For the past two years, a Vision Team has been dreaming about new ways to work together as the wider church in this part of the country – Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and West Virginia. The Team has developed a visionary goal to create “one nimble and responsive judicatory that is faithful in mission and responsible in stewardship.” As you’ll see here, listening sessions are being scheduled so that you can interact with members of the Vision Team and share your ideas and concerns.
Perhaps because of the work of the Vision Team, I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be a Conference of the United Church of Christ. For that matter, what does it mean to be an Association of the United Church of Christ. Is it really important for there to be middle judicatories like these?
Like I often do, I started by looking at dictionary definitions. According to Merriam-Webster, an “association” is “an organized group of people who have the same interest, job, etc.” Not very exciting, but accurate. The definition for “conference” didn’t seem as useful: “a formal meeting in which many people gather in order to talk about ideas or problems related to a particular topic.” That gets at part of what we do as a conference of the UCC, but not really what we are, or why. Or does it? Perhaps the suggestion that there are ideas or problems that require deep conversation gives us some insight as to why a middle judicatory exists.
At this point, I figured it might be helpful to look at Constitutions and Bylaws. The United Church of Christ Constitution states that the UCC was formed “in order to express more fully the oneness in Christ of the churches composing it, to make more effective their common witness in Him, and to serve His kingdom in the world,” This resonated with me. It makes sense that as Christians, we have an obligation to express our faith, and that we can do that more fully and effectively in partnership than each of us taking our separate path.
The conference Constitution was also helpful: “The purpose of the Ohio Conference shall be to strengthen the domestic and global life of the local churches and Associations within its boundaries, to witness in their behalf, and to relate them to the life and work of the United Church of Christ.” So, what are the ways that middle judicatories accomplish this? Here are a few: mentoring those discerning the call to ministry, supporting churches and pastors in times of transition, nurturing young people as they explore their faith, mission work at home and abroad, building and sustaining ecumenical partnerships, speaking out for justice.
The local church is the basic unit of the United Church of Christ. That’s in the UCC Constitution, too, as it should be. But middle judicatories – conferences and associations – can and should play roles that make local churches stronger and more vital. Church voices united in middle judicatories can also be a more effective voice for justice.
As our Vision of a nimble and responsive judicatory takes shape we must make sure to preserve the best elements of our current structure so that key services and ministry continue. But I also sense that there are opportunities for us to live into a more effective wider church and fulfil the purpose described in the UCC Constitution, to express more fully the oneness in Christ, make more effective our common witness in Him, and to serve His kingdom in the world.
May it be so.
Blessings and peace,
Moderator, Ohio Conference