5th Annual Florida Conference Minister’s Address

Community Church of Vero Beach May 5, 2012 “This is how we've come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves. If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God's love? It disappears. And you made it disappear. My dear children, let's not just talk about love; let's practice real love. This is the only way we'll know we're living truly, living in God's reality.” 1 John 3:16-19 It’s tempting to sit down right now and let the words of Scripture speak for themselves! And while it surely is tempting, I’m going to resist that temptation and spend a little time with you on this beautiful Saturday morning here in Vero Beach to offer a few reflections regarding the church, the Conference and the future. At a recent meeting in Chicago where a group of leaders across the United Church of Christ were gathered I was struck by an analysis of where we are in the church right now articulated by the Rev. David Ruhe, Senior Pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church in Des Moines, Iowa. He said that the United Church of Christ at this moment in history is at a time of grieving, perceiving and believing. I would like to offer my own analysis around those three verbs that provide a framework for where we find ourselves in these days. Grieving I was raised in the church. I was baptized, confirmed and ordained at the First Congregational Church in Stamford, Connecticut. This was a “downtown church” a marvelous stone structure with equally impressive stained glass windows. With the exception of my family the church was the center of my world. The church was a vibrant congregation led by pastors who made a deep and lasting impression on the congregation and on my own life. There was a nursery complete with cradle roll, the Sunday School classrooms were adorned with chalk boards and those nifty felt boards to help illustrate the stories from the Bible that we were learning about. In third grade we had a memorization exam which included Bible verses and people and places in the Bible. Going to church was a way of life. The stores in our town were closed on Sunday. Sabbath was a big deal when I was growing up. The Confirmation class was led by Dr. Russell McGowan the senior minister and it last for 12 weeks of 1 and ½ hour lectures that he gave in his three piece suit. He was an imposing authority figure and while we didn’t think he was God – he sure was up there with the angels and archangels. When we were confirmed we all received the Sacrament of Communion for the first time and we all lined up for the photo with our Confirmation class with the boys trying to make sure that our clip on ties were in the right position for the picture.

Youth group was a big deal. We had a Junior Pilgrim Fellowship and a Senior Pilgrim Fellowship. There were close to 100 young people in each group. We had youth group advisors who worked with the elected officers of each group to plan the worship services held in the Chapel and the weekly programs. We also had Friday night dances always ending those dances with the song “MacArthur Park” – it was a very long slow dance song…. We engaged in acts of service and mission, went to NYC for plays and to worship at other churches. I was as connected to a church as anyone could be. I was mentored into ministry by Sunday School Teachers and other laypeople as well as by the clergy who served the church. I preached my first sermon at 13 – demonstrating the amazing tolerance of this congregation! During college I returned to the church to lead a summer outdoor ministries program of the church taking youth on biking, hiking and canoeing adventures all over the Northeast. When I entered seminary the church was supportive of my journey both with prayers and with financial resources. I spent an intern year at the church between my second and third year of seminary during a time of significant transition in the church’s life. At seminary I was trained for a church where people came to church out of obligation. Families were expected to attend church and to stick with the church of their grandparents and parents. The church was often at the center of the public square and viewed as an important part of the culture – providing a “conscience” if you will to the issues of the day. People would find their way into our churches and we had programs of “assimilation”. Success was measured by church attendance, the number of pledge units – church was meant to be a well functioning institution. My church administration course taught me all about these matters. My first call was as an Associate. Guess what my primary responsibility was? You got it – youth ministry. What else does a 26 year old newly ordained minister do? I had a great experience in this first call and learned a lot about the church in that time period. I was then called to be a solo pastor of a congregation where I served for 13 years. Over those 16 years I began to be more and more aware that the church that I had been raised in, the church that I had been trained in seminary to lead was changing – and changing dramatically. The culture around us was changing and the church was continuing to operate out of a model that had served it well during the preceding decades. I began to hear the yearnings among people for the good old days. “If only these young people would be committed to the church like we were”; “Why don’t people volunteer for Boards and Committees any longer – what is wrong with their priorities”; “We need to return to the way things used to be” became familiar refrains. I didn’t know it then but I know it now. These people were grieving. The church that these folks knew and loved - the church of their grandparents and parents

