Well, it’s good to be with all of you again. I want to start out by reviewing a few things from some of our churches around the Central Pacific Conference.
- Ashland, a congregation that was struggling 10 years ago, now a strong and vital congregation, straining the walls of their beautiful building this past Easter with more than 200 people in worship! They’re also anticipating the ordination of one of the daughters of the congregation who will become part of the staff of the church. A lot of exciting things happening in the southwest corner of the Conference.
- Liz Oettinger, the pastor of First Congregational Church of Corvallis, honored by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, for her work, and the work of her congregation, forwarding the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian relationships, working for social justice, working together with people of faith.
- Smyrna United Church of Christ, in Canby, OR, surprising even itself, collecting more than 11,111 can goods for Mission 1 this past November.
- Bethel UCC, White Salmon, WA, and Riverside Community UCC, Hood River, OR joining together to share a seminary intern, this past year. In the process being both givers and receivers, sharing tutoring and guidance in pastoral minister, but also receiving the gifts of a bright and energetic young woman.
- Bethel Congregational UCC, Beaverton, OR, just beginning their work as a new home for a community feeding program for the homeless in the Beaverton area.
- Community Congregational UCC in McCall, ID, marking their 100th year as a strong and lively church in their community.
- Nampa UCC in Nampa, ID and First Congregational UCC, Pocatello, ID, both strong witnesses and an open and affirming presence in the middle of their communities.
- First Congregational UCC, Vancouver, WA, in the center of organizing a 121 mile march for marriage equality from Vancouver, WA to Olympia, WA.
All of this, and many, many more stories that all of you can share – and I hope you will be sharing – during the times we have together, here. Ways in which our congregations are offering that extravagant welcome. Ways in which we are part of the work for social justice. And those of you, who are involved in organizations in your community, and around the Conference, know that whenever people get together around a table, an Interfaith Table, an Ecumenical Table, you will find the United Church of Christ represented. And represented, way beyond our numbers in the population. Wherever that “united and uniting” work is taking place, you’ll find representatives of the United Church of Christ.
Now many of you have heard me say, on numerous occasions, that the State of the Conference is different from the State of the Churches of the Conference. But I wanted to start out by pointing out some of the wonderful things that happen, day by day, in locations across our Conference.
The work of the Conference is a unique work. The Conference has a particular role in the life of the wider church. I’ve described that work in a document I’ve circulated widely, called, The Essential Functions of the Central Pacific Conference.
I just got a better understanding of what it means to talk about “essential functions” by something that has taken place here, in this building. In preparation for that extravagant welcome, for this gathering, as well as others, this congregation has been remodeling its bathrooms. Now if you’ve had the pleasure of going into the men’s restroom, down the hallway over here, and I hope that all of the men have taken care of things, because I think there is going to be a tourist’s rush to the restroom after this address. In the restroom, there is a sign that reads, “Welcome to the Men’s Room! Here at Hillsdale Community Church UCC, we are proud of our building and grounds. The photos on these walls are a celebration of some of the things you may never notice, but that are integral to the comfort and function of this place. See what you can recognize!” This remodel was part of a competition to see who could do the best job decorating restrooms. Some of you may have other restroom stories to tell. But Tim, our fabulous organist, and his partner, worked on this particular room. On the wall, there are painted squares. In the squares, there are painted frames with black and white photographs. The photographs are close-ups. Close-ups of plumbing. Close-ups of downspouts. Close-ups of bricks. Close-ups of the back of the amplifier. Close-ups of things that are necessary to carry on the ministry of Jesus Christ, here in this place. Things that we don’t notice. Things that we wouldn’t pay attention to. Right about the men’s urinal, right above the faucet, is a photograph, in black and white, of the faucet… of the men’s urinal. I think it is fabulous to draw attention to these things.
