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Despite challenges, we can do what God calls us to do

In early March, I had a connection through Dulles International Airport on the way home from a denominational meeting in Cleveland. I was wandering during my two-hour layover when there was a weird moment. I was walking to my gate and heard the same phrase repeated four times within 100 yards.

Conference Comments
By The Rev. Mike Denton
Conference Minister

One airline employee was trying to get the attention of another employee who responded in a matter of fact yet pleading way, "I’m too busy for you right now.”  The first employee gave an understanding nod and moved on. A few steps later, someone walking by quickly growling, "I’m too busy for you right now,” to someone on the phone. Then a group of teenage girls were listening to one tell a story that ended in their laughter with an exaggerated, dramatic delivery of the line "I’m too busy for you right now.” Finally, I heard "I’m too busy for you right now” from one of the seats at my gate. I don’t know the context, but the only people I saw were a mother and daughter engrossed in their phones. I heard and saw this within, maybe, two minutes.

At another point, if you asked if God sent us messages this way, I would have rolled my eyes and suggested it was coincidence, but I’ve come to believe God loves us so much that they created a world that’s full to the brim with meaning. This was a moment to drink deeply.

I’d come from multi-day meeting with varying configurations of UCC Conference Ministers, the head executive staff from our denominational offices in Cleveland, and members of the UCC Board. Our meeting focused on difficulties that are frequently part of our relationships. The accompanying unofficial theme was how the number of things we all have on our plates makes connecting with each other difficult. We struggled with how to change this. We need each other, and we’re too busy for each other.

This is a reality that keeps me up at night about our conference life, too. In our various settings, we recognize how much we need each other. There is so much to be done that we don’t get much of an opportunity for deepening, meaningful relationships. We have the least amount of people, money and non-committed time we’ve had in a long time. Statistical projections about mainline churches in the U.S. see this trend continuing. When we look at the state of the world, it’s clear how much the UCC commitments, voice and work are needed. We need each other, and we’re too busy for each other. Or, maybe not. Of the four stories, the narrative of the teens laughing didn’t fit.

On the denominational level, everyone agreed to add an extra day to our gathering and agreed its theme needed to be related to creating whole-hearted relationships. Guess what happened? We made progress on some budget questions that, because of the nature of our relationships, we’d been stuck on for two years. We created the bones for some information sharing processes that will help us share to help each other across the church’s settings. We had difficult conversations about the equity between conferences we had discussed around the edges before, but for the first time we discussed these questions openly.  These people’s jobs mean they feel the church’s pain every day, but the painfulness didn’t define us as expected. We walked in with a toxic brew of hopelessness and high expectations, and walked out full of cautious hope.

In the PNC, we’ve been transparent about the challenges we are facing. Our board has recommitted to cohesive priorities that are broad and deep. It’s moving from an intellectual exercise to one of the heart and soul. Deepening relationships, doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God are good priorities and things we’ve heard before. The difference is how our finances, staffing, intention and messaging are being invested in these priorities. We’re finding new life in these things as a conference.

It feels as though something is turning in our financial life. Some local churches have had to step back, but six churches pledged to increase their giving. Individual giving increased significantly this year, and both camps have received large financial donations recognizing their work and ministry. Some of these monies come from folks outside the PNC who recognize the gifts our camps are.

Mark and Wade are consulting with other camps about their ministries. Courtney is consulting with other conferences about church vitality. Arlene helps us through some administrative realities of conference life. Michelle has helped more than one church sort through a difficult financial question. Our staff are recognized for their gifts, experiences and callings. Tara Barber, in her called and contracted role, is sharing her model for Communities of Practice and boundary training model in other conferences. Our Justice Leadership Program is being studied as a model by other regions. Local clergy and lay folks are regarded as leaders in the region and denomination. Demographically, we’re far from the largest UCC conference but, proportionally, we have one of the largest impacts. Something has been quietly happening in our conference for a long time that is becoming impossible not to notice.

If you have been waiting for the right moment to give to our conference and our camps, this is the moment. If you’ve been looking for the right moment to step up for committee work, this is the moment. If you’ve been waiting for that time to reach out to your Siblings in Christ in another church in the conference, this is that moment.


Pacific Northwest United Church News © April-May 2018


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