8 thoughts on “Is Autonomy Turning UCC Authorized Ministers and Churchgoers into Turtles?

  1. Superb website you have here but I was curious if you knew of any user discussion forums that cover the same topics discussed in this article?

    I’d really like to be a part of group where I can get advice from
    other knowledgeable individuals that share the same interest.
    If you have any recommendations, please let me know.


  2. I’m afraid I don’t follow. I invest a great deal of time and energy in peer engagement – here in little old Kalamazoo, Michigan, I’m blessed to be a member of three different clergy-to-clergy organizations, two ecumenical and one interfaith. My staff and I regularly travel to attend conferences organized by other churches.
    Perhaps the criticism is less that clergy (especially young clergy) are disengaging with peer groups and more so that they are disengaging from UCC-specific peer groups. This, I would agree with. It is increasingly difficult to justify the time and effort required to prop up aging intradenominational labor when the efforts seem to produce very little reward.

    The last time I called on my region for help during a capital campaign, their frank response was, “let us know if you find a way to raise some money.”

    I have been saying, at various amplitudes, and over the course of the past decade, that the UCC *must* stop focusing so myopically on serving the clergy and engage, instead, with the lay leadership of her member churches.

    The truth is that clergy leave. Full stop.
    They leave their churches, they change regions and denominations, and they frequently leave the practice of ministry altogether. And they take with them the monetary and temporal investments of the denomination.

    You know who stays?
    The church administrators, the Sunday school teachers, the moderators and council presidents, the liturgists and the folks who know their church inside-and-out.
    The laity.
    When there is a pastoral crisis in a UCC church and a regional minister suddenly appears, as if from a complete vacuum, and says, “I’m here to help!” the response from the congregation is more often than not, “and who, precisely, are you?”
    That same regional minister that invited the now distant pastor to lunch, took them to retreats, invested in them, is now faced with an army of strangers. And why, then, would they trust the region’s opinion about who they ought to call as their next pastor?

    Stop courting pastors. Invest all of our denomination’s remaining, dwindling resources in the laity. Hold regional moderator’s conferences, free of cost. Take the church admins out for lunch. Offer free prayer groups and sessions and workshops and what-not for the *laity*. The regional minister should know every local church leader on a first-name basis. When a new pastor is called, the regional minister should be the one setting up luncheons and dinners with local church leadership.

    The clergy will be okay. They have the resources they need. A clergyperson is not a church.
    Invest in the laity.


    • Nathan—you are making my point. I suspect that the “bowling alone” phenomenon is impairing our laity, our authorized ministers, and our denominational leaders. You are not the first person I’ve heard say that “the clergy leave, while the laity stay.” You are also not the first person to tell me of being disappointed by clergy and by denominational staff. At the risk of sounding reductionistic, I do think that one of the factors that exacerbates all of these problems is our isolation. That and the fact that we don’t seem to trust one another.

      I certainly agree with you that anytime clergy are interacting with other clergy—of whatever denominational stripe—in their communities and regions, that is a good thing. I did not mean to imply that UCC clergy should only interact with other UCC clergy.

      Having come to the United Church of Christ relatively late in life (at age 40, in 1990), I probably have the passion of a convert—I love the United Church of Christ, and believe firmly that its ecumenism and its “extravagant welcome” are unique and much-needed in our society today.

      I agree with you that the lay leadership of churches is absolutely essential—and I also believe that ministerial leadership are absolutely needed.

      Thanks for your comment; what you wrote is absolutely vital, and needs to be read in our Church.



  3. So,, autonomy has been one of the twin pillars of the congregational way for some 400 years, and NOW it is turning us into turtles? If so, perhaps it has been moving at a snail’s pace…. 😉


    • Yeah, well, I mean, the whole argument that Phyllis Tickle and the Emergent Church movement made was that every five hundred years or so in church history, the Church experiences an all-encompassing wave of renewal—a “Great Awakening”-type revolution—and the last one was Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. In practical terms, many church scholars, sociologists, denominational leaders, and pastor friends—people you and I know and trust—are saying that the traditional church—and its old tried and true techniques that used to work well (like Sunday School, “Bring-A-Friend-to-Church Sundays,” and stewardship campaigns) just aren’t working anymore.

      Something’s changed.

      So yes, I wonder if local church autonomy—a doctrine that was put in place, in large part, as a corrective to the ecclesiastical abuses of hierarchical church structures—hasn’t run its course. I wonder if, today, we haven’t turned autonomy into something it was never intended to be—a justification for remaining isolated.

      As I replied to another comment, I also wonder whether, over the past sixty or seventy years, we haven’t merged the idea of local church autonomy with the great American myth of “rugged individualism”—think of the lone Marlboro cowboy riding high in the plains, independent, capable, heroic, needing no one.

      I hear the faint strains of Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock,” or perhaps the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” (“All the lonely people . . . .”) playing through my head.

      I don’t know, Reedbaer, what do you think causes so many churches and pastors to “bowl alone?”

      Thanks so much for your comment!


  4. A thoughtful piece — but I would be more convinced about the part “autonomy” plays if it could be shown how those in other communions are successfully countering the “bowling alone” phenomena, to say nothing of the atomizing effects of “social media.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • You certainly make a good point. Many Protestant denominations and communities today cherish local church autonomy in their polities, so “bowling alone”—and the twin phenomena of isolated churches and lonely, competitive clergy—are hardly the unique province of the United Church of Christ. And I certainly do not mean to take on Martin Luther, or to embrace “episcopal” (hierarchical or connectional) polities at the expense of more congregational polities!

      Years ago, in a past life I was a navy chaplain. For fifteen years, I rubbed shoulders with a Heinz-57 variety of priests, rabbis, and ministers, representing virtually every American Judeo-Christian tradition. And my experience was that many of us felt isolated and lonely—especially when we were off-duty. It made no difference whether we were on “shore duty” or “sea duty—or whether we were out at sea or our ships were in home port. It also made no difference what denomination or theological tradition we represented. Roman Catholic chaplains had a natural camaraderie with their brother priests; Evangelical chaplains “hung out” with other Evangelical chaplains; and chaplains from Protestant Mainline denominations developed solid friendships with one another, but at the end of the day, many of us felt lonely. Of course, military service is a unique and high-stress environment, and perhaps cannot be compared with civilian ministry. But my point is that many of us felt as if we were “bowling alone”—regardless of our denominational traditions.

      Perhaps there is something uniquely American about the “bowling alone” phenomenon. It may have something to do with the hoary old myth of “rugged individualism”—the solitary Marlboro cowboy riding high, on the plains.

      Thanks for your comment, David. What do you think, David?


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