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UCC Identity & Tradition

Exploring my spiritual journey, UCC history, polity and theology.

December 23, 2023

Christopher Schouten

Pre-Member in Discernment

First Church Phoenix UCC

Personal Faith Journey

"Love never faileth."

- 1 Corinthians 13:8

My story could have turned out very differently. Growing up gay at a time when most churches vilified, abused, and abandoned LGBTQIA+ people as being fundamentally “sinful”[1], I was blessed to be part of a UCC church that put me on a path to experiencing a deep, transformational sense of God’s love. Over time - and through a rich ongoing spiritual practice in community with others - that love has healed my trauma and my feeling of brokenness and given me a real sense of wholeness. My experience has been very different from many of my LGBTQ+ contemporaries who have rejected the church and deemed it irrelevant at best and evil at worst, often discarding any desire for a relationship with God in the process[2]. These are the things that call me to a ministry of preaching God’s love for ALL people, especially to those who have been marginalized and shamed by religious people, leaders and communities and abandoned their connection to the divine. I want to help reconnect people to the love and the grace that is their birthright through a ministry of inclusion, relevance, depth and joy.

 

My positive experience with the church and spirituality – through its many twists and turns - has led to a life of seeking the Sacred in all things and feeling a profound sense of wonder at God’s creation. In coming to know God as teacher and mystery, and love Jesus Christ as friend and savior, I am profoundly inspired by the simplicity and truth of His words from John’s account of The Last Supper: “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.”  To me, this is my entire focus of my theology: Love of God, love of self, love of neighbor (and neighbor equals everybody, no fine print). Perfecting this alone can take an entire lifetime.

 

I strive to embody what I have discerned to be the most important qualities of Christ in my life: connection, compassion, unconditional love, healing, and service. In these qualities, I have found my life’s greatest work, truth, joy, and fulfillment.  At this point in my life’s journey, I can no longer ignore the burning bush of vocational call that I have felt since my teenage years. Though it took me a while to feel “ready” to serve, I now feel equipped and called to dedicate my remaining years to helping others understand God’s love for them, their divine nature, their gifts, their potential to serve, and their highest purpose in life.

 

[1] Daniel P. Horan, "History will judge the church harshly for its treatment of LGBTQ persons," National Catholic Reporter, 9 Feb. 2022, www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/history-will-judge-church-harshly-its-treatment-lgbtq-persons. Accessed 17 Dec. 2023.

[2] Post, Kathryn. "Study Finds that Queer Christians Quit the Church Twice as Much as Others." Religion News Service, 6 Nov. 2020, www.religionnews.com/2020/11/06/straight-is-the-gate-lgb-people-leave-christianity-behind-twice-as-frequently. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

A Wandering Path of Faith

Even before I came to know God as friend and mystery, my earliest childhood was marked by a rich imagination and a love for nature's beauty in the woods near my Iowa home, giving me an early connection to God’s natural world. I would play for hours among the trees and streams and wander through adjacent corn fields, lying down between the tall rows of August corn and staring up at the sky and watching the clouds float overhead. I believe this is where my connection to God truly began and my natural tendency toward “awe as a spiritual practice”[1] found its beginning. To this day, awe of nature and of God’s goodness is what most connects me to the sacred. Having traveled to 47 countries around the world has only strengthened this practice as I have seen the diversity and beauty of God’s creation in mountains, oceans, canyons, deserts, fields, rivers, flora, fauna, and my fellow human siblings around the globe.

 

My Lutheran father and Catholic mother provided a solid foundation of diverse Christian perspectives. I was baptized as an infant at First Presbyterian Church in Iowa City, IA, spent a few years as a Lutheran at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, grew up at Westminster Presbyterian Church across town, before eventually landing at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ when I was 13, where I was confirmed shortly after. Even at that young age – without knowing exactly why – I felt a call that I needed to be at that specific church, and started going to Plymouth on my own even before my family did.  As a young person, this church fed my soul with great music and God’s word, and the pastor, staff and members were kind and compassionate. Their preaching and teaching were free from rebuke and judgement and full of love. My whole family eventually followed me, and my parents are still members today.

 

The shift to Plymouth UCC during my junior high years was a pivotal point in my life. Had I not found my way to Plymouth, my life could have turned out very differently, as the Presbyterian church I attended became increasingly more conservative under its new pastor. The early exploration of my faith in a loving environment coincided with the awakening of my same-sex attraction, and while the culture around me made me feel marginalized, invalidated, and ashamed, my church was a place of safety and happiness. I would eventually come to find out that both of our Ministers of Music were secretly LGBTQ+[2] and I met my first high school peers who openly identified as queer in my church choir. One of the most impactful memories from this experience was when the choir’s meanest bully publicly and sincerely apologized in front of almost 100 choir members for having tormented my queer friends. This is where I began to understand the transformative and redemptive power of faith and community.

