Search PNC News for stories of people and churches in our UCC Conference:

Quinn Caldwell introduces new ideas for churches

Quinn Caldwell, pastor of Plymouth UCC in Syracuse, daily devotional and Still Speaking writer, told the Pacific Northwest Annual Meeting participants that he believes UCC churches are uniquely suited to deal with the transformation of mainline churches. 

quinn caldwell

Quinn Caldwell speaks at PNC Annual Meeting in April.

“Local churches need to decide if they will take it as an opportunity and step up,” he said.

 His image of a UCC saint is someone holding a voting card at an Annual Meeting.

“Everyone is a saint, everyone with access to the mind of God, who figures what the Creator is calling him or her to do,” Quinn said.

He gave three presentations during the PNC Annual Meeting in April.

“We can do democracy, and we can do the church.  After  praying, talking and listening, we vote to express God’s opinion.  It’s the politics of the church,” he said.

As a church with a congregational polity, Quinn said UCC churches meet each week to pray.  They also eat, marry, baptize and find the mind of God in the congregation, in conferences and in national settings.

“We organize the best stuff so it happens on the local level,” he said.  “If we waited for the national setting to tell us what to do, we would wait a long time.  Ground-breaking ministry happens on the local level.”

Given that reality, he said that the Still Speaking curriculum gathers local writers and local pastors who share with the rest of the church.

In a second presentation, Quinn told of his husband’s grandmother, who died recently at 93.  She went to the gym to the end and wore full makeup. Her hands were bumpy and bruised, from exercise and wiping the brows of four generations of children.

When he saw her in the casket, her hands were white.  They were not hers.  She was embalmed and would be sealed in an air-tight casket and lowered into an air-tight vault after everyone left.

“It felt like pretending she was not dead,” Quinn said, pointing out that bodies are designed to fall apart, but people want to pretend those who die have fallen asleep and will be preserved forever.

“We assume our bodies are ours forever rather than just borrowed for a while,” he said.  “After I die, I will be washed, not embalmed.  I will lay in the living room on dry ice to prevent molecules from breaking me down.  People will bear my weight into the local natural cemetery, and I will be lowered with ropes.  It will be difficult and dirty.   My family will know death has taken place.

“Then worms and microbes will do their work.  One day I will be black and beautiful, rich, crumbly earth.  Grass and trees will drink deep and carry me toward the sun,” he said.

Then he asked about Jesus’ ascension:  “What would we have if Jesus had not left?  Would we be here?  Would the church exist?  If he had not died or been resurrected, why would we need to go to church?  Why did he leave again after he came back?  Why did he not stay alive and keep healing people?

“The era of the Holy Spirit needed to start,” Quinn said.  “Jesus left and sprang forth to the great beyond.  He needed to get out of the way.  The disciples followed imperfectly.  If he stayed around would they have built the church?

“He left so the disciples could grow up and head to India and Spain to live stories of bravery, faithfulness and creativity.  He got out of the way so they could do that,” Quinn  said.

In Syracuse, Plymouth  UCC works with a homeless mission, a shelter with a feeding program and other services.  It has a shelter for LGBT youth and social issues, but it is theologically conservative.

A hip evangelical pastor in Syracuse recently told Quinn he (Quinn) was the only pastor connecting Good Friday—Jesus’ death at the hands of a violent militarized police force—with Trayvon Martin and black deaths today. 

“I’m not the only one in the UCC,” Quinn said.

On Facebook, he read of other pastors emphasizing black lives matter for Good Friday services, which are usually about convincing that people’s sin was nailed to the tree, the power of blood and the power of sin forgiven, rather than about connecting Jesus’ crucifixion to social realities.

Some have set liturgies and correct content for Good Friday, but Quinn wonders:  “Maybe keeping the message consistent stifles followers.

“UCC pastors made a connection and proclaimed God’s death in black bodies.  The UCC in uniquely suited to today,” he said.

