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Give up?

By admin - March 5, 2015, 12:52 pm

I recently attended the Rural Ministry Conference held in Dubuque through Wartburg Seminary of Theology and Land.  The conference this year was geared toward pastoral care and dealing with the growing number of mental health issues that rural congregations are facing with fewer resources to offer adequate help to individuals and families (it’s a great conference that I highly recommend!).  Outside of that topic one of our keynotes touched on caring for the ‘nones’ and ‘dones’ that are in our communities.


These folks do not consider themselves to be atheist.  In a very limited nutshell ‘nones’ are those that have no background in faith but are pretty sure that there is something holy out there.  ‘Dones’ are those that have been in the faith but for various reasons are done with organized religion, yet still hold the belief that there is something holy out there.


The question that sits with me in thinking of the growing number of ‘nones’ and ‘dones’ is how, if it’s possible even, is the church relevant?  With so many articles and blogs and statistics showing us the decline of mainline protestant churches, dwindling church membership and even the decrease in folks claiming to be affiliated with a church we are faced with the question: ‘why would folks give up their ‘freedom’ of individualized religion and self scheduling for the Holy by joining a church—or even staying an active member of church?’


houserTo which I respond with another question– not only because I’m a minister but because I’m a young Christ follower that truly believes in the church—and that question is, ‘give up?’


We give up nothing when we join the church, remain active in the church, care about the church.  The church is what makes us more than simply a group of folks meddling in the affairs of the world in the name of God.  Or seven groups.  Or fifty.  The church is what holds us together, a stated set of beliefs that bind us all; whether we agree on them all or not.  The church gives us a single thread running through every Christian, living or dead back to the first few that gathered.


I will be bold here and even say that it’s not God but the church that makes us Christians.


I say that because anybody can believe in a divine being, a greater power, something that influences the world in ways that we can only imagine.


But the church turns us toward the unifying goal of making a difference in the world that we live in based on our belief in that divine being.  It is a place for us to learn how to be sacramental in our living because each and every one of us might be the only sacrament that another person we encounter might experience in their life…and that is a powerful thing to be.


Sure we’ve had a rocky past, we even have a pretty turbulent present but the church is meant to be a place where the most prestigious, the most poor, the most devious, the most unsure, the most of any category of person you can think of can go and be safe, forgiven, loved even and show the world the idea of holiness that we place on God.


The church is what it is to be Christian, the heart of being Christian.  Throw that on the rubbish heap and we’ll be sand washing away in the tide.  Give up?  No, we gain when we become Christians…Christians that believe in the Church (the people and what we do, not just the building and what we have) is as Curtis Farr states in his article Why the Secular Age is Good for the Church, ‘all about creating community, sensing the sacred, working for justice, and making meaning, but we are also about pointing toward a transcendent reality that sustains and provides grounds for the importance of the whole cosmos.’  So let’s get at being the church already!


—Pastor Samantha Houser, Waukon Zion UCC, and Iowa Conference Program Support/Adjunct for Youth Ministry

By admin - March 5, 2015, 12:52 pm

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Be the Church

By admin - February 26, 2015, 1:06 pm

be the churchOn Sunday February 15, members of five faith communities huddled into the warmth of the Decorah Congregational UCC’s sanctuary for a few moments.  The usual church services had been canceled so that together we could walk together in the Walk of Solidarity.  Weaving through our small town, we added folks along the way.  People stepped out from the warmth of their homes or faith community as we passed and joined in.  Others surprised us by being ready and waiting at the Whippy Dip.  Still others would join us at Luther and assemble en masse there.


The Walk was organized as a part of a continuing Decorah-wide initiative cultivating conversation about race.  It was an opportunity to be a visible testament that we in the Decorah community recognize systemic racism not only exists in places like Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York, but also in every community, including ours.  AND we hoped it would be a visible call for all of us to be a part of bigger conversations that span generations, build relationships, and allow each of us to see the beauty and uniqueness of someone we might call “other.”


I have continued to think a lot about that morning and what the role of faith and the church may be.  The sign that led us sits in my office right now.  Its mere presence feels like an important reminder and call.  It reads in bold letters, “Be the Church.”  Under that, phrases speak of the church in action: “Forgive Others.  Reject Racism.  Fight for the powerless.  Enjoy Life.  Love God.”


Folks have continued to ask me why I think the Walk was important or what it was all about.  So here I offer the words I shared that morning as we gathered before the Walk.




Why walk?  It’s currently -6 degrees.  There’s a chance of a bit of snow.  I’m dressed in so many layers that my long johns are wearing long johns.


Why walk?  That is the question for this morning.


Why walk?  For me, because I must.  What I see is people’s well-being in jeopardy, their humanity in question, their very lives taken.  Black people.  Brownfeathers people.  People who do not look white.  And I see that folks are at risk not just in Ferguson or New York or Cleveland, but in our own city, our own churches, our own classrooms, our own circles.


What I hear in our world and in our community are people being told that they are “less than” either in word or in deed or in depiction, that their experiences of racism “can’t be that bad” or that it’s “all in their head.”  When we refuse to acknowledge that there’s a problem, we stand no chance of repentance, no chance for turning around (that’s what that word repentance literally means), no chance for a new way of life.


