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Elizabeth Dilley values role of small, remnant churches

Elizabeth Dilley, former pastor of First Congregational UCC in Red Oak, Iowa, shared in her address and sermon at the 2012 Annual Meeting in Pasco about her ministry in the “small but mighty community of progressive souls” in a setting where the “mainline is no longer prominent, but is now the oldline” with structures a reminder of what used to be.

Elizabeth Dilley
Elizabeth Dilley gives sermon and keynote address at PNC.

Since then, she has become minister for ministers in local churches with the national UCC, continuing to work for “small-church excellence.”

“While some lament, rage about or feel hopeless despair about the new reality,” she said that some are dancing.   “We are the remnant of what used to be.  Hooray!  People are no longer in the pews for social convention.  We are liberated, the remnant chosen by grace.”

In Scripture, Paul rejected the idea that God rejected and Christ superseded Jewish people, she said.

As then, we have the opportunity to live in a state of grace, throwing out the old practices and relying on God’s power above the delusions of self-sufficiency.  We are weak, puny, useless and irrelevant.  If we rely on ourselves, we will not survive, but here we are.  The remnant tends to pull through one way of the other, wearing different outfits.”

Dilley said small churches survive in towns that are dying because factories are closing.  They may draw less competent, more transient pastors.

Congregations worship from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays and continue to, year after year, decade after decade—even dysfunctional congregations.

A remnant is preserved for a purpose, they may not know, but God has a future in store for the remnant.  In fabric shops, remnants are used for quilts or sold for low prices,” she explained.  “I find treasures on altars made from remnants.

Dilley loves small, remnant congregations.  “Many ministries pour love for God and God’s people into congregations.  Love is enough to sustain a congregation for another season.  Sometimes congregations love mediocre or dead ministries into excellence they would not recognize,” she said.

For nine years, Dilley was at Red Oak, a town of 5,000, a county seat of respectable size in Iowa.

“Most rural areas are politically and theologically conservative,” she said.   “Previously, bank presidents, school superintendents and town leaders used to attend when church membership was the price they paid for civic leadership.”

The Red Oak church had dwindled and cut the salary to half time.  When her predecessor, who was retired, came, he said, “You can live or die, and I can help you do either.  It’s up to you to decide which.  If you want to live, you need to choose God’s call for you.”

The church, which had been a country club church, had also been a place “for oddballs and free thinkers,” she said.  In the 1970s, it had offered transcendental meditation classes.

“The church embraced a call to be a progressive Christian witness in Southwest Iowa.  It 2001, it became the only Open and Affirming church in a 120-mile radius,” she said. 

In 2003, she came as the first full-time minister.  They sold the parsonage to pay her salary.  The remnant congregation of 50 has married 15 same-sex couples since Iowa adopted marriage equality in 2009. 

“People note our hospitality.  Some who come for weddings, worship, pray and often stay with us,” Dilley said.  “All a remnant congregation has to offer is our love and God’s grace.  Our church has loved me, and I reciprocate.

About 35 now worship on Sunday.  There are more younger families, with four generations on occasion. 

The church no longer see ourselves as a remnant of what used to be but as a re-emerging congregation, becoming a quilt,” she said.  “Most are in remnant churches that had their glory days.  Some are doing positive, vibrant ministries.

“As the Israelites traveled in the wilderness, married and had babies, and as teens snuck off for thrills, people are still filled with love saw the sojourn as an adventure, not as punishment.  Manna and quail still delight.  There is still adventure on the dirty, dusty sojourn road.  We are part of a remnant congregation, not a rich, powerful one,” she said.

“We may continue to turn inward in grief or we can celebrate our new liberation from false traps of power,” Dilley said.  “We can celebrate on the margins where interesting stuff happens.  We can try new things.  We are a remnant congregation chosen by God. God chooses what is foolish, shameful and weak to make it strong, she said.

Dilley said remnant congregations are forced to rely on God, and “God shows up and pours out everything, because God loves us.  We have been preserved for a future of God’s choosing—a future of justice, mercy, compassion and peace on this earth. 

She said people need to learn the church is a safe place, and more is required than showing up. 

“More than half the people in the UCC worship in congregations with fewer than 100 people,” she said, asking:  “What is God up to in those churches?  The conversation about that is missing in wider church settings.  There are thousands of congregations whose stories we do not hear?

“What is unlikely works.  It might be that we in the UCC are called to move from a monastery to an apartment with deep engagement in justice and equality, bringing a bring future where realist is visible.

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Copyright Pacific Northwest Conference News © September 2012




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