I paid attention when Cameron (Trimble) was speaking, because I found many touch points, many points of affirmation for the kind of ministry I have striven to share with you during the time I have been together with you. I have images that I have offered to you that have been consistent throughout that time. One of those images is the patchwork quilt. The quilt behind me is a flour-sack quilt. During depression times, feed and flour came in flour-sacks, printed sacks that could then be recycled for clothing. So if you were going to make a shirt or a dress, you needed to know how many sacks of matching grain you needed so that you had enough material to put it all together. Aprons, shirts, dresses, underwear, all kinds of things were made out of flour-sack material.
You have an opportunity to participate, here. In the center of your table, there is a quilt design, a patchwork quilt (on paper). If you’ll pass those out… You have crayons at your table. You can create, if you want to, and you don’t have to listen to the rest of what I have to say. Patchwork quilts were the ultimate kind of folk art, because they were recycling, up-cycling material. It was a time for community. It was a time for artistic expression. It was a time for meditation for people – doing something and being able to relax into that activity.
I want you to use your quilt design, and think about the camp experiences that you have had, the churches that have been part of your life, the mentors, the ministers, the teachers, the friends, the experiences. This quilt, that I’m inviting you to (color) will represent who you are, from the collection of things that come together to create you, in your daily activities.
For 35 years, I have seen the patchwork quilt as an alternative image of the Body of Christ. Paul is talking about the church, and trying to express to them how important every single element is, every single person in the church is. Everyone has something to contribute. No one should feel overly humble, and no one should feel overly prideful, because it’s all part of the greater whole. I find that to be a compelling image. I don’t limit it just to one congregation, or just the United Church of Christ, or even just Christendom, or even just to all world religions. I believe that the image of us all connected in an integral whole applies to the whole universe. And so it is living and non-living. It is everything. We are all dependent on each other. We all have a role and a part to play.
Paul’s image of the body of Christ, I believe, is rooted in the very simple, but profound, words of Jesus. “Love one another.” Or what I refer to as the Trinity of Jesus: Love that sacred and mysterious presence that we call God. Love your neighbor. And love yourself. Many times we have difficulty with the “loving yourself” piece of it. Or the other phrase that is always written in red, “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” Having life and having it abundantly sounds a fair amount like Howard Thurman’s words about coming alive. You’ve heard the quote many times now, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
The patchwork quilt. The call to “come alive.” The call to love ourselves, as we love others and the sacred mystery beyond all remind us that each one of us has a distinctive contribution to make. Each one of us is all the different experiences that come together to make that quilt you are now creating. As we look at this patchwork quilt. Red is not blue. Striped is not polka dot. Each one has something different to say, something unique to say. And if that piece of material were not part of the quilt, that voice would be missing. And so, if you refuse to speak your truth, you are refusing to participate in creation. Refusing to contribute toward making this world a better place. Refusing to contribute to peace and beauty and harmony.
Now, I want to add a caveat to that. To say that you need to speak with your own voice does not mean that [everything] that comes out of your mouth is an authentic voice. Because many of us are motivated by our own anxiety, or our anger, and we’re not even aware of who we are. We had a (clergy) boundaries training yesterday. One of the important parts of living in a healthy relationship with a congregation, for a minister, is to be self-aware, self-differentiated, be able to recognize your emotions, and be able to deal appropriately in a context. If someone says, “I hate gays”, that is a judgmental voice. I would also say, it is not an authentic voice. An authentic voice might be to recognize that being with a gay person makes you uncomfortable. Is something that you might not be able to understand, or because of your life experiences, something that makes you angry. If you shared that, that’s an authentic voice. But judgment, and anger, and insisting that you are right and someone else is wrong, is not authentic voice. We are called on to each share our truths with the world.
Cameron talked a lot about crowdsourcing, respecting humanity, respecting the wisdom that all of us have to share. That’s part of the times we live in – recognizing that a lot of the people we turn to for an expert opinion were making it up along the way, or were misguided, or were [speaking] out of their own anger or their own biases.
My vision for the Central Pacific Conference is that our clergy and our churches come alive. My vision for the Central Pacific Conference is that all of us get better at learning how to love that mysterious experience we call God. Get better at listening to and loving others. Get better at accepting ourselves and living out the gifts we have to share. My vision for the Central Pacific Conference is that each of you, all of us, find our voice. This is a communal vision. This is not a dictator, not a Conference Minister standing up and saying “This is what we have to do, and you all follow.” I’ve spent my time here with you saying, “The ministry of the Central Pacific Conference is not my ministry. It is our ministry.” It is the ministry we share together. And when we face the problems of the world, which are many, we figure out together what we can do to live with those problems, to make the world a better place.