I hear some say, “It’s all just so complicated,” and they throw up their hands either in frustration or dismay.  “It is complicated,” they say.  It is.


Which is why I must walk.  Because I don’t have the answers but I do have a body.  I may not have all the right words or a seven-step plan on how to end racism, but I can show up and let myself be seen.  And in doing so, convey in my very being that I’m paying attention, that I know there is a problem, that I understand to get to the time and the place where all lives matter, that today we must say, in particular, black lives matter.  I walk because I may not have words, but I will not be silent.  The words of Martin Luther King, Jr., echo in my ears.  He said,  “We will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”


Why walk?  Because my faith can’t just be an act of my head.  It cannot be just neat theology rattled off in the safety of a pulpit or a newsletter or a familiar pew.  It cannot be just thoughts and questions and doubts and meditations.  It cannot just happen in here (the church), it must be lived out there (outside).


For, me, faith sinks deep, gaining compassion from my heart, wisdom from my gut, a little flexibility from my hips, a bit of stamina from my knees, until it arrives at my feet.  These feet know the power of standing up, of showing up, of being attuned to who and what and how the Divine One is calling us to be.  Today, faith is in my feet.  That’s why I walk.




caseyThe Walk of Solidarity may have been in our corner of Iowa, but the need for faith to be our feet continues.  And there are many opportunities for us to speak up, to listen, to be present, to effect change.  Is your church working for racial justice?


To learn more about what the UCC is doing, visit http://www.ucc.org/justice_racism_index


—Laura Arnold, Pastor at Decorah Congregational UCC and Iowa Conference Program Support/Adjunct for PATHWAYS (Lay Education)


By admin - February 26, 2015, 1:06 pm

  • Brigit Stevens says:

    Thank you for your leadership, Laura! I was disappointed to not be able to participate in the walk, but SO happy to see the pictures of the bundled faithful in Decorah! You all rock!!

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Welcome, Spring

By Jonna Jensen - February 19, 2015, 3:02 pm

UPDATED jonna svenAnd now we, the winter-weary, road salt-stained, chapped, pale, sweet garden tomato yearning bold followers of Jesus welcome Spring – which we are calling by its old Middle English name:  Lent.


We trudge or slide into a season of sprouting, of recalibrating, of reforming and refreshing, both as individual disciples and as congregations.


Dear bold Jesus followers, the seasons of the liturgical year can also be seasons of the human heart and mind.  If this is Lent for you, if this is Lent for your congregation, I pray it may be a season of wonder-full renewal.  If it isn’t Lent in your heart and mind, or in the hearts and minds of your congregation, I pray you may be sustained by sweet memory and by sweet hope.  Memory of blessed course corrections and restorations in other seasons.  Hope for the next surprises.  God will be there.


Jonna Jensen, Associate Conference Minister

By Jonna Jensen - February 19, 2015, 3:02 pm

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    By Brigit Stevens - February 12, 2015, 4:36 pm

    I want to share with you an experience I had last month that brought me to tears and pulled me closer to God. I want to share it with you as my testimony, my faith story, so that you’ll be invited to be pulled in closer to God as well.


    I bought some boots.

    More precisely, I bought boys’ snow boots, size 2 for a Kindergartener (with big feet!) who is in my son’s class and needed boots.


    I was bundling my kids up one cold day and sending them on their way puffy and protected in their coats, boots, hats, stevens family photogloves, and neck warmers, and I felt grateful.  I said a prayer of thanksgiving that we have the means in our family to provide for the needs of our kids so they don’t even think twice about running out to play in the snow when it arrives. Then I had a heart tug for the mommas and daddies that were gathering their kids that morning and worrying about frozen little fingers and toes during recess later that day. I said a prayer for those families too, asking God to reach in with comfort and help. Then I sent a quick email to my Kindergartener’s teacher telling her that my husband and I would like to help make sure all the kids in her class had what they needed to safely and comfortably play in the snow this winter. (Well, actually, my first email was to my husband asking if he would join me, then I emailed the teacher.)


    I don’t know what I expected to hear back from her, but my mind started spinning a bit. I wondered if I’d made a promise too big for us to fulfill, what if her list was longer than we could afford? What if there are rules or privacy laws I’d be asking her to break and making her uncomfortable by asking? Maybe she’d think something about us…just what I wasn’t sure, but I was instantly a little anxious.


    She replied quickly with a very kind note and told me that one boy needed boots. She’d purchased everything else for him recently, but didn’t find boots in his size while she shopped (dear God, we are blessed by the teachers of our world!). So I bought some boots.


    Here’s the testimony part: buying those boots had an effect on me that still moves me to tears as I type this today. Those boots have hopefully kept that little boy’s feet warm and dry this season, but those boots did a lot more than that, they stretched my heart to the next bigger size.


