Sunday, November 6, 2016

What if?: A Case for UCC Alignment

I’ve confessed to many of you before that I’m a church geek. No huge surprise for someone in my position, really, but the thing that might be a little more surprising is that it's also one of the things that keeps me involved in church or invested in this whole UCC church movement. Juts like with any other position, some days are harder than others. There are days I look at the barista handing me my too frequent double espresso and wish I would have stayed on that side of the counter. There are days I meet a business person and admire their clarity of task. There are days I read something written by someone just right and wish I could spend more of my days thinking and writing. As local pastors share with me what is going on in their local churches - even when what is going on is difficult or hard - I miss being with a small community that struggles together, gets to know each other, prays for each other and worships together.

Like anyone, those days when what feels like my authentic heart overlaps with my job are my best days and I’m fortunate that happens as often as it does. There are days I pinch myself because I can’t quite believe it’s real; that this is something I get to do. Then, there are other days I pinch myself hoping that the pain will keep me awake through a moment that is more tedious than I could have possibly imagined and seems to have nothing to do with, well, anything. I mean, anything. At. All.

However, sometimes in what the middle of what seems to be tedium or potential tedium, my inner church geek suddenly wakes up and says, “Hold on a second. This is really interesting. Wow. This is might actually be kinda a big deal.” Talking about purpose, vision and mission statements are things I think are important but can all too often turn into word-smithing fests where, in the moment, people seem willing to lay down their life for one word or turn of phrase… and then vote for whatever was proposed unanimously. I confess I used to love these kinds of conversations. Now, I confess I start to twitch a bit whenever the topic comes up.

I’m on the United Church of Christ Board and we just met a week ago. When I saw on our agenda that our General Minister and President, Rev. John Dorhauer, was going to presenting the results of a process to help us come to our purpose, vision and mission my first reaction was not one of, um, joy. And then I read it:
Purpose statement from the Gospel of Matthew: To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.
Vision statement: United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.
Mission statement: United in Spirit and inspired by God's grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.
The first time I read it, I was just relieved it was decent and sighed a “That’s nice” but then my inner church geek woke up and said, “Wait a second…” Try reading these a few more times. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
The more I’ve read these, the more possibilities I’ve seen in them. The larger an organization is, the broader and less specific statements like these can become. However, these strike a healthy balance between being specific enough that they are meaningful and broad enough to allow for creative, faithful and contextual expression. These are great guidelines for the work done on our behalf in the national church.

But the thing that got me most excited is the possibilities these contain beyond the work of the national church. During the time I’ve been your Conference Minister, these are themes that usually come up as we talk about our work in our churches, our camps, the institutions we relate to, and our communities. Those of us who work as Specialized Ministers have brought up these ideals as something that we bring to the role as chaplains or non-profit employees. These are the things I’ve heard all of us wanting our conference to support, when needed, and lead when necessary.

So, I’ve started to wonder… What if our conference adopted these statements as our own? What if our churches considered adopting these as their own, too?

In some ways I know that’s almost a radical suggestion in this denomination of independents. Part of the reason I’m UCC is because of the autonomy we commit to protecting. To me, at its best, it's a form of conscience held collectively. For me the idea that that settings of the church can best live into their calling by asking what God is calling them to in their context is something I think and believe.

I also think and believe we’re called to be in covenant with each other. We are called to be mutually accountable and supportive of each other. However, since our understanding of autonomy is more concrete and tangible than our understanding of covenant, it’s harder to talk about covenant sometimes. Although rules are important, the lowest form of covenant are the rules we make together or funding commitments we share instead of the hopes we have for each other or the mutual vocation we share. It sometimes seems as though we’ve been pitting the lowest form of autonomy (“You can’t tell us what to do!”) against the lowest form of covenant (“This is what we have to do.”).

These purpose, vision and mission statements give us the opportunity to live in to some of the highest forms of our commitment to covenant and autonomy. I think it's possible that these ideas may represent the unifying covenant that, frankly, we all kind of knew we were missing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been part of a conversation about covenant that asks the question, “What is our covenant anyway?” We’ve been looking for something like this and these statements give us the opportunity to celebrate the thousands of ways covenant might be lived out in our ministry settings. We’ve been in hard conversations about the structure of our denominational settings; the relationships between all the variety of churches; and all the other settings that claim the UCC as theirs. If we accept the statements listed above as a covenant, they give us a place to continue and focus these conversations. If we accept this as a covenant, these statements join one of our other key statements - our Statement of Faith - as a key part of our key identity and vocation. If we accept this as a covenant, we also pass on a tool to those who come after us “to make this faith their own” as they seek out the purpose, vision and mission of our denomination in their generation.

I love that, as part of our commitment to covenant and autonomy, I get to be one of those who helps
 this conversation as opposed to my word being the last word.  May God guide us as we seek to be good stewards of our autonomy and our covenant. May Christ love us a we discover, again, what it means to love and be loved. May the Spirit guide us as we learn not to fear the rushing of wind that comes before every Pentecost.