(Reflections by Conference Minister, Walter John Boris)
September 20, 2011 * Revised March 7, 2012
In the January 2012 issue of On the Way, I shared my reflections on the “essential functions” of the CPC. Below, you’ll find a revised version. The term essential functions” has been part of the conversations between Conference Ministers and national staff as we have all been forced to deal with a rapidly changing context – declining financial resources, declining staff, declining membership. As we redefine ministry in contemporary times, someone always asks the question, “What are the essential functions of Conference Ministry?”
The Central Pacific Conference (CPC) of the United Church of Christ consists of 47 churches (2 in southern Washington, 9 in southern Idaho, and 36 in Oregon), with a total membership of approximately 7,000. For the purposes of ministerial authorization, the CPC functions as Association, with one Conference-wide Committee on Ministry (our Covenants Ministry Team).
The prevailing view in the UCC among many of our members names the local church as the primary focus for ministry (frequently emphasizing local autonomy!). I often voiced that same understanding, during my 29 years as a local church pastor. This stance sees the Conference (and the national UCC) as support for the ministry of the local church. After 4 years as Conference Minister (CM) in the CPC, I now have a different view of things. I see the Conference as a separate and unique setting of ministry, with its own role in the wider church. The same can be said for the national setting of the UCC. When asked to report on the health of our churches, I’ve stated that “The State of the Conference” is different from “The State of the Churches of the Conference.”
When I visit churches as CM, I often share, “We gather together as the Central Pacific Conference to do things that are difficult or impossible for us to do as local churches.” What are those things we do “together?” Here’s how I see the essential functions of the Central Pacific Conference – United Church of Christ:
1) Authorization for Ministry – Guiding students through seminary/study to ordination, helping clergy switch to the UCC from other denominations, maintaining standards of excellence in ministry, and dealing with issues of clergy misconduct are all “difficult or impossible” for local churches to do alone.
2) Search and Call – Searching for a new pastor after a resignation or retirement is a transition time that can include anxiety, anger, fear, or grief. At this time, the leadership of the church is often most open to the assistance of the Conference. Finding the right minister to partner with the congregation continues to be a critical issue.
3) Covenant Connection – In the UCC, we pride ourselves on our covenant relationship. When we come together for Annual Gathering, we experience what it’s like to be part of the “body of Christ.” In our local settings, we aren’t able to be “Christian” by ourselves. By definition, the term is community oriented. In the same way, we can’t be “Church” by ourselves. We need other congregations to support our church, challenge us, and join us in ministry. The CPC works to maintain a covenant connection on multiple levels – between clergy, between churches of the Conference, and between the churches and the national setting of the UCC. Together, we celebrate ordinations, installations, and anniversaries.
4) Conference Outdoor Ministries and Youth Program – Maintaining a camp and offering youth retreats is also something that is difficult or impossible for all but the largest of our churches. In a Conference-wide program of camping and retreats, we offer opportunities for our members to experience the body of Christ in a new and powerful way.
5) Prophetic Ministry – The Central Pacific Conference is a prophetic presence in public settings, speaking in support of positions that have been affirmed by delegates to our Annual Gathering, or generally voiced by our local churches. The CPC can also speak prophetically to our churches, urging them to demonstrate the extravagant welcome of Jesus and to give evidence that they “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8)
6) Mission and Service – Through our partnership with the UCC in the Philippines, and CPC mission trips, the Conference offers all church members the opportunity to join in global mission and service, widening our experience of “loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
7) Congregational Vitality – Congregations turn to the CPC for resources and inspiration for worship, education, stewardship, and mission. The ability of Conferences to provide this kind of resource has diminished over the years as funding and staffing have declined, but it is still part of the relationship between the CPC and churches.
8) Pastoral Care – The CPC, often in figure of the Conference Minister, provides pastoral care for both ministers and churches. Pastoral care can include support, encouragement, and challenge. Clergy often lead a lonely life. Schedules are busy, friendships with church members are complicated, and contact with colleagues is often infrequent. The Conference Minister is often able to provide care for clergy and their families. When there is an accident, illness, or death, the CM can be a pastoral presence. In covenant relationship, the clergy and churches also offer pastoral care to each other, especially when the role of the Conference Minister is complicated by conflicting responsibilities as placement officer, conflict mediator, and staff support for ministerial authorization and discipline.