Former General Minister and President of the UCC John Thomas often said in speeches, “When I look back, I see our forebears looking forward.”
Our Vision Team of the Ohio Conference meets regularly to look forward. Their “assignment” is to craft a concept for the Conference which will be faithful, effective and efficient. Looking back, however, reveals a long history of such efforts. Look back a moment with me today to perhaps glean some insight into our current situation.
William Gay wrote book to mark the first 25 years of the Ohio Conference, and cited pertinent reflections by some great Ohio Conference leaders who looked forward to new days in the United Church of Christ in the Ohio Conference. He refers to the time between 1963-1988.
I knew Bill Gay and many others cited in his book Life Together In Christ: A Family History of the Ohio Conference. His insights into the joy and struggle to find a way forward frequently mirror the joy and struggle we have to this day.
The Rev. Donald Powers of Cuyahoga Falls prepared a preliminary report in 1962 to outline how a Committee on Conference Organization imagined this new conference would work. He wrote: “….it has suggested the principle of mutual agreement to keep the Associations and the Conference working together intelligently, harmoniously, and responsibly…..”
In order to fold together four Evangelical and Reformed synods and the Congregational Christian church of Ohio, Powers reported the committee proposed a strong conference embracing five strong associations. He wrote: “Here we are deviating from the patterns followed by other Conferences of the General Synod. We have tried to be creative in coming up with new patterns which helpfully will strengthen our mission to the local church; and, at the same time, strengthen the loyalty of the local church to the World Mission…
“We are autonomous,” he observed, “but that does not mean we are free to do as we please. We are constrained by Christ to please one another through our unity. This is reached by the principle of mutual agreement…. The Associations are ‘of the Ohio Conference,’ but the Ohio Conference is largely controlled by the Associations by means of budget, nominations, and representation.”
As you can see, that principle of organization has prevailed since 1963. Truman Douglass, executive of the Board of Homeland Mission, cautioned, “ … we are to remember that it is God’s future. It is always to be kept open to expectancy and surprise and miracle. We are never to set such store by any of our humanly contrived programs and institutions…. that we are not glad to have them blown away by the rushing wind of the Holy Spirit!!”
Later, the Rev. Dr. Roger Shinn described the increasingly complex social/political times during which the denomination was formed and many decided to not join it, as a Tangled World. Dr. Roger Shinn was the son of an Ohio pastor (over whose funeral service I presided in the late 1960s). Thinking of Shinn’s work, Gay observes, “…all the issues (with which the church had to contend) were unheard of, or barely known, in 1963 (when the Conference was born).”
We should note, too that the first president of the new United Church of Christ was the eloquent pastor, the Rev. Dr. Ben Herbster, who was born in Prospect, Ohio, and later served Zion Reformed Church in Norwood for thirty years.
Gay goes on to recite the stories of many outstanding lay and clergy leaders in those first 25 years of Conference history, before quoting the Rev. Paul Olm. Association Minister Olm first continued that litany of praise at first, then remarked, “What is the overall results of our best efforts?….For whatever reasons, the Ohio Conference has not been an effective new church grower; it has not turned many ecumenical corners; it has not impressed with constructive and helpful efforts in the arena of social and societal concerns including issues such as human rights, sexism, justice, peace and poverty. Ethnic churches have not been developed and nurtured significantly, and many of our churches continue to resist having women ministers (!!)…… “The Ohio Conference, because of its size, will always be a strong arm of the United Church of Christ, but whether or not it can develop its potential will depend on a commitment to change …. and on people and staff working together in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Fortunately, many of the weaker aspects of Ohio Conference life cited by Rev Mr. Olm have been addressed faithfully and prophetically in the second 25 years of our work together.
Challenges remain, however. Today we struggle with the notion that Millennials and the “nones” (the people who answer surveys about denominational affiliations by saying “none”) have little interest or affection for the church. It is not a new phenomenon. Gay cites a 1968 survey indicating that “57% of citizens consider the church irrelevant and the age group 20-34 is the least likely to be influenced by invitations to join the church.”
We have yet to turn that drift in a positive way, it seems!
Facing twin crises of funding and organizational size, by 1981, only 18 years after its founding, a Futuring Management Committee was formed and in 1988 a Committee of 18 was charged to reconsider the structure and staffing pattern within the Conference. Basic goals of that committee do not sound much different from today’s challenges: establish a team climate; reduce administrative costs; develop statewide stewardship ministry, increase the ministry of lay persons, develop better communication between local churches, Associations, Conference and the national setting, and increase services to the local church.
That year, former Conference moderator Don Powers remarked “…. It seems to me we must look inward as well as outward for the cause of our decline…..tinkering alone is not enough…..what we must do…is buckle down, play down ‘turf,’ play up Christ, and move.”
Later, Dr. Joseph Evans, as interim Conference Minister, reinforced those concerns, saying, “any one or all of the (judicatories) can ruin a structure and cause it to be ineffective….we function by collaboration and consensus. Which means being part of a team …(which means) cooperation, mutuality, respect, and unity.”
The Rev. Dr. Thomas Dipko remarked in a section titled “Historical Honesty” that in 25 years the Conference lost 12.7% of congregations, 45,000 members and 88,000 in Sunday church schools. “The calculator tells us, “ he adds, “that if there were to (continue), by our 50th anniversary in 2013, we will drop from 514 churches to 449, from 165,000 members to 120,000 and that our Sunday church school will have expired by the year 2000.”
Our 2016 statistics bear out his “prophesy:” 345 congregations, 89,000 members, a loss of 800 confirmands in eleven years, and while there are still Sunday church schools, it is rare to find more than a handful of students attending them.
Dr. Dipko continues by saying “one aspect of this change will need to be a careful revisiting of our current notions of ‘autonomy.’ Our behavior too often suggests that we have substituted ‘independency’ for autonomy, and that in our fear of ‘connectionalism’ we have become a sign of contradiction, ‘a disconnected covenant people.” “…in my first month as Conference Minister the question was asked, ‘What do you see as the chief issue in the structural life of the Ohio Conference?’ I responded that it centered in….three words: turf, trust and team.”
As I look back at these faith forbears who are looking forward, I recognize that when I accepted the invitation to be interim Conference Minister in October, 2016, those three words remained at the center of the search committee’s concern. I add to Dr. Dipko’s analysis that accountability seems buried by insistence on autonomy, and the chief victims are mutuality, collaboration and covenant.
Dr. Dipko despaired of our slide toward weakening witness when he declared, “If we are not open to the change demanded of us by new circumstances and challenges, if we are not open to conversion in our churchly ways, then unlike the early Christians we will not move beyond local horizons and yesterday’s agendas.”
Today we are engaged in yet another exercise to imagine how to be the church of God’s people in this 21st century. This time around we deal with weakening Associations, an already weakened Conference, and a plethora of struggling congregations surrounded by a few outstanding thriving congregations. Our question is how to be the church — faithfully, effectively, efficiently, and sustainably — in these challenging times? As we look ahead after looking back, will we discover how to be about God’s business in Christ-like ways in these dramatic times?
Pray with me that our Vision Team will soon provide a “concept” for us to consider, critique, and shape as we address the changing nature of our ministries in Associations and Conference, and in local and national settings.
“Come, Holy Spirit, come.
Come as fire and refine;
Come as light and reveal;
Come as wind and refresh.
Convict, convert, consecrate
Until we are wholly Thine.”
(adapted from a version of this ancient prayer as offered by the Rev. Dr. Nels Ferre at an Ohio Pastors Convocation)