So, when it comes to talking about The Essential Functions of the Central Pacific Conference, we don’t have any photographs of faucets. But we do have the things that are often in the background, things that are often seen as being secondary to the work of the local churches. But I would say that it is the local churches, joined together as Conference, to do things that are difficult or impossible for us to do by ourselves, that are essential to carrying on the work of each of our local congregations. And without those bricks, without those downspouts, without the plumbing, without the amplifier, it’s much harder to do all the work that we do. I’ve described that work with these words: authorization for ministry, search and call, covenant connection, Conference outdoor ministry and youth program, prophetic ministry, mission and service, congregational vitality, and pastoral care. You have the opportunity to read more about those items in the Annual Report booklet. Those are the core things that we do, together as churches. The Conference is not “them”, but “us.” Ways in which we under gird the work of the local church, and do things that are critical to the functioning of the local church.
The Board of Directors of the Conference, this past year, has carried on special board training, with Don Clark, the attorney for the Conferences of the UCC. They continue to provide vigilant oversight of the financial workings of the Conference. They’ve worked through the Personnel Committee, with me, to produce Conference Minister goals. We’ve worked together to revise the vision for the CPC and to set forward some better definition for the work of our ministry teams.
In communications, we are now publishing the electronic newsletter, On the Way, on a monthly basis, so you know when to watch for it, and don’t have to wonder when it’s going to come out. We’ve also changed to a new format. So, instead of having to flip through 16-17 pages of information, you’re able to skim down the html newsletter and find articles that are of interest to you. Then you can click to read the full article. The issues are also archived on our CPC website as an ongoing blog. The newsletter has been effective in improving our communications. At the same time, I’ve shared with some of you, that in addition to having a good look, we now also have information, analytical information, about how many people open their newsletter when they get it. When you sent out paper newsletters, you always hoped people were reading them. But you never really knew unless someone commented and complemented you, or complained about what you had written. But now, every time we send out an electronic communication, we know, not only how many people opened it, but who opened it! So Santa Claus is coming to town… sees you when you’re sleeping, knows when you’re awake…
One of the things I don’t think we recognized in this transition, was when we had the wrap-around newspaper that was part of the national UCC news, we built up our mailing list over time. We had 2,589 names on that mailing list. When that publication ceased, and we switched over to an electronic communication, because of spam restrictions on the internet, we were required to ask people to opt in. We went from a mailing list of 2,589 to 426! An 84% decrease. Now, some of our congregations do forward On the Way, the electronic newsletter I edit, on to their members. So the numbers are not quite as bad as they first appear. But if you congregation does not forward On the Way, or even if you do, I’m asking you to talk to your Board about sharing your email list with us, to expand our CPC mailing. Or encouraging your members to go to the CPC website to sign up directly. We should have 3-4,000 names on our e-newsletter mailing list. It doesn’t cost us a dime to send to those members, but we need them to opt in so that everyone receiving it, wants to receive it.
Our Local Church Ministry Team was very visible in the fall, with a well received Fall Gathering, in Portland. The Gathering focused on church music.
Our Wider Church Ministry Team was the one that started that focus effort, when they asked if they could provide the focus for this Spring Assembly. You’ll be able to look around you, the rest of the day, at all the workshops, and see all of the exciting work going on in Global Ministries. Particularly our new partnership with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. All good work, motivated by our Wider Church Ministry Team.
Our Covenants Ministry Team has worked hard in the background. And this is very much one of those plumbing and electricity kinds of deals. Covenants Ministry Team works in the background, making sure that our congregations have well prepared leadership. Clergy that are qualified to lead our churches. Pastors that are not going to lead our congregations astray. Pastors that can function effectively in a covenant relationship. Much of their work is in the background. But without the work of our Covenants Team, our congregations could not enter a search process with confidence in the candidates they have before them. Covenants also makes sure that we provide good conversation for clergy, particularly around the issue of ethical behavior. We are just concluding the four year time frame, approved by the Board of Directors, requiring all our clergy to go through Boundaries Training. Yesterday, I heard reports of a very excellent session that took place at Forest Grove. Jennifer Yocum and Sally Godard provided leadership for that event. There was lots of conversation between our pastors about the challenges of doing pastoral ministry these days. Jennifer and Sally, I thank you for your efforts. I thank the Covenants Ministry Team and the Board of Directors for moving forward on this program. We will continue to find ways to strengthen and enhance the ministry of our Conference.