    I have known for a long time that giving is a spiritual discipline. The act of giving is important for the giver, not just the receiver. And I was reminded again, profoundly, of that truth, by those boots! One Kindergartener has warmer feet because of our gift. But I went home and my husband and I revisited (again) our budget and giving and made some adjustments to a few things here and there to make sure we could give more to the organizations, projects, and people to whom we feel God inviting us to give. We had to rearrange our planning and spending to make sure there was room to give more. Today. Not later, like after we’ve saved more or have more or paid off more or (insert another reason here). We are giving more today.


    My heart stretched because of those boots. More people and places will have what they need because of those boots. I have a story to share with my kids (and the readers of this blog) because of those boots. God pulled me (and maybe others?) closer because of those boots.



    Give some more.

    Give until you feel it.

    Give until you are stretched into a little bit of fear and anxiety and have to rely on God to make it alright again. Hearts are stretchy and God will make it bigger to hold the next size.

    Give. So you can feel how warm and cozy and lovely those boots are too.


    Blessings for the Journey,

    Brigit Stevens, Associate Conference Minister

    By Brigit Stevens - February 12, 2015, 4:36 pm

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      Have things changed?

      By Rich Pleva - February 6, 2015, 3:54 pm

      On Monday, January 19, Ruby (my wife) and I went to see the movie “Selma.”


      I knew I would be moved, and I was.  Though I was just 13 years old in the spring of 1965 (and raised in a church, family and community where matters of race were never addressed), even then I instinctively knew something important was happening.


      Now 50 years later the question is fairly asked – how have things changed?


      There is no “right” answer to that question.  Obviously many things have changed, but acknowledging and celebrating the progress that has been made cannot be allowed to obscure the reality that much work remains to be done.  Yes, the law makes clear that segregation is not permitted and that all citizens have the right to vote, but law and the human heart do not always coordinate.  As an example of continuing racial disparity, the stunningly high incarceration rates of young, black males should move all concerned citizens to deeply probing questions.  The law may be colorblind (perhaps), but people are not the law, and clearly there remains much work to be done before America can honestly declare itself a “colorblind” nation.


      I would invite you and your church to read and discuss a recent pastoral letter from the officers of the United Church of Christ.  It is a thoughtful and important statement of current reality and the work remaining to be done.  Each of us must ask ourselves, “What is my part in the work that remains to be done?”


      You can access the letter by following this link.




      richreading 20130502Sometime on the afternoon of February 13, I will set up an “out of office” message to be sent in response to all email that comes to me after that date.  It will state that I am on sabbatical through mid-May, and give directions on how to obtain wider church assistance in my absence.  Then I will walk out of the office and begin three months away from this work.


      Walt Brueggemann recently authored a little book about Sabbath, which he subtitled, “Saying No to the Culture of Now.”  I intend to spend three months learning to say “No” to the culture of “now.”


      Sabbatical, of course, is modeled after the biblical concept of Sabbath.  It’s a countercultural discipline in which the practitioner acknowledges that as compelling and necessary as work can be, it is not and cannot be the measure of human worth.  Our worth as human beings finds its foundation in our reflection of the Creator, not in our day-to-day production.


      Therefore, God encourages…insists!…that humans stop work on a weekly basis and listen for truth that we might otherwise never hear.


      A handful of individuals are so privileged as to be granted “sabbatical” from work on a more extended basis, and I am one of those fortunate few.  It is, to be honest, a remarkable privilege.  I’m well aware that most human workers will never experience the gift of extended time for the express purposes of renewal and rest and spiritual exploration.  Thank you for this gift!


      “Sabbatical” has no formal definition, of course.  In the academic world it is often constructed to allow research and writing that is otherwise impractically pursued in the day to day responsibilities of instruction.  But for clergy it is possible for sabbatical to be something other than “work in a different form.”  It is precisely such a different model that I will pursue.


      My program is simple.  I will read (mostly novels) and think and go on long walks.  I will spend time with family.  I will spend time at a monastery.  As the weather warms, I will try to correct the consequences of neglect that are becoming evident in my landscape gardens.


      And what about the work that remains here in the conference office and among our churches and authorized ministers?  That work will go on.  Our staff may be small, but it is highly competent.  If a need arises that might otherwise be directed to me, please call the conference office (515-277-6369) or send an email to my assistant (Jo Ordway, jo@ucciaconf.org) and you will be directed to someone who can help.  If general needs arise in the Southeastern Association, please contact ACM Jonna Jensen and please address situations in the Southwestern Association to ACM Brigit Stevens.


      Rev. Becky David, a UCC pastor from the Quad Cities will serve as Acting Conference Minister in my absence, but she will be very part-time and her work will focus more on the staff than on the other aspects of my work.  Nonetheless, you should also feel free to contact her for assistance (becky@ucciaconf.org).


      I do not always perceive my work as one offering joy and pleasure, but it is nonetheless and indisputably one of privilege, and I do not lose sight of that fact.  Thank you for giving me the privilege of serving you and our churches.  Thank you for the gift of this time away.


      I’ll turn off the email auto-response when I return to the office on Tuesday, May 19.  Blessings to each of you until then.


      With gratefulness!


      Rich Pleva
      Conference Minister
      United Church of Christ in Iowa

      By Rich Pleva - February 6, 2015, 3:54 pm

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