 

Post-college, my first professional job took me to Washington D.C., where I joined the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C., a rich, diverse, urban LGBTQ+-focused ministry where for the first time I experienced the unabashed message that “God didn’t make ya just so he could sit around and hate ya!”, delivered with evangelical zeal to a largely queer congregation. I joined the MCC-DC Gospel Choir and became a lay minister, serving communion through the laying on of hands and personal prayer. It was a powerful introduction to a very different expression of faith and worship than the one I grew up in. Even 25 years later, I often experience little “evangelical moments” of gratitude and praise that will certainly be part of my worship leadership style as a pastor.

 

While living in Europe for 22 years (Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland), I did not regularly attend church, as no church I could find could live up to my UCC or MCC experiences in my eyes. Instead, I continued to grow in new directions in my understanding of the sacred and developed new spiritual practices, studying Eastern and esoteric spirituality with a modern mystery school called Pathways Institute. Through weekend workshops, 3-month weekly programs and five 2-week retreats (many of which I flew from Amsterdam to Arizona and Hawaii to attend), I studied other spiritual traditions and pure, experiential spirituality outside of any religious or theological context.

 

In Pathways, I learned about the intersection of spirituality and psychology, and how personal mastery and is key to being fully equipped to engage with the divine. I learned to mediate. I had my heart chakra, throat chakra and third eye initiated. I studied the human shadow. I became versed in the Enneagram and Voice Dialogue theory and practice. I learned about ancient tools of divination like runes and tarot cards. I did dream work, sacred movement, and intuitive art. I participated in many days of silence and fasting in the high desert of Arizona and the jungles of Maui. I learned not to just know about God but to experientially feel and know God.

 

At the center of all these studies and practices was always the development of the heart chakra[3]: the place where we can go inside ourselves to find unconditional love, compassion, healing, sacred presence, connection to the infinite and a peace that passes all understanding. When feeding and igniting my heart chakra, the sacred symbols I almost always hold there is the cross or the face of Jesus, as this for me represents the most powerful incarnation of these energies. This is where I truly found Jesus for the first time, and many of these practices still sustain and feed me today. I am able to fully integrate and combine everything I learned in Pathways with my Christian beliefs without any discord whatsoever; something we were indeed encouraged to do by our teacher. I also believe that God has blessed me with a strong filter of discernment, allowing me to take in any information from any source and decide for myself whether or not it feels “of God”. 

 

I used this “time in the wilderness” outside the Christian church to grow my faith and my relationship with God. And when I sat in the pew of a UCC church for the first time again in 2018, I not only felt like I’d come home; I felt like I’d never left.

 

[1] Cole Arthur Riley, “The Spiritual Practice of Awe”, accessed 12/7/23

[2] Christopher Schouten, "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made," BMUCC, 3 Sept. 2023, https://www.bmucc.org/post/sermon-fearfully-and-wonderfully-made.

[3] "THE HEART CONFERENCE." Pathways Institute, www.pathwaysinstitute.com/the-heart-conference.  Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

My Call & Approach to Ministry

My path to ordained ministry has been a blend of daily spiritual tools and practices and engaging with the divine as both a friend and a mystery. This relationship has been a source of strength, guidance, and inspiration. I envision my role in ministry as one of healing and facilitating growth, helping others navigate their struggles and find a deep sense of worthiness in God’s love. This calling is not just about leading worship and study but also about creating spaces for vulnerability, authenticity, empowerment, and self-discovery for all people seeking to be happier and more connected to themselves, one another, and God.

 

To do this, I will use the rich potential of combining human psychology, personal growth work, and self-awareness with spirituality.  Especially when explored in beloved community with others, this intersection (like the horizontal and vertical beams of the cross), is incredible powerful and transformative. For this reason, I believe that this kind of work – equipping ourselves as effective servants of God through individual and group-based consciousness work and growth processes – will also be one of the hallmarks of my ministry. God’s grace gives us the opportunity to heal our trauma and our brokenness, and doing this work together offers us an incredible opportunity to seek wholeness in fellowship with one another, to learn from one another, and to experiences a deep sense of not being alone in our journey.

 

I am also driven by a desire to serve those who feel disconnected from and rejected by the church and religious people, especially within the LGBTQ+ community.  Though it is a challenging path to heal from religious trauma, I would like to make this a hallmark of my ministry by extending the loving hand of the UCC to all people who have felt alienated from religion and from God. I will do this by presenting queer theology as a road to encountering God in a new way; one that meets the needs of LGBTQ+ people who yearn to hear stories that resonate with them, instead of the heteronormative narrative that is dominant in religion today.