Justice and Witness has been carrying on their Rolling Justice electronic communications, now in a blog format. They lift up issues that we can sign on to, supporting things like open and affirming, marriage equality, Water for Life, Pride marches, all kinds of things.
The Administration Ministry Team also functions in the background, keeping track of finances and budgeting. But they have also brought forth the initiative to move from a Spring Assembly format, to a Fall Gathering for the annual meeting of our Conference. We’ll move from one overnight to two overnights. I’ve sent out a mail, which I will repeat, lifting up all the reasons we are switching to this new format. More time for fellowship, more space, a destination event so that we are all there because we want to be there, and want to be there together. We won’t be chasing off home to feed the dog, or check the mail. We will be there, in one place. It’s probably going to be a change that will have some bumps along the way, but I think it’s going to be an exciting change that’s going to offer many benefits. It’s also going to be an equitable place, because we’ll be meeting in Pendleton, the 28th, 29th, and 30th of September, this year, 2012. We’ll be doing business there. We’ll have resolutions to consider, particularly from Justice and Witness. I urge you to make sure your clergy are coming to this event. Please invite others to also come. If you are into planning great events, with moving worship services, and great hospitality and educational workshops, we’d like to have more people who can serve on a planning committee. If you’re interested in helping to plan this meeting, please talk to Jean Avison and Don Frueh. They would love to hear your ideas.
The Education Ministry Task Force, you have just approved as a new ministry team for the Conference. When Gene Ross was here for all the years, on Conference staff, he carried a lot of institutional memory with him, and was a driving force for education ministry, for youth and outdoor ministry. In the transition after Gene’s retirement, some of that was lost, or fell away. When I was voted on as Conference Minister, one of the youth delegates stood up and asked, “What are you going to do for youth?” I said that we would be working together to see what needed to be done here in the Conference. In 2008 and 2009, I took part in both of the senior high youth events that were held that year. In 2009, Bunny Oliver and I co-directed Exodus Camp, at Camp Adams. By the fall of 2009, in conversation with others, I realized that we needed to get more focus to our work. In the spring of 2010, we established the Education Ministry Task Force. In 2011, we assured sufficient funding for that Task Force, including an additional $3 per capita that was dedicated to the educational ministry of the Conference. Then, in the fall of 2011, and this is my favorite part, actually, I had the pleasure, along with an advisory committee, of hiring new co-directors for Camp Adams. If you haven’t meet Natalie and Bob Becker yet, Natalie and Bob, will you please stand up? A lot of people have had the opportunity to meet them, in different venues, and I promise, at Pendleton, you’ll have the opportunity to hear from them, from the microphone. But many of you have had a chance to meet them. If you haven’t, all of the wonderful things you’ve heard about them are true. I was extremely pleased to receive their application, then delighted when they joined us here in the Central Pacific Conference. They will be working hard with the Education Ministry Team and with Camp Adams, to further the ministry of our local churches, as we join together in so many different ways. They bring, not only a deep love of camp and a strong educational background, but also personal experience in young adult ministry. They will be strengthening the young adults, the youth, the outdoor and educational ministries of the Conference. They are a wonderful addition. Natalie and Bob, I am so pleased to have you here.
During some of the travels that Dennis Alger arranged for Melzar, I accompanied him. As he met with some of our ecumenical partners, I felt it was a good idea for me to be present, as your Conference Minister. On Tuesday afternoon, we were able to meet with the Theological and Educational Dialogue Committee of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. One of the committee members is part of the Friends Church, the Quakers. She had just returned from Africa, from what she described as a generational meeting. About every 20 years, there is a gathering of Quakers from around the world. They had 850 people in attendance. One of the places the Quakers are growing is Africa. We teased her about silent worship services at this international gather. She replied that about 70% of the world’s Quakers have Protestant type worship services, with prayers, and hymns, and readings, and sermons. She said, in the United States, a higher percentage of congregations practice the traditional silent service, where a group our people sit together, waiting for the Spirit to speak. Even in many of those worship service, there was a sermon. However, when it came time for the sermon slot, it was not unusual for the pastor to stand up and say, “The Spirit didn’t say anything to me this week. We will worship in silence.” Leroy Haines, from the Albina Ministerial Association said, “And I’d be looking for a job, soon.”