was gone and they lamented the comfort that familiarity provided and their sense of loss was deep and was real. So what did I do? I began a ministry in the Conference setting. Right at the time that people were wondering if there was any purpose to denominational structures at a time of declining resources I answered a call to this form of ministry. I wanted to work to find a way to strengthen the local church and to help equip leaders in their ministries. Giving to the wider church was beginning to be on the decline but there was less attention paid to that reality than was necessary. This model of Conference life included the idea that the Conference was the “expert” and provided the answers and the resources to the local churches. It was the hub and spoke model – a kind of help desk for churches. The conference was the center and the churches were the outlying spokes. That model worked well for decades – but the changing realities of our world have awakened those of us in Conference ministry to recognize – it no longer works with any great effectiveness. So as Ruhe points out – we are grieving. We are grieving over the loss of the church we once knew, of the structures that we once created and loved, of the impact that the changes in our world have on us. Some among us think that we can somehow recapture the good old days. Some among us think that if only we could find the magic solution all will be well. Some among us think that it is time to move on and to embrace the emerging realities of this point in history. Yes, we grieve and lament that things are not the same. Yes these changing times present us with some harsh realities – including the reality that the structure we have put into place here in the Florida Conference is no longer financially viable and that those who have served us well and done everything asked of them and more are facing job loss and its attendant pain and questions. Yet we are not people who grieve without hope. We are a people who when facing despair and uncertainty know that God does not abandon us. A few short weeks ago we walked through Holy Week – the week filled with despair and betrayal and crucifixion. As people of deep and abiding faith we must remember that the grief and death we now face is not the LAST WORD. We are a people who know the power of the Resurrection. We are a people who even when walking through the valleys of the shadow of death that God’s power, God’s hope and God’s Spirit will sustain us. Yes, we are grieving. Yes, the church as we once knew it no longer exists. The Psalmist says, weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning. Perceiving It is through our grieving that we begin to understand that God is in fact doing a new thing. The significant changes that are taking place in our world, in our culture and in the church require us to be attentive in ways we have never been before. We need to have a sense of urgency that is mindful of our need to change in order to introduce others to the love of God in Jesus Christ. This is personal to me. I

have two daughters who were raised in the church and don’t go to church now. I would imagine that you have children and grandchildren who are in the same category. We are not reaching at least two generations of people in many of our churches. “Oh they will come back to church when they have children” is no longer the answer. That is not happening. Do we know why? Do we perceive the reasons for that? When is the last time you sat down with your children or grandchildren and asked them not why they don’t go to church – but rather what would help the church become a place of meaning for them? Elizabeth O’Connor in her book, “A Call to Commitment writes, "When the church starts to be the church it will constantly be adventuring out into places where there are no tried and tested ways. If the church in our day has few prophetic voices to sound above the noises of the street, perhaps in large part it is because the pioneering spirit has become foreign to it. It shows little willingness to explore new ways. Where it does it has often been called an experiment. We would say that the church of Christ is never an experiment, but wherever that church is true to its mission it will be experimenting, pioneering, blazing new paths, seeking how to speak the reconciling Word of God to its own age." Our General Minister and President Geoffrey Black conducted a listening tour when he became the GMP. He provided a very helpful distinction to his perception of what he heard as he toured the country (including a stop here in our Conference). He said “when I hear about the future of the church I get nervous. We have all heard the stories of decline and diminishment. However, when I talk about the church of the future I get excited. I want us to focus not on the future of the church but rather the church of the future”. Our “Embracing the Vision” document is in its flawed and finite way an attempt to do just that. We have perceived where we need to head together. We have said that we cannot continue to do things the same way any longer. We need to learn new skills and we need to adapt to the times in which we live. We are stating that over the next three years of our life together that we will have a primary focus that will equip and enable our core ministries. The way forward as we see it is stated this way: It is the primary goal of the Florida Conference to encourage, help foster and equip local congregations to become vital and faithful communities. The staff of the Conference will be attentive to this goal. We will work diligently to listen to the needs of local churches and to find ways to be a conduit among our churches to help resource one another around those expressed needs. The greatest asset of our Conference is our local congregations – centers of mission and ministry. I believe that there is much resident wisdom among us. I also believe that we have inherited a culture that places way too much value on autonomy and pays little attention to covenant. We need to create a climate of interdependence and trust. We need to believe in our heart of hearts that