 

Even in my 50’s, I am still doing this work, and dealing with the aftermath of growing up with the shame and invalidation of being gay and overweight in a world that often looks down on these things. But because of the work I’ve done, I now experience the healing love of God in my life every single day.  My experiences, both challenging and enriching, have equipped me to be a compassionate and understanding leader, committed to fostering a community where all can feel valued and loved.

Understanding My Calling

I believe that God has called me to serve the church in a special way that goes beyond the important work that all baptized Christians are called to do. While every member of the church is called to live out their faith through service and love, my journey has led me to a deeper, more specific calling: to become an ordained pastor.

The Unique Role of Ordained Ministry

Ordination is about more than just taking on a leadership role. It’s about being entrusted with the sacred responsibilities of guiding a congregation in worship, providing spiritual care, and, crucially, administering the sacraments. The UCC sacraments of baptism and communion are vital practices that connect us with God's grace in profound ways. They are moments where we experience God’s love and presence in a tangible form. As an ordained pastor, I would have the privilege and responsibility of leading these sacraments, helping to nurture the faith and spiritual growth of our community.

 

The Importance of Sacraments to Me

The administration of the sacraments is deeply meaningful to me because they are core to our faith and worship. Baptism symbolizes the beginning of a person's faith journey, marking their entry into the Christian community. Communion is a continual reminder of Christ's sacrifice and our global unity as a body of believers. Being able to administer these sacraments means facilitating profound encounters with God's grace.

 

Additionally, while not sacraments in the UCC, weddings and funerals are pivotal moments in the faith journey of most people. Officiating at weddings allows me to bless and support couples as they commit their lives to one another before God. Conducting funerals provides an opportunity to offer comfort and hope, honoring the lives of loved ones and affirming our faith in eternal life. These moments are significant touchpoints where people deeply feel the presence of the church and God’s love, and must be taken very seriously by ordained clergy.

 

My Love for Liturgy and Sacred Spaces

I have a deep love for the creation of liturgies and sacred spaces. I have prepared single services and complex, 5-week long worship series, most recently the 5 weeks of Pride Month. I even wrote the entire liturgy for my own wedding in 2007, combining opposite-sex wedding liturgies from the UCC and same-sex "Holy Union" ceremonies from the Metropolitan Community Church into a single, same-sex-centric wedding liturgy, which did not exist at the time. Crafting deep, meaningful, rich, scripture-centered worship experiences is a passion of mine, and I strive to create environments where people can encounter God in profound and transformative ways.

 

 

Previous Ministry Experience

As a lay minister at the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington D.C., I had the privilege of administering communion through the laying on of hands and personal prayer. This practice allowed me to deeply enrich the spiritual experience of parishioners, providing a personal and heartfelt connection to the sacred act of communion.

 

Why Ordination Matters to Me

I have felt a deep and growing sense of calling to pastoral ministry, one that has been affirmed through my experiences, my spiritual education, and my spiritual journey. This isn’t just a job for me—it’s a vocation. It’s about dedicating my life to serving others, providing pastoral care, preaching the Word, and ensuring that the sacraments are administered with the reverence and care they deserve, all so that people can have meaningful encounters with God.

 

Limitations of Commissioned and Lay Ministry

While commissioned ministers and lay ministers play crucial roles in the church, there are specific limitations that make ordination necessary for the full scope of pastoral duties:

  • Sacramental Authority: Only ordained ministers are authorized to administer the sacraments. This includes baptisms, communion, and other rites that are central to the spiritual life of the congregation.

  • Spiritual Leadership: Ordained ministers carry a recognized authority and responsibility that extends beyond that of lay ministers. This includes providing consistent and reliable spiritual leadership, which is crucial for guiding the congregation through times of change and growth.

  • Pastoral Care: While lay ministers can provide significant support, the pastoral care provided by an ordained minister is often seen as more authoritative and comprehensive. This can be crucial in providing counseling, mediation, and support during critical times in the lives of congregants.

 

The Impact of Ordination on Effectiveness

The reality is also that being an ordained minister can indeed have a bigger impact because people tend to listen to them more, treat them as authority figures, and accept more guidance from them. This greater influence stems from the formal process of ordination, which signals to the congregation that the individual has been vetted, trained, and deemed spiritually and ethically fit to lead. The ordination process builds trust and credibility, making congregants more likely to follow the guidance and teachings of ordained ministers. Social and psychological factors, such as respect for tradition and the halo effect, further enhance the authority of ordained ministers, enabling them to be more effective and impactful in their ministry.

 

My Gifts and Preparation

I bring a unique combination of gifts and experiences that I believe will benefit our church community. My lifelong participation in the UCC, my deep understanding of spirituality and theology, and my passion for personal and community growth all equip me to be an effective pastor. I have significant experience and formation that ensures I am ready to take on the responsibilities of ordained ministry, and I am committed—guided by the Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers—to continuously developing myself through practical experiences and formation in order to become the best version of myself I can be. A complete reflection on the marks can be found in "The Marks" section of this site, but I summarize them below:

 

  • Exhibiting a Spiritual Foundation and Ongoing Spiritual Practice: My lifelong participation in the UCC has deepened my spiritual foundation, and my commitment to ongoing spiritual practices sustains and enriches my ministry.

