The United Church of Christ blends the advantages of governing systems from the churches that covenanted to form our denomination. The Christian Congregational stream gives us our emphasis on local control and the autonomy of local churches, while the Evangelical & Reformed stream helps us articulate the ways we are connected to one another to accomplish those things no individual congregation can do alone. “Covenant” is not only a foundational theme in the scriptures; it is the way individual believers relate to one another to form churches -- remember the Membership Covenant we shared with new members last Sunday -- and how churches, associations and conferences (“expressions of the church”) provide support to one another.
The UCC Constitution describes covenant this way:
Within the United Church of Christ, the various expressions of the church relate to each other in a covenantal manner. Each expression of the church has responsibilities and rights in relation to the others, to the end that the whole church will seek God's will and be faithful to God's mission. Decisions are made in consultation and collaboration among the various parts of the structure. As members of the Body of Christ, each expression of the church is called to honor and respect the work and ministry of each other part. Each expression of the church listens, hears, and carefully considers the advice, counsel and requests of others. In this covenant, the various expressions of the United Church of Christ seek to walk together in all God's ways. (Article III)
This Saturday is the Annual Meeting of the Platte Valley Association, of which Plymouth is a key partner. Associations are the nearest level of covenant among churches. Our Platte Valley Association encompasses thirteen congregations stretching from Longmont to Casper, from Laramie to Sterling. The Association is the body entrusted with nurturing and vetting potential clergy through the ordination process, discerning everything from school transcripts and internship experiences to psych evaluations and criminal background checks. It is the body called upon when there are allegations of clergy unfitness for ministry, and it helps when invited by churches riven by internal troubles. It pools resources from its member congregations to provide scholarship assistance to seminary students, continuing education grants for clergy, and support for mission trips and outreach. In a denominational system that often produces “Lone Ranger” ministers and congregations, it provides fellowship, trainings, connection, encouragement and support.
The Association, like the Conference (our Rocky Mountain Conference covers Colorado, Utah and much of Wyoming), the national General Synod, and the central offices of the denomination, is supported by its local congregations through Our Church’s Wider Mission (“OCWM”). In keeping with congregational traditions of financial freedom, each church determines its OCWM support. Declining membership in many churches has caused a decrease in OCWM support since the work of local, regional and national settings are often less visible and thus easier to cut when local churches have budget crunches. Yet paradoxically, it is often then that congregations need the resources those bodies provide. I was recently talking to a lay leader from a congregation in our Association that had a significant crisis a few years ago. “We still exist because of this Association. If it hadn’t been for their intervention, we would never have made it. Things were going from bad to worse, and we didn’t know what to do. We are forever grateful.” They are still a very small church in a small community. They are also the only Open and Affirming presence, with ministries reaching far beyond their numbers. They provide a continuing UCC testimony there because of the generosity of the larger churches -- like Plymouth! -- that they are in covenant with. By the same token, systems supported by OCWM are indispensable to churches like ours when we search for new staff and ministers, have young people following God’s call to ministry, join with other churches for mission work, and provide resources churches can’t invent on their own.
A great example of the Association’s work is the keynote workshop for this year’s meeting, the Rev. Jane Vennard. Many of you are familiar with her from women’s retreats and prayer workshops she has led at Plymouth over the years. You might not be aware that a few years ago, she awakened to issues of racial justice in ways that went beyond traditional liberal thought to acknowledging her privilege as a white person in our society, and she answered a deep call to action. So she will be leading a workshop:
RACISM THROUGH THE EYES OF WHITE PRIVILEGE: A SPIRITUAL QUEST
White people have commonly thought that issues of racism are about people of color. We often overlook the fact that whiteness is a racial issue because in our culture white is the norm. This morning exploration will address our white privilege, our white fragility and our contribution to white supremacy. Through story telling and reflection we will take the reality of racism from our heads to our hearts. In this way, the study of racism becomes soul work opening new paths into our spiritual lives.
The meeting will be 9 a.m.–2 p.m. at First Congregational Church of Longmont, followed by the installation of their Associate Pastor, the Rev. Amelia Dress. All are welcome, not just clergy and delegates; if you would like to attend, RSVP to our registrar, Linda Petit for lunch. (Jane Vennard’s program is 9 – noon, so you may choose to leave prior to lunch, after which we have the business meeting.)
We are blessed to be in covenant with such gifted people. Thank you for your generous support of Plymouth’s commitment to OCWM that makes these ministries possible.
Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
Mark recently celebrated his tenth anniversary as Plymouth’s Director of Christian Formation for Adults. He also serves as chair of the Platte Valley Associations’ Committee on Ministry.