advocating political secession, civil war, or revolution to “take our country back.” Meanwhile, congregations and middle judicatories are wondering if they will have to close or merge, and ministers are wondering if they should leave their stodgy congregations and start new kinds of spiritual communities.

According to the Rev. Dr. Gail Cafferata, an Episcopal priest and visiting Boston University School of Theology sociologist, “America is facing a flood of church closings in coming years” (“Mind the Tiller: Leading a Church to Closure,” October 13, 2016). “Protestant churches are declining at one to two percent per year but in some mainline denominations twice as many churches are closing [as] opening, creating financial and other challenges for congregations and judicatories” (Kristina Lizardy Hajbi, “Research on Closed Churches and Their Pastors,” Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, February 7, 2014).

Let me up the ante even higher. As I tell my political science students, a traditional response to crises (such as domestic and foreign terrorism, instability, and political gridlock) is authoritarianism—a clamping down on dissent and non-conformists. Indeed, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States became more militarized, more controlling of its citizens, more voyeuristic, and less free. Consider our uneasy compliance with the USA Patriot Act, TSA searches of our bags and persons at airports, and National Security Agency snooping into our e-mails and phone conversations. We have enabled these new policies because we are afraid.

So I wonder: As the American church faces multiple crises—a “people-are-giving-less” crisis, a “nothing-we-try-seems-to-work” crisis, and a “nobody-goes-to-church-anymore” crisis—will it embrace drastic solutions, and follow authoritarian leadership?

This question is not far-fetched. Throughout history, there have been periods when denominations and churches became repressive. Google the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem Witch trials if you don’t remember reading about them in high school. Think too of the rampant sexism, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia that have been evident in American churches throughout the twentieth century, and still vex congregations today.

So what’s the outlook for the UCC as it celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2017? What will we be focusing on? It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said that if we gaze into the abyss long enough, the abyss begins to gaze back at us.

I’d like to think that we in the UCC will not be gazing into an abyss. I’d like to think that the UCCNY will not become authoritarian. And I’d like to think that our Conference will not be dismantled. But Rev. Gaewski is right. Our questions and uncertainties about the future of our churches, conferences, and denomination are not just about money. They are about how we understand the Body of Christ, and our inclusion in it. That’s what we should be focused on.

We in the UCC should also be focused on a couple of ideas—the idea of a united and uniting church that takes Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21 (“that they may all be one”) seriously, and begins to live into it. And the idea that communities and neighborhoods all over America need churches of inclusion and “extravagant hospitality,” where all people are welcome, “no matter who we are, or where we are on life’s journey.”

I know that ideas without dollars are pipedreams. Conferences and churches need money. But I also know that these ideas about inclusion and extravagant hospitality and being the Body of Christ are just as powerful today as they were sixty years ago. If the UCC and its Conferences were dismantled tomorrow, we would have to re-mantle them the day after tomorrow. Because as Victor Hugo said, nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

And besides, what did Nietzsche know? He was an idiot.

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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