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On Being Church

As the United Church of Christ governance boards begin to meet in Cleveland, I want to offer some reflections on the proposal to restructure the national setting of the church. I spoke out early and often in opposition to early drafts of the proposal, but had an epiphany during the Spring board meetings that the problem is voice and representation and that governing boards are only a piece of the puzzle.

I am deeply moved by the passion of the Joshua Generation to become involved in a process that has mostly been a game of “insider baseball”, but want to struggle with them about what struggle they have decided to join and invite them to consider whether the size of our governance system is really the most important thing to think about as we consider, “what does it really mean to be church in the 21st century?”

As I listened to colleagues throughout this process, it became painfully obvious that what is needed is a cultural shift in the whole church and that a focus on that is only on the question of who sits at the table of the governance board or boards, is not really the issue.

What is desperately needed are events and venues that are accessible to many parts of the church where discernment and visioning can happen. Governance boards are not a particularly good place for that (believe me I know, I serve on two of the five), but governance boards would have much better clarity if such events can happen. A focus on governance is the old paradigm for the old church that must give way to a new culture of being church that is more open, less focussed on institutional concerns, and is more postmodern. We need more time for worship, study, reflection, celebration, and genuine connection so that we can embody the prophetic movement of the Spirit that is so needed in our time. A prophetic movement that reaches through our divisions and seeks to genuinely live out the “we” that Jesus prayed for. So my problem with the Joshua Generation’s proposal is that it is still responding to the old questions in the old way and we need a NEW way.

What will it take to change the culture of connection in the United Church of Christ? New leadership. New leadership that is movement-oriented and not stuck in institutional modes of thinking and the old fights of the ’60’s and 70’s. That leadership will not be concentrated in the governance structure, it needs to be embodied in the Collegium and needs to happen mostly at the conference and regional level AND more and more, it needs to be on the web and work more like Facebook than a Board of Directors. I appreciate that some leaders who I admire believe that this change will be thwarted by a single board, but I actually have come to believe that the structure doesn’t matter if we start focusing on the correct questions of what does it mean to be the kind of church we are becoming in the 21st century. And it may even be easier to do cultural change within a smaller board . . .

Cultural change is hard, as we all know, but that’s what we need in the UCC and whether there is one board or five – that’s what we really need and that’s what I am going to work toward. In April, I actually tried to amend the proposal to add such meetings to reflect a shift in how we go about being church, but it was unsuccessful because the group did not want to mix in something new late in the game. But I did find real support amongst my colleagues in various quarters and was actually hugged by a woman with whom I generally disagree because this created a “middle” way that is more collaborative and less divisive.

Just like we need a new politics in our nation, we need a new way of being church in all the settings of the church. And I believe change comes more from inspiration and action than from simply “beating” folks in an “us” and “them” game. Too many opportunities for ministry have been lost by such games and EVERY quarter of the United Church of Christ has played such zero sum games that knock the Holy Spirit out of the process. When will we start to let go of the past and become a church that focuses more on “we” than “them“? I want to find ways to do that . . . and stop spending precious hours, resources, and energy rearranging the chairs of governance boards.

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