I am what people call a “UCC nerd.” By that I mean, I have a deep and abiding love for the United Church of Christ and follow along with the inner workings, public statements, and gossip of our national body. I worked on the national staff prior to coming to Winona to serve as your pastor. Sometimes, seeing how the sausage was made, so to speak, was hard. But my time within the national setting did not diminish my love for the UCC, it simply reaffirmed my love and desire to help the UCC grow into a Christian denomination that truly lives our values and justly serves the world as followers of Christ. So, this morning instead of a typical sermon, I want to share a reflection on what happened at General Synod this year.
I want to do this because, I believe, it is truly important for the local church to know what is happening with the national denomination. The UCC is a bit different than many of the other mainline Christian churches in that the local churches are independent and self-governed. By that I mean, we are not bound by any of the decisions made at the national level. However, we are in covenant with our national setting, all other UCC churches and affiliated ministries. Part of being good covenantal partners means that we must stay mindful about what is happening throughout our denomination and discern how we want to respond.
This last Tuesday, June 25th (which was, coincidentally the 62nd anniversary of the formation of the UCC) the 32nd General Synod of the United Church of Christ concluded in Milwaukee, WI. For 5 days approximately 800 delegates and 2,000 guests and visitors gathered to worship, learn, conduct business, and discern the Spirit’s movement for the future of the denomination. The General Synod, which happens every two years, is a vital gathering of the UCC and sets the course for the work that is to be done by the national setting of the UCC. It also provides local churches and covenanted ministries items to consider in their own work and Christian witness. I was not able to attend this year, though I have been a regular attender in the past. However, that did not prevent me from watching all the proceedings on livestream and conversing with my fellow UCC nerds on social media. For five days, I lived and breathed General Synod as if I had been there.
I want to first share a brief report of some of the big business that was discussed and voted on at Synod. Two officers were elected or reelected to the leadership of the UCC. Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer was reelected as General Minister and President of the UCC for another 4-year term. This is John’s second term in this role as leader of the national staff of the UCC and spokesperson and representative of our denomination globally. John acknowledged in his speech that it was well passed time for a woman or a person from the LGBTQIA+ community to be in that role. He also said that after deep prayer and discussion with his family he would accept the nomination from the UCC Board of Directors to fill another term. John’s election was not unanimous, but the body gathered did ultimately choose him to do this work for another year. I know John quite well and I am confident in his ability to lead our denomination with humility, honesty, and true discipleship.
Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson was elected as the new Associate General Minister for Global Engagement and Operations. Karen previously served the national setting as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations and has extensive experience in engaging the church universal, both here in the United States and abroad. This will be Karen’s first 4-year term. I have met and engaged with Karen on several occasions and have always found her to be thought-ful, intelligent, and passionate about the UCC. I truly believe she will do an outstanding job in this new role.
In addition to electing these officers, the delegates of the General Synod approved the budget, elected new members to the Board of Directors, worshipped in many varied ways, heard a fantastic keynote address about the affordable housing crisis in the United States, and did volunteered at various organizations across Milwaukee to walk to the talk of our faith.
The General Synod also debated and voted on several resolutions. Resolutions presented for debate and vote at the General Synod help the church to set its course for the next two years. Every resolution that is approved must be acted on by the national setting, though no local church is tied to the witness it presents. Watching the process unfold often frustrates me. It highlighted, for me, so much of what is holding the church universal back from making forward momentum. People would argue about subtext and context. People would argue about a word and whether or not removing it from the language of the resolution would change the entire point. There were people who went up to the microphone for every piece of business that was being debated on the floor, sure that everyone needed to hear their opinion on everything. I was huffing and puffing, sighing and rolling my eyes, and thinking “what is the matter with us?” But, the Holy Spirit intervened for me in a way that only She can do. While engaging in Bible study this week, in which I am reading the Books of Acts slowly and deliberately, I was reminded that the church has been debating business in frustrating ways since its inception. Early in Acts, before Christians even referred to themselves as Christians, there was a meeting in Jerusalem for the leaders to decide whether or not followers of Jesus had to be circumcised. Some said yes, therefore banning the Gentiles, others said no – anyone could be a follower of Jesus. As I read about that debate, it reminded me that this work of the church is built into our DNA. It reminded me, that even though debate like this can be frustrating and slow things down, it is vital to help us understand who we are. Where God is leading us to. What we are called to do next.
