Last night our church hosted the Annual Meeting of the Fairfield West Association of the Connecticut Conference, United Church of Christ. That meant a few dozen clergy and delegates from churches like Westport, Greenwich, and Ridgefield attended to reflect on the past year and look to the year ahead. We began with a dinner where Polly Morehouse wowed everyone.
People looked at me like, “How did you get her to make sole stuffed with crabmeat and chicken cordon bleu? We usually get a wrap and chips, if we are lucky!” I just smiled. They didn’t know that Polly—along with Sally Bassler and David Miller in this case—bring generously extravagant hospitality not only to sister churches, but to those who eat at the Norwalk Emergency Shelter. It felt wonderful to welcome partner UCC churches like this. Polly, Sally, and David were superb.
Then we gathered in the Meetinghouse to conduct our business. Know that the Fairfield West Association, as I said in worship, is the local assembly of church responsible for ordaining those called to ministry, for example. So we ordain locally, not nationally. And the Association does lay training, evangelism workshops, and other services to empower local churches and pastors.
Also, our new Conference Minister, Rev. Kent Siladi, spoke to close out our time together in the sanctuary. Kent identified two missional priorities for the future in the Connecticut Conference.
The first is leadership development. And who cannot resonate with that? So much is possible with competent, well-trained, hard-working, faithful leaders—clergy and lay—that we couldn’t imagine otherwise. The world in which many of us were raised is changed and gone. Did you know the largest religious group in America today, when polled, are those who check “none of the above” when asked about their “religious preference?” So if you hear me talking about the “nones”, I am not saying “nuns”. I am talking about those who practice self-invented religion.
The second missional priority was what Kent called congregational authenticity and vitality. He struggled for the right label on this one. Historically, the way we measure the strength of our churches—at least if we are honest–is how many people and how many dollars we accumulate. Of course, this emphasis on the health of the church as institution begets things like Strategic Plans, into which churches typically pour lots of energy, and are mostly forgotten in two years.
Kent bids us to evaluate ourselves more as spiritual bodies by asking ourselves: “Why has God placed us here? What kind of difference can we make right now? What is the impact of our presence as local churches and the wider United Church of Christ?” Kent is so right on the mark. Strategic plans in the church are obsolete. What the church needs most is to be “re-purposed,” to recover the commission and mandate of Jesus Christ to help usher in God’s reign upon earth. In the centuries of the Congregational, United Church of Christ—whether the issue is slavery, the status of women, the environment, etc.–our impact has always far exceeded our numbers.