Monday, July 11, 2011

Churchy thoughts: the UCC is in crisis

I have allowed this blog to lie fallow for a number of months as I focused on completing my Goodwill chaplaincy and sorting out the pattern for life’s next stage. I am now officially a “retiree,” at least in the sense that I am no longer receiving a paycheck (thank you, UCC pension boards; bless you, social security!). My primary focus for the coming year will be on the work Susan and I are doing on dementia, friendship and community. This will include a fair number of speaking engagements and a bit of travel. We leave for England next week, where we will visit four towns with active Memory CafĂ© programs. Their models vary slightly, which will help us sort out which model will be the best fit for the program we hope to initiate here. In October we will both present papers at the Alzheimer’s Europe Conference in Warsaw and Susan will return to Europe for a conference in November.

But I also want to make service to the church a part of the new mix, so I would l would like to do some reflecting on the state of the church and my possible role within it in a series of posts. Those not interested in churchy posts can feel free to tune out for a month or two.

Let’s start with an ugly truth: the United Church of Christ is in tatters. Until about six weeks ago, I do not realize how rapidly its decline has accelerated. We have 38 Conferences, or regional judicatories. At least ten are now hanging by a thread: in or near bankruptcy, without any full-time staff, etc. Our own Wisconsin Conference, among the healthiest in comparative terms, has just “right-sized” its own staff in a manner that will radically change how it resources its member congregations. The average age of UCC members across the country is 62. More than half of its congregations are, at best, fragile; many will never again be served by a full-time ordained minister.

Why? A big piece of it is not UCC-specific—the role of religion in American life is greatly diminished across the boards. Young adults are disaffiliating from congregations at six times the historic rate, and many will not be coming back. The United States is becoming France (and not only because our artisan cheese is getting better).

UCC congregations are disproportionately located where populations are declining—across the northern tier of states, in dying small towns and rural areas and in inner cities where demographics have changed. We were too slow out of the gate in founding congregations in high-growth areas, and now lack the resources to do so.

We also pretty much bet the farm on the idea that if we just got the word out about how swell we are because we include everyone, folks would break down our doors. But our big “everyone is welcome here!” campaign probably helped the Unitarian-Universalists more than it helped the UCC. After all, if your core identity is built around inclusiveness, why exclude non-Christians? The principal outcome of our “Still Speaking” campaign was to make us the favorite church of young adults who have no interest in being part of a church.

These things hold true to varying degrees for the other denominations that used to be called “mainline.” The new word, it seems, is “progressive,” which I detest, because it essentially says to other church bodies “we are progressive and you are not.” It is more a political term than a theological one, and it is not playing particularly well in the political realm these days either. As my friend Tony Robinson puts it: “mainline churches used to be the ‘default choice’ for selecting a church home, and the ‘default’ is now Evangelical.” It never occurred to us that this could happen. How could anyone not choose us when we were so welcoming, inclusive, and justice-minded? Turns out folks wanted to develop a personal relationship with the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Who could have guessed?

So now I have made a significant commitment to the Wisconsin Conference of the UCC in sorting out how we may serve God faithfully in a challenging era where we no longer sit at the head of the table of American Christianity (hopefully we have not yet been relegated to the card table set up in the kitchen). Challenged though it may be, the Wisconsin Conference still has a great deal going for it. We have been shaped by a robust theology, a rare thing in the UCC. Our folks are wonderfully loyal overall, to their God and to their wider church family. We need to find a way to continue in faithful witness and service with virtually no resources from the national office, which has pretty much run out of creative ways to rearrange the deck chairs as the ship goes down. We represent an important tradition within the Christian family, a tradition that is unique in significant ways. I believe that God is still capable of getting some good out of us. I have a few stories to tell—about a strange and disturbing center in Atlanta, about the Ethiopian eunuch and a few other things. Yes folks, it is all-church all-the-time on this blog for awhile!