  • Nurturing UCC Identity: My work in creating inclusive liturgies and worship series, especially for Pride Month, reflects my dedication to nurturing and expressing the UCC identity and value of of Extravagant Welcome.

  • Engaging Sacred Stories and Traditions: Crafting deep, meaningful, scripture-centered worship experiences that have practical application in today's world showcases my ability to engage with and bring to life our sacred stories and traditions.

  • Caring for All Creation: Through my ministry, I strive to foster an inclusive, compassionate church, especially focusing on those who have been marginalized. Additionally, I have a deep appreciation and respect for nature and animals. From a very young age, I would spend hours of my day in the nearby woods among streams and trees, which instilled in me a profound love for the natural world. This is evidenced in my daily life by my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint, eliminate non-recyclable packaging from our home, and perform small acts of care like lovingly rescuing bees from our pool. My commitment to environmental stewardship reflects a holistic approach to caring for all of God’s creation. 

    Working Together for Justice and Mercy: My commitment to creating environments where people encounter God and to fostering a more inclusive church aligns with the UCC's call to work for justice and mercy. My lifelong involvement in LGBTQIA+ rights and, more recently, the work of decentering whiteness, show my further commitment to this mark.

  • Transformational Leadership: My experience in leading complex worship services, series and events that involve many people from throughout the church and beyond demonstrates my capacity for transformational leadership. Through 3 years of leadership as Moderator of BMUCC, I inspired and guided the congregation towards active engagement in our mission, and I continue to do that at First Church Phoenix as well.

 

Above all else, I have a passionate and enduring desire to help people encounter the God of love. I believe that when individuals experience and embrace their birthright to that love through grace and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, their lives will be transformed for the better. In feeling God's love, they will learn to love themselves and more fully love their neighbors, as Jesus commanded us to do. It took me many years before I could understand this, and I believe I can help others get there too - perhaps faster and easier than I did. 

 

The Impact of My Ministry

Being ordained would allow me to serve our community in a fuller capacity. I want to be able to provide consistent and reliable spiritual leadership, offering guidance, resources, and support to those in need. I also believe that my unique perspective and experiences will bring valuable insights to our congregation—especially to those who have been marginalized—helping to foster a more inclusive, understanding, and compassionate church.

UCC Doctrinal Beliefs

In the United Church of Christ, the doctrinal position regarding Jesus Christ, according to our statement of “What We Believe”[1], and our “Statement of Faith”[2] is that Jesus Christ plays a central, unique role in the UCC:

  1. Jesus is the resurrected Christ and the sole head of the Church.

  2. All the baptized belong to Jesus and are connected to each other throughout all time through the sacrament of baptism.

  3. All people are invited to Christ’s table for the sacrament of Communion and, through this act, are made one in the body of Christ.

  4. Justice and Jesus are inseparable.

 

My personal theology calls me to focus on what Jesus represented to humanity: a pure, divine force of unconditional love, compassion, healing, justice, and connectedness to all living things. I believe His resurrection to be the resurrection of these qualities, and that Jesus and these qualities must and do lead the church. They are the focus of our beliefs and our work, which can take a lifetime to perfect and live out.

 

My personal faith arrives at all the same conclusions that the UCC does in their statement of belief, but with a slightly different focus. I feel that in current forms of worship (especially the more modern ones), that we can often get lost in worshipping Jesus while forgetting what He stands for, so my ministry will likely always bring these qualities to the forefront and always connect them to Jesus’ name, lest we only remember the messenger but not the message.

 

In this same statement of belief, we find the UCC’s theological position on the nature of God:

  1. God is triune God: Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit

  2. God wills that every person belongs to a family of and feels valued and loved.

  3. God, engenders love, strengthens faith, dissolves guilt, and gives life purpose.

  4. We all belong to God and to one worldwide community of faith. We are all connected.

  5. God calls us to service to humanity and stewardship of the earth’s resources.

  6. God is still speaking.

 

This theology resonates strongly with me. Throughout my life I have tried to organically discern through experience and the study of many different spiritual systems what the nature of human life is. I believe at its most basic, biological level, we are each unique, self-contained individuals who cannot survive unconnected and alone. We need the love of our parents and community to grow up. We grow, thrive and are at our best, happiest and most productive when we are connected in communities of love and support and kindness. And I have also discovered in my own life that the knowledge that I am created by a God that loves me deeply impacts my sense of wellbeing and my ability to offer love to others.  And as a queer man whose people have been marginalized (like many other communities) using scripture as a tool of oppression, I particularly appreciate the UCC’s focus on the need for “each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.”[3]

 

I feel the direct, simple, universal truth in all the perspectives listed above. They are uncontrived, easy to understand, and just feel fundamentally true without any theological gymnastics. At the same time, they provide an opportunity to go into tremendous depth of meditation, prayer and study to further discern their meaning and how to live them out fully in our lives. And ultimately, these are the theological constructs that have the biggest impact on people’s lives.

