Fifty years ago here in Iowa, men and women of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Churches celebrated the inauguration of a lofty experiment. They set out to implement the heady vision of ecumenical unity that had been hammered out over many years of deliberation and negotiation — sometimes difficult deliberation and negotiation! — and then celebrated in a joint synod in Cleveland in the summer of 1957.
So it was five years later that the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ was born. And like any truly living thing, it has changed over the years and assuredly will continue to change. After all, the only things that do NOT change are things not living.
I’m writing these words from Cleveland where I’m serving on a search committee seeking to call 4 new staff people to a newly organized unit of the setting of the national church that focuses on and seeks to serve local churches. This new unit – Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization – MESA for short — is specifically and self-consciously focused on authorized ministry — the mechanism by which the church discerns individuals gifted by God and formed by training and experience to officially serve and lead on behalf of our church. One of the questions we’ve been asking these potential MESA staff persons is about the future: How do you think our common understanding of authorized ministry needs to change?
Whether we like it or not, the context of ministry is always changing. A structure and program perfectly suited to the challenges of today may not be relevant 10 years from now. And those structures which served us well years ago may not be assets to us today.
Ours is a church tradition deeply committed to critique. We ask questions. We do not take “because I told you so” as a sufficient reason for most anything. We are to be commended for this. But if critical assessment is an asset, unthinking resistance to evolution and change is not.
When the predecessor bodies of the UCC came together, it was the E&R church that made most of the concessions about matters of polity and structure. For them, the scandal of disunity outweighed their commitment to any particular form of polity. In the spirit of those farsighted ancestors, I would suggest that we bring open hearts and minds to the ongoing possibility of change to our own structures of governance. We are a substantially smaller church than we were 50 years ago and the environment in which we bear witness to Christ is considerably more indifferent to our ministry than was the case 50 years ago. In such an environment I believe we need structures of leadership that are nimble, simple, transparent and accountable. Above all, we need to remind ourselves that vibrant communities of faith are never principally about organization and governance — they are about joyful worship and relevant mission. Structures of governance are only instrumental – they exist to empower the real work of the church — worship and service.
As we gather next week in Grinnell to celebrate, worship, learn, deliberate and decide, let us do with eyes to the future. The ecosystem of religion in Iowa needs the progressive voice of the United Church of Christ to be as effective and winsome as it can possibly be. Let us continue to grow and adapt and change to those ultimate ends.
See you in Grinnell!
With hope for future faithful ministry!
Rich Pleva, Iowa Conference Minister