I heard it, but I couldn’t believe it. “Where are the monks and nuns in the UCC?” The question struck me to my core.
This question came up in April of this year, as the national leadership of the United Church of Christ hosted a theological formation summit in Cleveland. Entitled “From the Ground Up,” the conversation was intentionally broad in its scope. A call went out across the denomination, inviting anyone and everyone who wanted to join the conversation to do so. I was honored to be one of the more than 130 attendees.
Out of this conversation emerged seven threads for further focus and effort:
- Engaging technology and supporting its use
- Resourcing ordained clergy and laity to support and advance theological formation
- Marks, benchmarks and systemic endorsements
- Integrating and activating the Biblical platform for justice
- Deepening community and contemplative practice
- Resourcing local churches to support theological formation and spiritual practice geared towards individuals, home and family
- Process and cultural change.
As the group working on Topic #5 spoke up, they asked this question that rattled me. “Where are the monks and nuns in the UCC?” The question arose as the group expressed an ache for greater development of our inner lives as a people across the denomination.
This remark spoke to a deep yearning that I have felt since I first walked through the doors of a UCC church 18 years ago. We are profoundly committed to putting our faith into action – from feeding our neighbors to putting our bodies on the line against injustice – and I am proud to be a part of a denomination committed to building God’s realm on earth. Still, I have long felt that something was missing from many of our churches. At times, though, the need to confront the injustices of the world has come at the expense of nurturing the inner life of faith in our ministries. In my experience, this has frequently led to burnout among our volunteers. I suspect that the UCC is not alone in this respect, as the “spiritual but not religious” movement has come at the expense of the numbers of those who are “spiritual and religious“.
All too often, we in the Church Universal have pitted the inner life against the active life. To use a biblical distinction, far too many of us Christians make the gospel of Jesus Christ either strictly a matter of “sitting at Jesus’s feet” like Mary or strictly a life of action, a la Martha. As if we have to choose! Mary may have focused on the inner life, and Martha may have focused on the active life, but they were sisters, born of the same family. Meister Eckhart pointed out centuries ago that the inner life and the active life were companions, not enemies. And when considering the rhythms of Jesus’s ministry, the Ignatian Movement sees a pattern of action, reflection, action, reflection, and so on.
I don’t know if God is calling us to put together multiple monastic orders in the United Church of Christ. I do, however, know that this yearning runs among our people. I have witnessed this yearning in every congregation I have served, and I now see that it is happening across our denomination.
If you’re interested in this topic, consider joining the new Facebook page for contemplative folks in the UCC. Check out our General Minister and President’s podcast about spirituality here. Write an article or a book about how the inner spiritual life and the active religious life go hand in hand. And who knows: perhaps we are about to witness the rise of myriad UCC monastic movements.
Wherever the coming days lead, I truly believe that God is up to something in the UCC. The Holy Spirit is moving, inviting us into deep spiritual renewal even as the world also needs us to be out in the streets more than ever. Let us understand the reflective and active aspects of faith not as opposites or contradictions, but as what they really are – sisters, born of the same loving Parent.
Rev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, in the Central Atlantic Conference.