 

[1] https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/#:~:text=We%20believe%20in%20the%20triune,person%20is%20unique%20and%20valuable, accessed 11/26/2023

[2] 1.        “UCC Statement of Faith.” United Church of Christ, https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/statement-of-faith/.  Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

[3] Preamble to the Constitution of the United Church of Christ https://www.ucc.org/who-we-are/about/general-synod/general-synod-resolutions-regarding-environmental-justice/beliefs/beliefs_preamble-to-the-constitution/. Referenced 12/3/2023

Tributaries and Traditions of the UCC

The faith traditions of the UCC are the Congregational, Christian, Evangelical and Reformed Churches. These represent the four "Uniting Churches" that joined together in 1957[1] to form the UCC. In addition to those, there are the "hidden histories" of other important parties that play a role in the culture and traditions of the UCC, including both the American Missionary Society, with deep ties to Congregationalism[2]. The AMA consisted of both black and white members who sought to dismantle slavery. In addition, the UCC Historical Council voted in 2022 to recognize an official “fifth stream” — the Afro-Christian tradition — as separate from and equal to the other four[3].

  • The Congregationalists bring a strong sense of a lay-led church where the power resides in the local congregation. This tradition influenced the UCC's strong commitment to local church autonomy and congregational polity, which means that each local church has the authority to make its own decisions[4].

  • The Christian Church, with its unique American origins in the Restoration Movement, brings strong lay involvement in ministry, a disdain for creeds, distrust of authority, the belief that Christ is the only head of the church, individual responsibility to interpret scripture[5].

  • The Evangelical Synod of North America's German Reformed tradition contributed a commitment to traditional Reformed theology, including a strong emphasis on the authority of Scripture and the sovereignty of God. This theological heritage is reflected in the UCC's diverse theological thinking, where a range of theological perspectives are welcome.[6]

  • The Evangelical & Reformed Church brings a strong emphasis on the sacraments and liturgical worship to the UCC. The E&R tradition valued the importance of both Word and Sacrament in worship, and this emphasis is reflected in the UCC's worship practices and theology.[7]

  • The Afro-Christian stream, coming primarily out of North Carolina and Virginia, included 150 churches representing about 25,000 members and brings a strong tradition of female leadership, and a rich history of African-American forms of worship and praise. It also provides a rich opportunity to look to our Afro-Christian siblings not as "an object of the UCC’s mission" but rather “a subject that could inform its mission.” (Rev. Yvonne Delk, a prominent UCC elder and a daughter of this tradition).[8]

 

I am deeply moved as I learn the history of the UCC and study the history of my own family, my genealogy, and my genetics. So much of my family history and life experience are deeply connected to all the same places where the UCC was forged. I am 45% German, representing our German and Swiss Reformed tradition. and I lived and worked in Switzerland for 5 years before knowing this. I am also 27% British & Irish, representing our Congregationalist history. I have found ship manifests showing ancestors moving to The Netherlands around the time that the Calvinist Puritans sought refuge in The Netherlands before their passage to the New World. Before I knew this, I moved to Amsterdam and lived there for 21 years. My earliest ancestors arrived in North America in the 1600’s, so were here during the Restoration Movement that helped create the Christian Church. I can't help but thinking that God keeps calling me to follow in the path of my ancestors to help continue to bring their vision for the church to life in whatever way I can.

 

[1] Gunneman, L. H., & Rooks, C. S. (1999). The Shaping of the United Church of Christ: An Essay in the History of American Christianity (2nd ed.). Cleveland, OH: United Church Press, 5

[2] Ibid, 200

[3] United Church of Christ. "Afro-Christian Tradition's Status as Distinct UCC 'Stream' Gets Historical Council Support." United Church of Christ, October 10, 2022. Accessed December 5, 2023. https://www.ucc.org/afro-christian-traditions-status-as-distinct-ucc-stream-gets-historical-council-support/.