“Old forms of church pass away.  Local churches close left and right.  Mid-level judicatories and denominational structures are going away.  Halls are empty on many floors at 700 Prospect.  Churches are selling buildings and letting staff go.  Seminaries are closing or merging,” he said, noting that “To those raised in structures the loss is terrifying. 

Some functions will continue even if forms change for clergy credentials, for mission and for ecumenism, he said.  Maybe all else will be gone: expensive annual meetings and synods that fly in speakers, education curricula, the desk calendar, he pondered.

“It’s scary to be sure as it was for the disciples when Jesus left.”

“The churches of the New York Conference need churches of the Pacific Northwest Conference to step up and teach us.  You need to do the same for us,”  he said. 

“The PNC needs to decide when it’s time for old ways to go or will you put makeup on your hands and pretend long after death is apparent, or let yourselves be broken down and turned into a new beautiful thing that will carry us forth to spring skyward.

As another example of death needed for new life to spring forth, Quinn told of the jerupa oak tree in California, which has to be burned to the ground to have new shoots come up.  It grows slowly and sends roots deep and wide. When there is fire, it starts to grow again and covers more ground. 

The jerupa oak in California has been doing this for 13,000 years.  It may be the oldest plant, older than the PNC, the Church, Moses or than agriculture.  It burns to the ground and grows, burns to the ground and grows, spreading a little each time.

Jesus, who was hung on a tree, was cut down and sprang up.  The 12 grew to 70 then to 70 times 70, Quinn said.

“When fire starts, it deals with grumpy people and gets them to go.  Some people need to get out for the good of the whole,” he said.

“Anyone unjustly killed is Jesus’ death,” he said of Trevon Martin, George Brown and other black young men who unjustly lost their lives to police.

Many lost their lives when the church worked to abolish slavery and was part of a route on the Underground Railroad for slaves to escape to Canada.

“Some believe charity is good, but they don’t want to mess in social justice.  My church wants nothing to do with a feeding program.  We just deal with social justice.  I’m not apologetic for speaking out for justice in the name of Christ in politics,” he said.

Among the parts of the church needing change, he suggested seminaries need to prepare clergy in a different way. There need to be fewer seminaries.  Digital technology can almost replace being physically together.  More are doing distance learning, giving opportunities for second career people.

“I don’t think conferences will disappear fully, but they need to do what local churches can’t do,” Quinn said.

In his third presentation, Quinn expressed his concern that he and others only follow one-tenth of what’s in the Bible.  Isaiah 43:19 talks of the suffering servant beat by the world but not saying a word.  Later Jesus is the suffering servant.  His suffering saves us. 

To help make sense of how God works, saving us through Jesus’ blood, Quinn told about what happened as copper was mined near Butte, Mont., eventually blasting away a mountain and creating a pit.  When the mines closed the pit began to fill with ground water and rising a foot a year, picking up sulfur, which becomes sulfuric acid as it hits the air.  It ate away at the sides of the pit, drawing gold, silver, copper, magnesium, zinc and arsenic into the water.

The water became a dull ochre color and reeked of rotten eggs.  In a December 1995 storm, snow geese flew into the water.  About 340 dead geese carpeted the surface, poisoned and covered with open burns and lesions.

The water continued to rise.  The city had eight years to process millions of gallons of poison before it flowed into creeks, rivers and the ocean.  They wanted to do something. 

One day a man walking beside the pit saw wood with algae growing on it.  He took it to a lab.  They looked elsewhere in the pit and found stuff alive and thriving.  They tested black thick glutenous stuff, learning it could pull heavy metals out of the water.  They used it and found it could pull out 85 to 90 percent of toxic metals in samples. 

If they could grow it and run all the water through it, they might save themselves.  No microbiologist knows what it is, but zoologists found that it grew in gastro-intestional tracks of geese. 

“God does not leave us to flounder in our pollution,” he said.  “God burns the inside out.  We worship God no matter how much we hurt.  It causes something new to spring forth.

“God did not drive the geese into the lake, but made sure their deaths would not be in vain,” Quinn said.

For information, email

Copyright June-July 2015 © Pacific Northwest Conference News



Share this article on your favorite social media Bookmark and Share