This Vital Signs & Statistics Blog article is going to be a little unusual. It contains few scholarly quotations and citations. And it is not overly-laden with social science research. Instead, it asks a simple question: Can we who are members, congregants, authorized ministers, and leaders of the United Church of Christ (UCC) please begin to engage in an intentional and ongoing conversation about what is happening to our congregations and their pastors? Can we start talking with each other about the incivility that is seeping into our churches?
I know that such a conversation can get nasty, political, and downright weird. Many of us would sooner talk about our root canals. But I also know that our country, our communities and schools, our families, and even our churches are angry, and they are becoming angrier by the day. In the course of writing some thirty or forty of these blog articles over the past four years, three things have troubled me on a consistent basis:
First, the politicization and conservatism of some of our smaller churches—and you know, we have so many small churches across the United Church of Christ! According to the UCC’s 2015 Faith Communities Today (FACT) Survey of Congregations, “the United Church of Christ is a denomination of smaller congregations. Nearly eight in ten [UCC] congregations (79.5%) have 100 or fewer people in weekly worship,” and “nearly half (46.5%) of all UCC congregations have 50 or fewer people” in church every Sunday. Many (but not all!) of these churches are rural or exurban, and their participants tend to be theologically—but also culturally and politically—traditional, or conservative. They “adapt less readily to change” and/or are “not as willing to make changes.”
Of course, these realities are neither good nor bad; small UCC churches are amazing, and many of us who pastor them are happy to do so. Most pastors of small churches endeavor to “just love” their people, and try to “get along with everybody.” But let’s face it, this can be difficult in churches that seem to, in CNN political commentator SE Cupp’s words, reduce their theological, cultural and political beliefs“ to untenable absolutisms, sacrifice compromise and comity for purity, [and] subject [outsiders] to unproductive loyalty tests” (“Tribalism isn’t the real reason America is divided,” CNN.com, November 13, 2019). In addition, some churches label those who fail their loyalty tests as enemies, or perhaps, “fake Americans,” and some are hostile to the UCC, to gay people, to immigrants, and to people of color. I mean, I value the diversity of the UCC, I really do; but tell me again, why are churches that don’t like the UCC in the UCC?
When churches harbor such attitudes of suspicion and hostility, their ministers may be unable to deflect them or do much else about them. Sometimes, ministers themselves become the targets of their churches’ anger—rendering them both isolated and vulnerable. Even when pastors have a pastoral support group, a therapist, or ministry colleagues with whom to “talk church,” they may confide only in their spouses or partners—and such venting is hardly conducive to intimate or happy relationships! Ministers may be especially reticent to discuss their concerns with other congregants—or even with their Pastor-Parish Relations Committees.
What are pastors of small congregations to do in such circumstances—when they feel that they have to silence their prophetic voices, or downplay their progressive instincts? Their silence may enable them to survive at their churches, but at what cost to their souls?
Second, church decline. Longitudinal studies and projections by the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD) show that the UCC has been losing churches and members for a number of years, and will likely continue to do so well into the foreseeable future (See “Futuring the United Church of Christ: 30-Year Projections,” June, 2015, UCC CARD, and the 2019 UCC Statistical Profile, p. 6).
This data reflects a broader trend affecting Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical Protestant, and Mainline Protestant, churches and denominations. The latest data from the Pew Research Center (see Carol Kuruvilla, “American Christians See a Rapid Decline in Numbers Over Past Decade: Study,” Huffington Post, October 17, 2019, and “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” Pew Research Center, October 17, 2019) demonstrates that American churches are continuing to decline (losing both members and attendance), and that the number of “Nones”—particularly among Millennials—is increasing nationwide. I believe that this trend is inciting significant discouragement and outright alarm in many churches.
To make matters worse, some progressive congregations play “woe-is-us” comparison games, imagining that they’re the only church in their community that is declining. Or they assume that only UCC and progressive churches are declining and that evangelical churches and megachurches all have full parking lots every Sunday morning. Church leaders of some UCC and progressive congregations may even start imitating the evangelical churches and megachurches that they think are growing, by incorporating praise bands, fiery sermons, and “come-to-Jesus” appeals into their services. Such remedies rarely work; people looking for an evangelical church are more likely to attend an actual evangelical church, rather than a UCC church pretending to be an evangelical church.
Third, cultural and political incivility and mean-spiritedness. It is as if we have all gotten drunk, but we have not settled into a sleepy alcoholic stupor; instead, we have become mean and belligerent drunks, and are eager to fight one another. Perhaps we first started drinking these heady cocktails of hatred while watching the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Or maybe they were mixed and served by Donald J. Trump, during his presidential campaign, or once he became President. The thing is, this besotted and mean-spirited intemperance has seeped into our congregations. It is impairing how we do church, and it is targeting our pastors.
In some instances, declining congregations may blame their pastors for their troubles, accusing them of not visiting enough lapsed members, or not being energetic enough, or preaching sermons that are not “biblical enough,” to turn things around. Ministers may also get brow-beaten by their congregants for their social justice stands, or for preaching “political sermons,” or even over such “individual considerations” as their personalities, their (and/or their spouses’) personal appearance, their spouses’ involvement (or lack thereof) in the church, their children’s behavior, and even what they do on their day off. Then too, some pastors feel pangs of self-imposed guilt, for not being able to “revive” or grow their churches.
I have watched as some of the most vulnerable authorized ministers in our denomination—licensed “members in discernment” (MIDs) who were preparing for a ministerial career, as well as inexperienced “first-call” ordained ministers—were devastated by the criticism of congregants, to the point where they left their churches and gave up their dream of ordained UCC ministry. These are actual people; I can name their names. Not coincidentally, some of these people were among the UCC’s most innovative leaders—and now they’re gone. As I think of them now, I wonder: were they not “tough enough” to withstand withering congregational criticism? Should they have been tough enough to withstand withering congregational criticism? There is a kind of sink-or-swim, or social-Darwinistic, ethos in many churches, where the minister either does well or fails—and denominations and middle judicatories don’t or can’t do much to help them.
Indeed, there is a perception among some Protestant Mainline ministers—I don’t know how widespread it is, but it exists—that their denominations and middle judicatories value their churches over their pastors, that they prioritize keeping their churches happy over the welfare of their ministers. According to this reasoning, pastors come and go—they’re expendable—while churches are valuable and must be appeased at all costs because they support their denominations and national churches financially, year after year. I hope that this perception is wrong; I hope that no church or denomination in America thinks this way. I believe that caring for pastors is as important as, or more important than, keeping our churches happy and our denominational coffers full; indeed, I believe that the latter depends directly on the former.
For many of us, our country’s inebriated incivility has painfully altered our long-standing relationships with spouses and friends. Some of us have left churches, and become alienated from church friends whom we’ve known for decades. We have become estranged from our children, parents, spouses, and friends. We have started to hate people whom we have loved for years.
At the very least, I believe that UCC pastors, churches, and Conferences need a forum and an appropriate context in which to talk about these concerns. Perhaps the National Church and/or our Conferences can fold such conversations into their anti-racism and cultural competence training. Or perhaps “communities of practice” networking can facilitate some of these discussions. Or maybe individual ministers and churches can initiate “grassroots” actions that will make such conversations a reality.
These issues, and the incivility that has overtaken America, will not go away simply by ignoring them. And they may not go away when President Trump leaves office—because Trumpism and the anger which fuels it will likely outlive Trump’s tenure in office. We may be like the proverbial frog, sitting in a pan over a simmering fire, being boiled to death degree-by-degree. The time to act is now.
Rev. 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.