[4] Gunneman, Shaping, 200

[5] Ibid, 207

[6] Ibid, 205

[7] Ibid, 221

[8] Delk, Yvonne V. The Afro Christian Convention: The Fifth Stream of the United Church of Christ. Pilgrim Press, 2023. 26

Lay and Ordained Ministers

Ordination and lay ministry represent two separate yet connected paths in many Christian denominations, including the UCC. Lay ministers can be authorized to serve their local church in a specific context, whether that be educational, musical, worship leadership or another specific ministry. Those who have a vocational calling – a calling from God to serve and lead in wider, more general context – go through a discernment and ordination process.[1]

 

Ordination involves a formal process of consecration, where an individual is set apart for specific ministerial duties. In the UCC, this requires a period of study and discernment, and adherence to a code of conduct, as exemplified by the UCC's Ordained Minister's Code[2]. Ordained ministers in the UCC covenant to lead a life worthy of their calling, engage in continuous spiritual and educational growth, uphold ethical standards, and actively participate in the life of the church.

 

Lay ministry, on the other hand, involves church members who are not formally ordained but actively participate in the church's work. Lay ministers can perform various roles, such as teaching, leading worship services, or community outreach. While they may not have the same formal theological training as ordained ministers, their contributions are invaluable for the life and health of the church.

 

The importance of seeking ordination in the UCC lies in its emphasis on a well-trained, committed, and accountable clergy who can provide spiritual leadership, sacramental duties, and pastoral care. Ordination ensures a deep understanding of Christian theology, scriptures, and tradition, enabling ordained ministers to guide congregants effectively in their spiritual journey.

Balancing ordination with lay ministries is crucial in the UCC and indeed in all churches. While ordained ministers have specific roles and responsibilities, the involvement of lay members in various aspects of church life allows for a more diverse and comprehensive approach to ministry, and recognizes the reality that church staffs across denominations are shrinking and running churches will require more and more volunteer assistance in order to maintain and grow their ministries.

 

[1] "Authorized Ministry - United Church of Christ." United Church of Christ, www.ucc.org/what-we-do/justice-local-church-ministries/local-church/mesa-ministerial-excellence-support-and-authorization/ministers/ministers_authorized/.  Accessed 19 Dec. 2023.

[2] "Ordained Minister’s Code." United Church of Christ, www.ucc.org/ministers/ordained-ministers-code.  Accessed 19 Dec. 2023.

Church and Sacraments

The two sacraments of baptism and communion are central to our life as a church and represent an invitation into a deeper relationship with God. The UCC holds a sacramental view that is open, inclusive, and adaptable, reflecting a diversity of practices and theological understandings within its congregations and respecting their independence.

 

Baptism[1] is a foundational sacrament in the UCC, serving as a visible sign of God's grace. It is an act of initiation and inclusion into the Christian community. In the UCC, the method of baptism—whether by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling—is less important than the theological and personal significance of the act. The church sees baptism as a work of God's forgiveness, spiritual renewal, and the calling to be part of God's family. It marks the beginning of a life of discipleship with Christ and can be performed at any age. The UCC acknowledges all baptisms performed in other Christian traditions, so there is no need for re-baptism when someone joins a UCC congregation. Baptisms are usually conducted during worship so that the congregation can witness and support the individual's faith journey.

 

Communion[2] is the second sacrament recognized by the UCC. It is a ritual commemoration of Jesus' last supper with his disciples as represented in the Gospels. It serves as a present-day manifestation and expression of God's grace in our midst and a means of spiritual nourishment.  In the UCC, the practice of communion can vary widely, respecting the many different traditions within our inclusive community. Whether through a common loaf or individual pieces of bread, a shared cup or individual cups, or by intinction, the essential elements of bread and wine (or grape juice) are used to represent the body and blood of Christ. During times of COVID and now during hybrid worship, home worshippers are even invited to take whatever they have available to them and participate in this important sacrament with those at church.

 

The UCC practices an open communion table, inviting all who wish to experience the presence of Christ to participate, regardless of denominational affiliation. This practice underscores the denomination's emphasis on unity and inclusivity in the body of Christ and differs from other churches like the Catholic church which require one to be baptized and/or confirmed in that church (as well as other requirements like fasting, belief in transubstantiation, age and being in a “state of grace” – not conscious of having committed a mortal sin without confessing first). The frequency of communion services and the participation of children in communion can vary among UCC congregations. Some churches offer communion weekly in keeping with early Christian tradition, while others may celebrate it less frequently. Children may be welcomed to partake in communion, often after receiving instruction on its significance, according to the discernment of their parents and the local church. The UCC’s approach to the sacraments is characterized by its openness to various traditions and practices and their interpretation by local congregations, its emphasis on the sacraments as a means of grace and community covenant.

 

The sacraments in the UCC are more than mere rituals; they are considered essential actions in worship through which the Holy Spirit uses elements like water, bread, and wine to make visible the grace, forgiveness, and presence of God in Christ[3]. This view aligns with the broader Christian understanding of sacraments as visible signs of invisible grace, instituted by Jesus Christ.