The resolutions debated this year were far-reaching in their implications. Some were of witness, for example denouncing the use of private prisons, calling for greater and respectful interfaith dialogue, declaring the opioid crisis as a public health emergency, and calling the United States back from the brink of nuclear war. Other resolutions were about the governance and organizational structure of the UCC, for example a couple of resolutions called for greater clarity and accountability about the relationship between the local church and the national setting. That resolution was tabled for further review. Another resolution directed the Board of Directors to edit the bylaws to remove the gendered language and make all of the language about the membership of the UCC non-gendered. There was, as only a church can do, a resolution about the use of resolutions in the General Synod. That resolution, though passed, was completely gutted by its reviewing committee of anything useful at all. So, a resolution about the over-use of resolutions to set the trajectory of the denomination, ended up being a passed resolution that meant nothing at all.
The most difficult resolution was about the inclusion of the Faithful and Welcoming church delegation in the exhibit space at General Synod. The Faithful and Welcoming churches of the UCC describe themselves as “evangelical, conservative, orthodox, or traditional.” Amongst other beliefs, the FWC do not support the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ clergy or allow same-gendered weddings in their worship spaces. While they are a small part of the UCC, their voice has led to a great deal of division within the denomination. At the last General Synod, the FWC had an exhibit space that many in the LGBTQIA+ community found offensive and exclusionary. This led to a resolution considered this year to ban the FWC from exhibiting at General Synod. The committee considering this resolution ultimately decided to not recommend passage of this resolution. The debate on the floor was powerful and emotional. Many members stated their belief that banning a group of our denomination from full inclusion in the General Synod was opposed to the inclusive nature of our church. Others expressed their profound need to feel fully welcomed in the national gathering of the denomination and that seeing a display which did not affirm their personal identity was a form of violence and discrimination. In a move that really surprised me, a motion was then made to table the resolution and direct the Board of Directors to ultimately decide what to do. As a matter of information, the Board of Directors functions as the General Synod in-between gatherings and has the ability to make a final decision about whether or not to accept a resolution.
As I watched the debates, wondering how I would vote if I had been a delegate, I also grew concerned about the lack of trust in the leadership of the church and the polarization I was hearing. There were some debates where it was clear people believed that if others didn’t agree with them, then they were against them. It felt, for a time, that the covenantal relationship that makes the UCC who it is, was forgotten. It felt, for a time, that the hate and division that is cursing through our nation has found its way into the church. What makes the UCC so extraordinary is that we are meant to differ in opinion and styles of worship. We are meant to differ in how we experience God’s Spirit moving in and through us. We are meant to be a diverse body of believers. It is the fundamental understanding of our denomination that we are better because of our call to question and grow and change. It makes us extraordinary. It helps us to shine. But it felt, for a time, as if that fundamental character of who we are as a Christian tradition had been forgotten or disregarded.
But then there was an extraordinary moment. Right at the end of the last business session of Synod, the picture of a young father and his baby daughter who had drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande river was made public. The business, which was about to be adjourned, was stopped. And the church entered into prayer together. First there was silence, and I have been told some were audibly weeping about this latest reminder of the humanitarian crisis we are facing in this country. Then one of our leaders, Rev. Traci Blackmon, through tears prayed fervently to God. She cried out to God, “How long O Lord?” will this continue. She captured the pain and the fear. And then she, in her prayer, reminded all who were listening that we believe in a still-speaking God and that God has acted, we just need to respond. In that moment, the disagreements of our denomination did not go away, but we were all reminded that to do the work of God, to do the work of church, we must do it together. Because there is great need in the world and we are a people who can and will respond.
The theme for this General Synod was Shine. The Matthew scripture was a reminder to the disciples of Jesus, then and now, that we are to not hold back in living out our faith. We are to let our light shine, to be a beacon of hope for a world in need. And even though there were moments of this gathering of the UCC that felt as if our light has been dimmed by all of the troubles of the world, ultimately that was not the case. Because I believe, I know, that the division will not pull apart our extraordinary denomination. In fact, I believe that the division will not be seen as division, but rather diversity. And that diversity will be the strength of our church for years to come. It will be hard. And as I have said before, church should be hard. But, it will be done in relationship with one another and with God. And what was true for the General Synod is true for us here at First Congregational as well. We have and will continue to differ on many things. We will struggle to find consensus about how we will continue to be relevant in a less and less religious world while still holding onto our traditions. We will struggle but we will still shine. Because it is in the debate that our covenant becomes even stronger. Our covenant to do this thing called church together with one another and with God. Amen.