This weekend our church is getting ready for Kristkindlmarkt (“Christ Child Market"), when we transform our building into a German village complete with beer hall and oompah band to celebrate the coming of Christmas. On top of that, the busyness of the holiday season is in full swing. People are busy this time of year, so why not just throw another commitment log on the ole holiday social calendar fire? On Sunday, December 9, I am being installed as minister at CCCUCC and I hope you can be a part of it. Be warned, however, it’s sort of weird.
A minister’s installation in our denomination is just weird. I keep telling people to think of it like when you buy a new appliance and have it delivered and installed; I’m the clergy equivalent of a new dishwasher! Installation is carried over from denominations that control where their clergy go and when—it’s not official until the hierarchy makes it official. We don’t have a hierarchy in our denomination, but the larger church does play a role. Our local association (the UCC churches in western MO) is the body that makes sure I am in good standing as a UCC minister and it represents the broader church, so part of the reason we have an installation service is for the church beyond the local congregation to offer its blessing.
All this is also a bit weird, because technically a local congregation can hire whomever it wants as a minister without the approval of the denomination. There is no bishop to check with. When a local church does so, however, it forgoes any kind of accountability—on the part of the minister or the local church. When all things operate as they should, the process of a church searching for and calling a minister should include the denomination offering support in discernment and a means of ensuring candidates are qualified and healthy enough to be a minister. I spent the last five and a half years in our sister denomination the Disciples of Christ. I was shocked to learn that none other than Jim Jones of The Peoples Temple was a DOCminister. Back then they had no mechanism to remove his standing as a minister. Perhaps there’s no way to ensure every minister is a healthy one, but accountability still matters in a healthy church system.
The installation of a UCC minister is still weirder because of the times we live in. Organized religion has far less relevance today than even a generation ago, and Christian denominations are dying. Everywhere you look there are church bureaucracies downsizing, cutting staff and selling property. (A friend of mine recently compared them toTwinkies—everybody knows them but not too many people eat them any more; which is why Hostess is going out of business.) Local churches have plenty of other options for education, training and missions besides their denominations. Furthermore, many church officials still don’t seem to get the hard truth that denominations were created to serve the local congregations and not the other way around. Many self-important religious officials are reaping what they have sown from having understood their roles as corporation presidents instead of servants. Finally, given the fact that people no longer look for a local church by denomination but instead according to whether it suits their particular tastes and needs, a question worth asking is do we even need denominations any more?
I would answer that we don’t need many denominations that exist, but we do need the United Church of Christ. Perhaps we don’t need everything in the UCC’s structure, especially parts designed for the Mad Men era, but we need a national church voice that will stand up for social justice, inclusion of LGBT people and freedom of belief in our increasingly pluralistic world. I gave my heart away to the Baptist denomination in which I was raised and ended up with a broken heart. I learned to give my heart only to God and not to an institution. That being said, however, the UCC accepted me when I was looking for a form of Christianity that would allow me to be the kind of minister I felt called to be. I am grateful for that. I am likewise grateful to serve a church like CCCUCC which has accepted so many who were unwelcome in other churches. That inclusion and that voice for justice are what we will celebrate at my installation. This event will not be a mere bureaucratic hoop or quaint tradition. Instead, we will celebrate a relationship between our local church and the wider church that declares, “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
Grace and Peace,