Saturday, June 8, 2013

Recharging with the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ

You probably haven't noticed, but I've been gone the past couple days to Ames, IA, to participate in Recharge 2013, a conference for leaders and members within the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ. Have you ever hung out with a bunch of church leaders where they let down their hair? It's always fun to watch!

In past years, these annual events would split their time between business and budgeting with fellowship, worship, and workshops. This year they cut out most of the business and focused instead on fellowship, worship, and workshops. This is the description of this weekend's Recharge conference:

Welcome to a new way of gathering in the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ. Welcome to Recharge: 20 hours of worship, learning, conversation and connection.

· Recharge yourself and your congregation’s ministries at 27 different workshop opportunities

· Recharge in prayer and song and a festival worship celebration

· Recharge in conversations with UCC General Minister and President Geoffrey Black, with Conference Minister Rich Pleva, and others who offer the Iowa Conference their gifts of leadership.

· Recharge with connections – among the women of the Iowa Conference, among our emerging leaders, among friends old and new.

· Recharge in the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, who gathers and gifts the people of God.
I went to five different workshops yesterday and today. Unfortunately, I didn't think over my choices very carefully when I had originally signed up for the conference. As a result, the two afternoon workshops were pretty much duplicates to other workshops, which wasn't terribly exciting. Live and learn, eh?

I went to two different workshops to learn more about a new local UCC start-up church called Journey Church. It'll be church for the rest of us. "Us" being relative, since I already have a church, but who knows where life will lead me? It's an interesting concept. It'll be a relational church community without an actual church. Instead, the plan is to open and operate a coffee shop. They'll sell coffee and use the property to host small groups and deconstructed worship events. I'm curious to see where Journey Church will be 12 months from now.

I also met Rev. Geoffrey Black, the UCC's General Minister and President. He shared some of his life and faith experiences and also related some of the challenges and excitement facing the denomination in the months to come. Rev. Black also helped lead worship for us earlier this afternoon along with the rest of the Iowa Conference ministers.

I went to a workshop earlier today on being more aware of the issues and barriers faced within the church by those with disabilities -- physical disabilities as well as mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities.
Lastly, I attended a workshop about becoming Open and Affirming (ONA) churches in the UCC. My church has been an ONA church for nearly 20 years. That process predates my involvement with Faith UCC by a few years. I'm not sure that I learned much about the process of becoming ONA, but hopefully I helped some of the others with a few pieces of insight:

1. Don't worry about being labeled as the "gay church." The label will eventually fade.

2. When discussing why one's church becomes ONA, don't focus on negative things all the time (i.e., bullying, LGBT folks feeling rejected by other churches, families of LGBT folks feeling rejected by other churches, etc.). There are positives too. Churches should consider that LGBT people have gifts that can benefit UCC churches -- leadership gifts, fellowship gifts, musical gifts, creative gifts, emotional gifts, monetary gifts, inspirational gifts, etc. This can (and should) be a positive thing!

A lesbian sitting next to me also pointed out that getting onto the official ONA list is important. It helps LGBT people find your church. We know how to search the Internet for safe worship spaces. If we don't find your church on the list, we will find safe space with another church who was comfortable enough to get onto the ONA list.

I was checking out the Iowa Conference Facebook page and found lots of pictures, including the following pics featuring me! Check these out:

This first picture was the group of us listening to the financial state of the Iowa Conference of the UCC. Like many other mainline denominations, we are struggling. This struggle means that have to lay off one of their conference ministers. But it also gives the Conference board and staff the opportunity to re-look at where they are investing their time, energy, and money and refocus. That can be scary, but it's also a good thing!

By the way, can't see me in the crowd. I'm the guy in the black shirt who's wearing glasses. The bald guy sitting next to me is our interim pastor, Rev. Loffer.

After the discussion between Rev. Black and Conference Minister Rich Pleva, the whole bunch of us circled Rev. Black and laid hands on him to honor and celebrate his mission and leadership within the UCC.  I am immediately behind Rev. Black. You can't see me, but you can see my hand on his back.

Lastly, here is a pic of me at my second workshop on UCC church start-ups. I have no idea what I'm talking about, but I'm sure it was important -- and possibly witty!

I wrote up a bunch of suggestions for next year's annual conference, including workshops on economic justice, evangelism, online ministries, and non-traditional church fundraising suggestions. I also suggested that they invite some interesting people from the national UCC office, such as Charlene Smith and Edie Rasell. I also suggested some folks who are not likely to be within our budget -- but I'd like to meet them! Those folks are Jay Bakker and Shane Claibourne. If you don't ask, you don't know. Right? Of course, I forgot to turn in the sheet, so I'll have to scan it later and email it to their office.

All in all, it was a good program despite a handful of missteps of my own. I'm likely to return for next year's conference and hopefully will learn even more about the United Church of Christ and its various ministries.

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