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What I Saw at the UCC Synod

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Today, we welcome guest blogger, Phyllis Palsma, a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America.  She currently serves as contract minister during the interim at Old Paramus Reformed Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey.  Recently, in her role as Executive Council member and Ecumenical guest,  she represented the RCA at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, in Long Beach, California.

When the Reformed Church in America General Synod delegates made their way home from Iowa this past June, I flew to the 29th General Synod of the United Church of Christ. It was part church business, part family reunion, part social action rally, part worship, and part convention. As the RCA Formula of Agreement representative to the executive council, my term ended  in Long Beach, California.

844 delegates, 2019 guests and visitors and 453 volunteers gathered at the Long Beach Convention Center. Several hundred more came to Sunday worship. Hundreds of dozens of home-baked cookies, passed up and down tables, were consumed by a synod committed to healthy eating.

Through the UCC version of “Dutch Bingo” I discovered an RCA-in-exile. I met RCA ministers serving in UCC congregations and UCC ministers who used to be RCA. Geographic relocations led former RCA members to a UCC home. Others found much-needed healing and acceptance in the UCC.   When one speaker quoted Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer #1 from the podium, I felt very much at home.

Each day, delegates draped hand-knitted rainbow colored scarves over their shoulders to signify their pledge to fight bullying of all kinds, but especially to stand up for LGTBQ teens.

Worship was creative and innovative. Samoans wearing native dress danced communion bread to the table. We held our breath as an aerialist gripped a suspended stream of red fabric while dancing in the air to “Joyful, Joyful we Adore Thee.”  A few 30-something ministers muttered about the absence of a prayer of confession.  Yes, the UCC has those who stand up for total depravity.

A parade of pastors and leaders from new church starts and from seasoned congregations that found an “extravagant welcome” in a new denomination demonstrated that after years of turmoil, the UCC is finding new footing and growth.

Vendors gave away free stuff  (Chocolates! Pens! Magnets!) in an exhibit hall that rivaled the Iowa State Fair Varied Industries building.  Tie-dyed tee shirts imprinted with “It’s Just Love” were best sellers.

Birthed in 1957 with the merger of the Congregational Christian and Evangelical and German Reformed churches, the UCC’s strong advocacy on social justice issues is almost legendary. How refreshing for social justice concerns to dominate the agenda.  Delegates really talked about divestment of fossil fuel companies and then voted to do that. Desmond Tutu sent the synod a congratulatory email after he learned of that decision.

Earnest discussion and debate focused on the status of women in society, tax reform, immigration reform, financial support for seminary students (backed up with a synod offering), mountaintop removal coal mining, racism, discrimination, and denominational restructure.  An outdoor rally in celebration of the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA affirmed the church’s position on gay marriage. Delegates and speakers lamented the ruling on voting rights.

Deep commitment to advocacy and justice matters was and is inspiring.  I hope for critical thinking about gospel justice and advocacy at any RCA General Synod.  In Long Beach, as discussions wound up and down, I marveled at the impassioned advocacy. Yet, my RCA yen for a solid biblical foundation kicked in. Sometimes I yearned to hear a word of scripture or more of the theological premise behind a passionate speech.

With a decision to change denominational structure, the UCC shifted from an executive council and committees encompassing over 200 people to a single church board with 50-some people.  It took a few years and lots of church-wide conversation.  It was celebrated with liturgy and the passing of leis from out-going council members to new board members.  Would that more significant change in the church was marked with prayer, song, scripture and symbolic mantel-passing.

The RCA general synod might benefit from a couple of UCC practices. One is the “Speak Out,” an orderly open-microphone time before plenary sessions when delegates may share what’s on their mind and heart.  We heard about newly published books, mission projects, fundraisers, and church anniversaries, gatherings at a park or local pub, and a menu of prayer requests.

A second practice is “theological reflection.”  Imagine!  At the end of each plenary, two ministers reflected on the business and events of the day.  It was thoughtful, creative, biblical, and reminded that this is God’s work, not ours alone.

Hanging in my study back in New Jersey is a hand-knitted rainbow colored scarf. It symbolizes the anti-bullying pledge and is also a warm reminder that the church of Jesus Christ is made of many strands, knit together with God’s grace, love, peace, and vision. Making friends in other denominations and crossing church boundaries to attend each other’s meetings is part of that knitting process. After all, Jesus prayed “That They May All Be One.” 

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

4 Comments

  • Dennis Kellermeierdkellermei says:

    Phyllis, Thanks so much for your observations and insights.

  • Jes says:

    This is beautiful, Phyllis. Thanks for representing us and for giving us a glimpse into the life of our sister and brothers in the UCC. Love hearing about what the Spirit of God is doing through our family in Christ!

  • Jes says:

    I also love your reference to the RCA Orlando gathering — "Stand up for Total Depravity" Amen.

  • Mark says:

    No sin to repent. No gospel to save. Christ came to take the capital offense for such sin. And such were some of us Paul says to the Corinthians (ICor 6). Remove the offense and eliminate the gospels hope becoming the most unloving of people. True love brings the gospels hope.

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