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Solidarity needed along with autonomy and covenant

By The Rev. Mike Denton
Conference Minister

One of the favorite parts of my job is working with search committees. The resources, recommendations and systems for search committees have changed quite a bit since I started with this work 15 years ago, but one of the things that’s been remarkably consistent, regardless of process, are some of the stages of development for the committees themselves. There’s one of these moments, in particular, that’s my favorite.

When a committee first comes together, they are a great collection of wise individuals from the church’s life. They have a variety of experiences, perspectives and hopes that they bring to those first few meetings. During the initial conversations, the committee figures out the basic roles of members, the basic tasks, and what local systems they need to create in order to best benefit from the denominational systems.

They also express their hopes for a pastor. Some may want a pastor who can attract youth and families. Some may be interested in a pastor who has skills in working with a church in financial distress. Someone else might be passionate about finding a pastor who can help the church be more involved in social justice.

Help us

to be

so committed

to solidarity

that it

can’t be


from love.

We might not easily recognize it as such but when the committee first comes together this is a low level conflict—that gets hotter once in awhile—as committee members emphasize where their hope lies. Then, there is this moment.

There is this moment when the person who was passionate about finances speaks up for social justice, or the person most interested in social justice speaks up for youth and families, or the person interested in youth and families speaks up for finances. At that moment, there is this nearly imperceptible sigh of relief as the committee has this realization: “We’re all on the same side.” No conversation after this moment is the same.

Within the UCC, we have a similar tension as early stage search committees expressed in the ideas of autonomy and covenant. At its best, autonomy is a sort of congregational conscience through which the congregation works out how to best serve God and God’s people within their context through freedom of governance, worship, theology and deed. At its best, covenant is a spiritual and structural interdependence that draws our definition of church widely and is a promise to turn towards one another to do those things together we couldn’t do on our own. At its worst, autonomy is barrier to relationship that simply leans on the idea that “No one can tell us what to do.” At its worst, covenant is a cudgel used to beat down even a healthy sense of autonomy with a whole lot of “shoulds” and “shame.”

At its best, this binary has always felt incomplete. In my sabbatical last summer, one thing I studied was the relationship between leadership and consent. It was fascinating on a number of levels but one organizations I read about, Circle Forward, had some materials that stood out. One of their primary audiences is grassroots organizations. The way our denomination lives out our polity often resembles this. In such organizations, there is a high degree of autonomy. To have good governance—one key way our covenant lives—Circle Forward suggests we have to nurture solidarity.

As soon as I read that, bells and whistles went off in my head and heart. In our denomination of autonomous ministry settings, we have structures and resources built to help one another out, but solidarity is something that’s lacking. We have structures and churches that respond and react and that’s great. Solidarity is more of a state of thinking and being. It calls us to stand behind-—or next to—another church in pain, recognizing we are in this moment of pain together without going too far and misappropriating that pain as our own. That commitment recognizes that an action of our church may have an effect on other settings of the church and, because of that, we need to involve our siblings in the process of discernment around that action. The recognition that what is done by the conference now has an effect on those who come into this structure later, and that we may have to make sacrifices now so that “each generation” has a chance to make this faith its own. Solidarity recognizes the web of connection we share and how weaving or cutting one thread can strengthen or weaken the whole.

With this one lens added, the idea of the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12: 27) makes all the sense in the world. Solidarity begins to provide a map to “That they may all be one (John 17:21).” Solidarity helps us embody the idea that “...we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).” Of course, this idea is bigger than our denomination alone. It points towards one of the ways we are called to interact with the world.

Dear God, help us see one another. Help us know one another. Help us to be so committed to solidarity that it can’t be distinguished from love.  Amen.


Copyright © Winter 2019-2020 Pacific NW United Church News


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