By Geoffrey A. Black
General Minister and President-elect
United Church of Christ
As I begin my term of service as General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, I have no illusions. I am taking on a leadership role in a Christian communion that has been in decline for decades. Like many of its ecumenical partners, the United Church of Christ has experienced loss of members and financial support steadily since the 1960’s, not long after the UCC came into existence in 1957. In the first decades of decline the signs were not so visible. However, those signs have been hard to ignore in recent years.
In all of this bad news (for many it is old news or not news at all), there are yet signs of hope. The first of those sings is that we are fully cognizant of the decline and instead of denying it, we are beginning to adapt to our new reality with renewed hope and determination. And we believe that renewed hope can lead us to a place where progressive, inclusive visions of faith will be embraced.
Growing smaller and having less money to spend limits our capacity to do some things. For instance, we cannot support an administrative operation as large as we once had or travel as frequently. Yet, even with those limitations, we are finding new ways to engage in our mission effectively and to stay connected, bearing witness to our unity. Indeed we are finding that these circumstances are opening us to new possibilities within our own communion. Additionally, we are exploring partnerships across denominational lines that we and others would not have considered in earlier, more flush days. Upon reflection, we may just find this lean season to be a time when our self awareness of what it means to be the church grows and when our commitment to discipleship and living our faith deepens.
I believe that such growth in awareness and deepening of commitment can lead to clarity of vision and a renewed sense of vitality in mission. These are so necessary, if we are to serve God faithfully amidst the emerging realities of the 21st Century in America and throughout the world. Being a historic church that embraces the theological affirmation that “God Is Still Speaking,” we also strive to be a church that listens to and responds to God. To me this means being attentive contemporary realities, because God is concerned about the whole of creation here and now.
Over time, our discernment as a denomination has been that God calls us to a deep commitment to racial justice and racial equality. We have also discerned that God calls us to a commitment to gender equality and the equality of people of differing physical abilities. Our discernment extends to an inclusive understanding of sexual orientation and to the conclusion that all are children of God and are to be honored and treated as such regardless of sexual orientation. Again, over time we discerned that God calls us to be a people always seeking peace with justice and a people committed to welcoming the stranger and to responsible stewardship of God’s creation.
I stress the words over time, because it is important to acknowledge ourselves and to help others to understand that we did not reach this theological and spiritual outlook overnight. For instance, our anti-racism stances, our commitment to equality in marriage and our commitment to fair and just treatment of undocumented immigrants are in response to contemporary social trends although they me coincide with such trends. To the contrary, the United Church of Christ articulates a progressive faith stance today as a result of decades, even centuries of prayerful reflection, rigorous scholarship and dialogue, courageous action, thoughtful proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus and openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst. I must add that we are by no means of one voice or unanimous in our discernment, but we do “strive for unity in the bond of peace.”
As I begin to serve as the United Church of Christ’s General Minister and President, I expect to be fully engaged in all of that I have mentioned above. In so doing, I know I will not be alone. I am sure there will be opportunities for partnership in mission and ministry with ecumenical partners. No doubt, there will be opportunities for dialogue and constructive engagement with leaders and people from other faith traditions and who possess other belief systems. Of course, I anticipate working closely with the people of the UCC as we welcome people of no faith or lapsed faith to discover the journey of faith anew as members or fellow travelers in the United Church of Christ. Yes, it is true. I have no illusions, but I am full of hope and faithful expectation.
Geoffrey A. Black is general minister and president-elect of the United Church of Christ.