This idea of the Spirit speaking, came into play as I was gathering together my thoughts for my address to you today. About two weeks ago, I spent the week in Kent, WA for the Lombard Mennonite Conflict Mediation Skills Seminar. Lots of good information. The bottom line of the week was, the way we talk with each other, the way we communicate. A critical part of that was learning to speak for yourself. You know how important it is to use “I” language, to acknowledge your feelings, to not place the blame on someone else, to take responsibility.
In another one of the visits Dennis Alger planned, we went to Shepherd’s Door, a recovery center in northeast Portland, for single women, particularly single mothers. The enthusiastic director there talked about the way in which everyone who took part in that program has to be willing to own their own “stuff.” It was not only the women who were in that program, it was also the staff members, too. The staff members had to be willing to love people, willing to take responsibility for themselves, willing to own their own “stuff.” It was the echo of what I had heard the week before, in the Conflict Mediation Seminar.
Then, for those of you who are Jim Wallis’s email list… Jim Wallis published in his most recent Sojourners piece, the text of his commencement address to Virginia Theological Seminary. In the midst of all of it, he said, “The summary of ethics and the religious law for Jesus was to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” If you have listened to me preach in your congregation before, you know that I like to say that long before the early church talked about this business of three in one, Jesus had his own version of the Trinity: Love God. Love Neighbor. Love Self. This might be seen by some as a simplistic message, but I believe it is a simple message that is at the core of our faith together. We are called on to love God, love neighbor, and love self. Wallis goes on to say, the most fundamental teaching of our faith, flies in the face of all the person and political ethics, which put myself always before others. My rights first. My freedoms first. My interests first. My tribe first. Even, my country first. Ahead of everybody else. In other words, selfishness is the personal and political ethic that dominates our world today. But the kingdom of God says that your neighbor’s concerns, rights, interests, freedoms, and well-being are as important as yours are.
When I read that, the Spirit spoke to my heart. Jim Wallis and I start at the same place. But when we are trying to identify the problem, we come down to a different part of the three-legged stool. Maybe it’s just me projecting my own flaws and insecurity on everyone else, but I don’t think the problem is our selfishness and inability to love our neighbor. I think the problem is we are so overcome with guilt and insecurity, and existential anxiety, that we are unable to love ourselves. When we are unable to love ourselves, we project that onto everyone else. We’re hard on ourselves, and we’re hard on everybody else. When we’re critical of other people, I think it’s because we’re trying to prove that we’re OK. We need somebody else to be wrong, so that we can be right.
Now, in the United Church of Christ, friends, we spend a lot of time working for social justice, proving our love for God and our love for neighbor. Yet, at the same time, like churches everywhere and groups of people everywhere, we experience conflict and dissension in our committees, in our congregations. We find ourselves being critical of each other. I think that we know how to do justice pretty well. Maybe, something that we need to begin to work on is the other leg of the stool. We need to figure out how to love ourselves, and how to talk to each other in a loving manner. As I mentioned, the Spirit only whispered this to me a couple of days ago. So I don’t have any program proposals for you. But I encourage you, as you go about your work, to think about the issue. What does it mean for us to focus so much of time on social justice issues, reaching out to others. And how can we be doing all that good work in the world that we do, welcoming the stranger and standing up for those who have no voice, and still fight with each other, still be critical of each other, still disagree with each other? What do we have to do, in order to live together, so that people look at us and say, “Look at those folks in the Central Pacific Conference, how they love each other? How they love each other! So….. the state of the churches of the Central Pacific Conference, I believe, is good. The state of the Conference, I believe, is good. The state of each and every one of us, I believe, is good! I hope that we all find that out someday.