[1] [1] UCC Website. https://www.ucc.org/what-we-do/justice-local-church-ministries/local-church/mesa-ministerial-excellence-support-and-authorization/ministers/ministers_local-church-leaders/worship_baptism/. Referenced 12/03/2023

[2] "About Communion - United Church of Christ." United Church of Christ, www.ucc.org/what-we-do/justice-local-church-ministries/local-church/mesa-ministerial-excellence-support-and-authorization/ministers/ministers_local-church-leaders/worship_communion/.  Accessed 19 Dec. 2023.

[3] UCC Website, “What Matters to Us”. https://www.ucc.org/who-we-are/about/general-synod/general-synod-resolutions-regarding-environmental-justice/vitality/vitality_boost-your-vitality/vitality_what-matters/vitality_what-matters_we-are-one-at-baptism-and-at/#:~:text=Sacraments%20are%20our%20ritual%20acts,than%20a%20mere%20casual%20acknowledgment. Referenced 12/03/23

Authorization and Ministry Oversight

In the UCC, the ministerial oversight process[1] is a blend of local church autonomy and wider church accountability, reflecting our congregational polity and covenant relationships. The local church holds significant authority in our denomination, including the right to call and dismiss ministers. This autonomy means that ministerial oversight often begins at the local church level, emphasizing the church's independence in decision-making regarding its pastoral leadership.

 

However, the structure of the UCC extends beyond the local congregation. Congregations are organized into larger bodies known as Associations and Conferences. These play a crucial role in the oversight of ministers. Associations are particularly instrumental in the education and ordination of new clergy, the maintenance of ministerial standing, and in conducting periodic reviews of ministers. The ordination process in the UCC involves discernment and education, typically at a seminary, followed by an examination conducted by the Association's Committee on Ministry (COM, though the name of the committee can vary by conference or association). This examination assesses the candidate's fitness for ministry, theological understanding, and knowledge of UCC polity, as well as evaluating them against the Marks of Faithful and Authorized Ministry as presented in a Marks portfolio.

 

Once ordained, ministers maintain their standing through their Association. This standing is not only a mark of their ordination but is also subject to regular reviews. These reviews ensure that ministers continue to uphold the standards and expectations of their calling. In cases where concerns arise about a minister's fitness for ministry, the COM conducts reviews and, if necessary, takes disciplinary actions. These actions can range from censure to the suspension or termination of ministerial standing.

 

In summary, the ministerial oversight process in the UCC balances the independence of local churches and ministers with accountability and support provided through wider church structures. This balance is achieved through a covenantal model, where relationships are based on mutual agreements and shared commitments, rather than hierarchical control. This approach ensures that ministers are supported and held accountable within a framework that respects the autonomy of each local church.

 

[1] "Manual on Ministry - United Church of Christ." United Church of Christ, www.ucc.org/manual-on-ministry/.  Accessed 19 Dec. 2023.

Autonomy and Covenant

The UCC is unique in its emphasis on the dual concepts of Autonomy and Covenant, which are central to our structure and polity.[1]

 

Autonomy in the UCC refers to the freedom of the local church. Each local church in the UCC is self-governing and independent in terms of its decision-making processes. This means that they have the authority to make decisions about their own worship practices, governance, and ministry without external control. This autonomy extends to the calling of ministers, the development of educational programs, and the administration of sacraments. The concept is rooted in the belief that the local church is the fundamental unit of the Church universal, and that it is in the local setting where the Church's mission is most directly lived out.

 

However, this autonomy does not exist in isolation. It is balanced by the concept of Covenant, which is foundational to the UCC's understanding of church life. Covenant in the UCC is about relationships and emphasizes the voluntary, yet committed, connection between the local church and the wider church structures - Associations, Conferences, and the national setting. Unlike hierarchical systems (like the Roman Catholic Church), the UCC operates more as a network of churches and entities related to one another through a covenantal relationship. This means that while each church is independent, they are also interdependent, connected through shared beliefs, practices, and mission. The covenant is not legalistic or coercive, but rather a mutual commitment to work together for common goals, support one another, and share resources.

 

In essence, the relationship between Autonomy and Covenant in the UCC embodies a balance between independence and interdependence. While each local church maintains its independence, the covenantal relationships ensure that there is a sense of unity and shared mission within the wider church. This unique blend allows for diverse expressions of faith and practice within a framework of common purpose and mutual support, reflecting the UCC's commitment to unity in diversity, forged by our unique history.

 

[1] "Autonomy in a Covenantal Polity." United Church of Christ, www.ucc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Autonomy-in-a-Covenantal-Polity-Freeman.pdf.  Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

Justice and Witness

The UCC has a deep and profound commitment to justice and witness, which is central to our identity and mission. This commitment is expressed through various initiatives and actions that aim to create and foster economic, environmental, and racial justice. These efforts are deeply rooted in the teachings of scripture and align with the policies established by the UCC’s General Synod.