If you are going to crowd-source things, you have to be at peace with yourself. You have to be willing to let go of control. You have to be willing to trust other people. So you really can’t send it out to the crowd if you are not in a healthy place. We share with each other, when we are able to share honestly with each other.
I have worked with the Conference and I have tried to support the vision of us figuring out things together. I have worked to encourage and strengthen the multiple gifts that we have, in our church members, in our clergy, and in our ministry teams. There are lots of things going on. If you ask me the state of the Conference, I believe the state of the Conference is good. I believe that we are moving in the right direction. Does that mean that we have no problems? Of course not. We have lots of problems. We have change that goes on all the time. And we have all those disturbing trends that Cameron talked about. But we also have lots and lots of examples of people coming together, finding encouragement in each other, and providing support for each other.
We had a very strong clergy retreat this year. A group of people came together and made sure it was an experience that had both content and time to share. We had another outstanding group that came together to develop revised compensation guidelines that we [introduced] at the Annual Meeting last year. The Committee on Ministry continues to work with a high level of integrity, to try to guide people in ministry and resolve issues of conflict. We have now been in this place for four years, for our Annual Meeting. I believe that the flavor of the Annual Meeting has changed over that time. Many of you have lots more opportunity to meet people from other churches, because we have come to a place where our intention is to be together, for a period of time. There is a lot of strength that comes from that, as we go back to our specific locations to carry on our ministry.
We have the networks that have been at work. The Palestine Israel Network, the Climate Action Network, the newly formed [Racial] Justice Network, and Aging and Spirituality Network. These are movements that are supported by the institution of the Ministry Teams. So, we are talking about those two complementary pieces that Cameron mentioned. We need some structure to make sure that there is funding and support for the movement. But we need the movement so that passions [can] be shared.
We do have a large time of transition. Twelve churches, about one quarter of the churches in our Conference, are now looking for new pastors. This is not because there has been a crisis in any one of our churches. But it is because congregations and ministers have understood that there is an endpoint to a ministry. They have been intentional about planning a celebration and a grieving of the end to relationships. Search committees are functioning with a high level of commitment because they are excited about the future possibilities for their congregation.
I’ve been excited about the new pastors that have come into the Conference. But I also want to say that I’m excited about the quality of pastors that have been here for a very long time. And we need that richness of folks who have been part of the Conference, that can welcome and nurture those that are coming new to the Conference with some fresh ideas and brand new energy.
I want to say a closing point, but it will take me a little while to say it. Cameron poured out a huge amount for us to fix. It cannot all be fixed at one time. Part of the understanding I get from a patchwork quilt is that each one of you is not called to fix everything. You are all called to fix something, and you don’t get to say because there is so much to worry about, that I’m not just going to do anything. But you are all called to do something. You have to figure out what your passion is, what the Spirit is calling you to do, and then decide to commit yourself to that.
A very concrete illustration of this: A couple of years ago, some of you may remember Hollis Bredeweg, at a meeting in Forest Grove, talking to us about multiple church offerings. In a lot of churches, there will be a debate and the Board or Council will say, “No, we can only have three special offerings a year, because we don’t want to wear people out.”
Hollis said that’s exactly the wrong kind of message to send. Because you are dictating to the congregation what their three financial passions should be for the year. If your members don’t like that offering, they’re not going to give you very much money. They’re going to resent that you coerced them into opening up their wallet. And they’re going to be less likely to give the church money, because they don’t like the way you made them feel. Hollis suggests, instead, that you give members lots of opportunities to give – maybe a special offering once a month. But be very clear to people, and say, “We’re going to have one special offering a month. If this (month) is not your thing, don’t give to it.” If it’s not a passion for you, skip it this month. But in those twelve, you might have two or three or four that really get David excited. So David says, “I’m going to give even more.” Now David not only feels good about giving to something he wanted to give to anyway, he feels better about the church because the church gave him that opportunity. And because he feels good about the church, he upped his pledge for next year.
When you are deciding what your focus should be for your congregation, you can name a couple of areas that become an identity for the congregation. But it’s not fair to expect that everybody is going to line up behind those one or two or three passions. It makes much more sense to find out what people care about, then try to bring together people who care about the same thing. (Then you) can provide nurture, encouragement, permission, and opportunity for them to follow their passions. And if we do that, we will be much better about loving one another. We will be much better about loving ourselves. We will live life more abundantly. We will have come alive. I pray that the Spirit might continue to be at work among us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.