As many of you noticed, I haven't been writing a regular column for the last several months. Although the intent of this blog was to switch those writings over to this format, I just didn't. We'd had a busy spring in the conference, I needed a bit of a break from the essay format and also ended up just needing to just focus on writing prayers for awhile, too. It was a good, and needed, switch and one that I might just do most summers. But now, the temperatures are starting to head down a little bit; the days are just starting to get shorter; the church program year is getting ready to kick off; and I'm feeling like writing again. So, a few check ins, first...
Overall life in the conference is good. Most of our churches seem to have had pretty smooth summers. Our youth and adults (including me) that went to the National Youth Event had an outstanding time (you can read more about this in the upcoming UC News). Mark Boyd has made what, from all accounts, is a smooth transition in to the position as N-Sid-Sen Camp Manager. Pilgrim Firs had a good summer, too. Although we had a couple unanticipated expenses this year, our camps' financial health continues to be solid. Several of our conference committees are working on taking a look at who they are and what they do and what might be logical next steps for their work in the conference. Like I said, life in the conference is good.
I have started to get an increasing number of questions about what churches can and can't do, legally, during around the election cycles. I'm not a lawyer so can't give you a legal opinion per se but every time I check in to this, I hear the same advice.
Churches cannot participate in partisan politics without losing their tax exempt status. That is, specifically, endorsing a particular candidate for any particular office. Churches cannot do this, as a body, and pastors aren't supposed to do this through their sermons (and, just to be clear on this last point, this is a legal restriction - I have yet to know of a pastor in our denomination have their standing challenged for breaking this law).
Churches can, however, endorse an issue in the form of a specific opinion, law or referendum. There is no legal obligation for a congregation to present "both sides" of any issue or remain neutral. Recently, this question has been coming up quite a bit for Washington State churches that wish to join those that have endorsed Referendum 74 (last I heard, 10 of our churches already have). As I understand legal opinions, this is completely and totally legal. Some of our churches have even hosted phone banks; hosted informational sessions; put up signs of support; handed out flyers; or heard sermons that speak to their congregation's perspective. As I understand it, this all falls within the realm of legal activity for a congregation.
That said, I know these conversation are alway easy ones in all of our congregations. There is, of course, more than one opinion on every question. Even in cases where there may be near unanimous congregational opinion on a particular issue, there may still be disagreement around whether or not a church should take a stand. For some, the separation of church and state is a legal question but for others a separation between their church life and other parts of their life is personal commitment.
For those of us in the church, the question is not just what we stand for but how we make those stands. Although the rhetoric in the coming days is going to be heated, mean and occasionally even hateful, we fail when we participate in that sort of dialogue instead of insisting on civil, compassionate and respectful dialogue (regardless of what other might say to us or about us). The short view of all this is simply winning a particular issue. The long view is how we faithfully remain centered, with integrity, on being the communities Christ calls us to be. I am convinced that, ultimately, the 2nd is more important than the first and, in fact, if we focus on the 2nd we, in the long run, do more good in the world. Just to be absolutely clear here, I'm not suggesting that we avoid issues or don't take stands. I am suggesting we carefully consider how we have conversations with each other and with our sisters and brothers who may disagree with us (whether they are inside or outside our church communities).
"May they know we are Christians by our love" the song says. May this be a song we remember often in the coming months.