Wouldn’t it be nice if church could be the one place in a topsy-turvy world where nothing ever changed?
That is, of course, exactly what many of us would prefer. To be honest, it’s what I’d prefer. Our families and our places of work and our communities confront us with change and change and more change. We’re weary of it and long for a place of stability – a place of shelter and protection from the relentless demands of a culture seemingly gone berserk. We imagine that perhaps church will be an idyllic place of stability – that place where we know how things work and we know our respective roles and those of everyone else.
It would be nice, but it isn’t to be. Unless church is to drift into irrelevance, it must deal with…..it must confront and respond to the same pressures that all other human institutions face.
At the Conference Annual Meeting last month, I spoke of an ongoing conversation with our neighboring UCC Conferences to the west – the Nebraska and South Dakota Conferences. It’s a conversation about combining our staffs. It’s a conversation that – if we embrace its possibilities – will challenge us to face some hard realities about ourselves. Realities having to do with the depth of our practical commitment to concepts and ideas we all affirm in the abstract – things like covenant and “new things.”
I don’t know anyone in our kind of church who doesn’t extol the critical importance of maintaining “covenant” and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t affirm a longing for God’s “new things.”
But often our embrace of these is abstract and theoretical. Like most human beings, we are possessed of a powerful inclination to that which is familiar and close-to-home. When the chips are down we are more inclined to care for ourselves and those close to us than we are those farther away and we are inclined to favor familiar practices and structures over those which are new and different.
The advantages of creating one staff to serve three conferences are potentially significant (you can go online to https://www.ucciaconf.org/about-us/board-of-directors/tri-conference-cooperation to learn much more – particularly pay attention to the “Executive Summary” and the “DRAFT Covenant Agreement”).
But there are costs to this concept. These costs are not so much financial (it will actually save some money) as they are psychological and emotional. This plan is sensible mostly because conferences are shrinking and less able to perform their work with the levels of excellence we desire. This plan is important because it is a way to structure wider-church work as appropriately challenging (and therefore attractive to our brightest and best leaders) as opposed to merely corrosively challenging (and therefore not attractive to our brightest and best). But these arguments in favor of change imply something distasteful: that we are struggling to do with excellence that which was formerly easier. To put it bluntly – we must consider these changes because we are dying.
For some organizations, the prospect of death is panic inducing. But are we not followers of Jesus? Are we not followers of the one who defeated death? I believe we are. But the ways of life more often than not follow paths through the graveyard rather than around it. There is a sense in which churches of our ilk are invited to put our money where our mouths have long been – not just to talk about the power of God over death…but to live it. We are invited – in some real measure – to die….. so that we might live. And perhaps our tried and familiar forms of church are precisely that which must die.
The proposal for a common staff isn’t by itself that which will rebirth our churches. That notion is absurd. But I believe our church is at a crossroads….a place where God is placing options before us….options to cling to that which has been, or to start embracing new ways and new forms…through which the winds of the wild and uncontrollable Spirit might again blow as they did in our churches in the past.
This proposal is just one small step on such a road. It’s no panacea for all that ails us….but perhaps it’s a good start. Please learn more about what’s being proposed. Pray about your response to it. Open your heart and mind to new possibilities.
UCC in Iowa