It was maybe 17 years ago that I was approached by one of our PA SE Conference staff members to see if I would be interested in a process that would bring the clergy and laypeople of our UCC congregations in Reading together to talk about the future. I was, of course, very interested, and so were almost all of the other congregations. 12 of the 13 UCC congregations in Reading gathered every couple of months, each one serving as host to the others. We presented our finances and programs, and talked about how we might prepare to work together. There were lots of bandaid ideas offered; share office staff, have combined youth and confirmation programs, things like that. After 4 1/2 years of meeting, I proposed a couple of ways in which we might create parishes. 3 or 4 congregations might be served by 2 full-time pastors and other staff, working together in a particular section of the city. This wasn’t a new idea; it was happening in a few places around the country. The lack of excitement was disappointing. Our church leadership decided to stop meeting; it was obvious that nobody really wanted to work together.
My parting words were, sadly, prophetic – if we don’t figure out ways to work together in substantial ways, all of our churches will close in the next 5-10 years. In fact, only 3 of the 13 remain. The church we once knew doesn’t exist anymore, and we are shutting our doors and selling our real estate, in part, because we won’t work together. So, while we moan and complain about how divided our political landscape has become, we as the church have very little room to point fingers. We don’t play well together either.
The idea of autonomy is popular among churches; we have this idea that our congregation must stand alone with its own staff and its own particular programs to be a “real” church. This model is about as unbiblical as we can get; when Jesus sent disciples out, it was in pairs. Why? He doesn’t explain, so I will take a guess that it was about accountability, covenant, and support. “Where two or three are gathered, I am there” Jesus told His disciples. The lone ranger model of ministry has been in place for decades in America, and it doesn’t work. Nobody can do every task of ministry well; we need to work together so that each person’s gifts can be maximized. “My” church and “My” pastor is prideful, and doesn’t build up “Our” churches. We are in covenant with one another, not competition. We are supposed to be united, not untied. We are supposed to work together. We don’t.
Our Northwest Reading Ministerium was an excellent example of inter-denominational cooperation for 10 years, but church closings, full-time becoming part-time, and new clergy who were not interested in ecumenism killed that group. It may be that the biggest stumbling block to unity and working together is the clergy themselves. We can be prideful and insecure, and this leads to fear and selfishness. When the followers of Jesus can’t work together, we show the world just how small we can be. Instead, our church works with the congregations and organizations within our walls, as well as community organizations that welcome us to their party. The more the merrier, when it comes to helping people. That is what makes our community stronger. We are supposed to work together; if we don’t, we will fail and die.
Pray – God, You have called us to a community with all sorts of people and groups; may we be humble enough to accept that we cannot do it all alone. Amen.
Today’s art is called “Tree”. It is part of a community street art project in Louisville, Colorado.