we need one another. We need to open a level of sharing in and among our congregations which fosters a climate of learning in this time of rapid change. We need to pray. In order to perceive what God is doing we need to open our lives to God’s movement and God’s Spirit. We need to pray for God’s guidance and direction to lead us into the new creatures that God calls us to become. We need to ground our ministries in prayer and in God’s powerful love. Our perceiving needs to be tested by the ethic of love. Yes, we are grieving. Yes we perceive that God is doing a new thing. And yes, we are a people who believe! Believing Michael Kinnamon, former President of the National Council of Churches has said that “denominations exist to protect an aspect of the Gospel in danger of being diminished or lost altogether”. So what do we in the United Church of Christ believe? We are a church that believes in offering an extravagant welcome–captured in the signature phrase, “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here”. We are a people who believe that Jesus calls us to a new way of living and looking at the world in which we live. Once we have been changed by the radical love of Jesus we must work with others to change the world. We are a people who proclaim that “God is Still Speaking” and this ongoing story is ours to live and ours to incarnate in our daily lives. We believe that the core values – extravagant welcome, transformed lives, continuing testament offer life giving messages for our people and for those who have yet to come to know us as a church. I believe we need a big idea. The primary goal of vital churches is essential. Our United Church of Christ was founded with a big idea. The big idea is summed up in our motto, “that they may all be one”. This notion of Christian Unity drove our forebears in the faith with a unity of purpose that weathered the storms of cynicism and disdain that was challenged in the courts and took over a decade to accomplish. Our forebears believed that Christians are known by how they love each other and to bring together people who had different traditions and understandings of the faith for a common goal – namely unity – brought the United Church of Christ into being. This experiment in Christian Unity born in 1957 is at a crossroads. What if we here in the Florida Conference got behind a big idea? What if we believed with our hearts, souls, mind and strength in something that would carry us through the next several years together. Let me suggest that there is a big idea we can believe in. What if together we agreed that our Conference, this community of churches, this expression of faith, this tribe would engage in believing that we are called to….

Love God and love neighbor? That’s it? Yep, that’s it. Now while it is not an original idea – it is a foundational belief on which to hang our collective hats. What if we shared a belief and then a commitment to love God and love neighbor? What if we believed that we are interconnected, one to the other? What if we believed that God is doing a new thing and we are on this journey to align ourselves with God’s activity it the world? What if we believed in a vision of the church that moves outside of its walls and into its community to discover and to be changed by the “other”….the neighbor, the stranger, the outcast, the powerful and the powerless? What if we are to believe that there is wisdom among us and that God’s Creative Spirit is loose right here in Florida, right here, right now in Vero Beach on the first Saturday in May? What if we shared the belief that the power of the Risen Christ has set us free from our former ways of doing things? What if we believed that Resurrection power is being unleashed in our churches and in our Conference for the living of these days? Yes we are grieving, perceiving and believing. The United Church of Christ in Florida is blessed with wonderful churches and leaders attempting to live with the changing realities of our time. As we move into the future together let us do so with confidence that this is God’s future, God’s time and that as we rely on God’s presence and guidance – we will indeed – find our way! Thanks be to God!

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