 

The UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries[1] play a crucial role in guiding and supporting local congregations and other church settings in responding to God’s commandments to do justice, seek peace, and effect change for a better world. The vision of these ministries is a just, compassionate, and peaceful world that honors all of God's creation. Their mission involves speaking and acting prophetically through community mobilization, leadership training, issues education, public witness, and public policy advocacy. The guiding principles of the Justice and Witness Ministries are inspired by God’s grace, grounded in biblical and theological understandings of God's mission, and rooted in the conviction that all forms of oppression and injustice can be overcome.

 

The UCC also places a strong emphasis on building a stronger faith-based movement for peace, justice, equality, and inclusivity, inviting individuals to explore the breadth and depth of the church's justice work. This includes addressing critical issues such as child poverty, bullying, access to education, voting rights, criminal justice, gun violence prevention, human trafficking, immigration, refugee and asylum issues, LGBTQ+ justice, and media justice. The church is actively involved in advocating for environmental justice and plays a significant role in global concerns like international trade, investment, and global debt relief.

 

In summary, the UCC's approach to justice and witness is comprehensive, addressing a wide range of issues both domestically and globally. It is a faith community united in Christ's love, seeking justice for all, and committed to working towards a just world for all. This commitment is reflected in its engagement with various justice-related activities and their proactive stance on social and global issues.

 

[1] 14.      “Justice and Witness Ministries.” United Church of Christ, https://www.ucc.org/who-we-are/about/general-synod/general-synod-resolutions-regarding-environmental-justice/jwm/.  Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

Works Cited

  1. Delk, Yvonne V. The Afro Christian Convention: The Fifth Stream of the United Church of Christ. Pilgrim Press, 2023.

  2. Gunnemann, Louis H. The Shaping of the United Church of Christ: Expanded Edition. United Church Press, 1999.

  3. Walker, R. J. The Evolution of a UCC Style: Essays in the History, Ecclesiology, and Culture of the United Church of Christ. United Church Press, 2005.

  4. “Preamble and Covenant of the UCC Constitution and Bylaws.” United Church of Christ, https://www.ucc.org/who-we-are/about/general-synod/general-synod-resolutions-regarding-environmental-justice/beliefs/beliefs_preamble-to-the-constitution/. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

  5. “UCC Statement of Faith.” United Church of Christ, https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/statement-of-faith/. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

  6. “Afro-Christian Tradition’s Status as Distinct UCC ‘Stream’ Gets Historical Council Support.” United Church of Christ, https://www.ucc.org/afro-christian-traditions-status-as-distinct-ucc-stream-gets-historical-council-support/. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

  7. Hawkins, Toni, and Yvonne V. Delk. “A Conversation with the Rev. Dr. Yvonne Delk on the Afro Christian Tradition in the UCC.” Video. United Church of Christ. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

  8. Barrett, L. “Theological Worlds in the United Church of Christ.” Prism: a Theological Forum for the United Church of Christ, vol. 21, no. 2, Winter 2007, pp. 75-101.

  9. UCC Book of Worship. United Church of Christ. Includes “Introduction,” pp. 1-28; “Order for the Service of Word and Sacrament I,” pp. 31-54; “Order for the Service of Word and Sacrament II,” pp. 55-76; “Order for Baptism,” pp. 129-144.

  10. “Marks Of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers in The United Church Of Christ.” United Church of Christ, https://new.uccfiles.com/pdf/THE-MARKS-OF-FAITHFUL-AND-EFFECTIVE-MINISTERS.pdf. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

  11. "Autonomy in a Covenantal Polity." United Church of Christ, www.ucc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Autonomy-in-a-Covenantal-Polity-Freeman.pdf.  Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

  12. “Ordained Minister’s Code.” United Church of Christ, https://www.ucc.org/what-we-do/justice-local-church-ministries/local-church/mesa-ministerial-excellence-support-and-authorization/ministers/ministers_ordained-ministers-code/. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

  13. “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.” World Council of Churches, 1982, https://www.oikoumene.org/sites/default/files/Document/FO1982_111_en.pdf. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

  14. “Justice and Witness Ministries.” United Church of Christ, https://www.ucc.org/who-we-are/about/general-synod/general-synod-resolutions-regarding-environmental-justice/jwm/. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

  15. Christopher Schouten, "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made," BMUCC, 3 Sept. 2023, https://www.bmucc.org/post/sermon-fearfully-and-wonderfully-made.

  16. Daniel P. Horan, "History will judge the church harshly for its treatment of LGBTQ persons," National Catholic Reporter, 9 Feb. 2022, www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/history-will-judge-church-harshly-its-treatment-lgbtq-persons. Accessed 17 Dec. 2023.

  17. Justice & Local Church Ministries - United Church of Christ." United Church of Christ, www.ucc.org/what-we-do/justice-local-church-ministries/.  Accessed 19 Dec. 2023.

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