How Diverse Is the United Church of Christ?

Some years ago, when I was serving a church in the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC), I attended a pastors’ retreat where I heard one of our Associate Conference Ministers, the Rev. Beth Kennett, suggest during a lunch table conversation that the problem with the UCC is that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a liberal church or a diverse church. I have often thought about Beth’s words, and I have often recited them to others. More recently, I have wondered about their validity: Is the UCC really diverse? Is the United Church of Christ liberal (or Progressive)? Just how diverse and how liberal? As it turns out, the answer is complicated; it depends partly on how you think about diversity.

On the one hand, the UCC claims to be a diverse church—and most of us can agree that it is diverse, in at least four ways.

(1.) The UCC is diverse insofar as it advocates and works for social, racial, and economic justice, and embraces the poor, the LGBTQ community, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other historically disenfranchised and oppressed populations and groups.

(2.) The United Church of Christ extends “a radical welcome” to all who come through the doors of its churches, institutions, and denominational offices: first-time visitors and forty-year members; the young and the old; atheists, doubters, non-Christians, and true believers; gays and straights; people of color as well as White people; the poor and the rich; people of disability and those who consider themselves able; and saints and sinners. UCC churches do not restrict participation, membership, Christ’s Table, or the rites of the church only to the “saved.” As the banner outside our church building puts it, “Jesus didn’t reject people—neither do we.”

(3.) The National Church in Cleveland models diversity by inviting a broad cross-section of Christian denominations, groups, and churches into its inclusive fellowship. It enjoys full communion with its ecumenical partner, the Disciples of Christ, and through formula of agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Canada. In addition, the UCC is in discussion to establish full communion relationships with nine other Protestant and Anglican denominations.

(4.) The United Church of Christ is diverse in the sense that UCC churches are all very different from one another. There are Congregational UCC churches and Christian UCC churches. There are Evangelical and Reformed UCC congregations. There are White UCC churches, Black UCC churches, Hispanic UCC churches, and Native American UCC churches. There are Calvin Synod congregations, and Pacific Islander congregations. In addition, there are big-city UCC churches and rural UCC churches. There are big congregations and small congregations. There are Liberal (or Progressive) UCC churches and Conservative UCC churches. Each congregation has its own unique colors, textures, flavors, languages, and traditions, but the UCC welcomes them all into its expansive fold, and it tries to encourage them in their service to God and humanity, and in their continuing involvement with the denomination.

We may note parenthetically that many of these examples of diversity are not exclusive to the United Church of Christ. Almost every Liberal, Progressive, or Mainline Protestant denomination—and certainly the Roman Catholic Church—can say that it works for social, racial, and economic justice, and is welcoming to gays and people of color. And every denomination that has numerous churches (including the Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptist Convention!) can lay claim to the demographic diversity described in paragraph (4.). But UCC ecumenicity, highlighted above in paragraph (3.), is a genuine and undeniable United Church of Christ distinctive. No other denomination enjoys full communion with so many ecumenical partners. The United Church of Christ takes the “United” in its name seriously; following the teaching of Jesus (“That they may all be one”—John 17:21), it calls itself a United and Uniting church, and its vision can best be summed up in the motto, “In essentials–-unity;  in nonessentials-–diversity;  in all things–-charity.” As the UCC website notes, “Love and unity in the midst of our diversity are our greatest assets.”

On the other hand, despite these amazing manifestations of ecumenism and Progressive consciousness, when we look at the demographics of individual congregations, we see that far too many UCC churches are not very diverse. Indeed, many UCC congregations (including churches in racially-mixed urban communities) are monocultural: many if not most White churches are totally White, a lot of Black churches are almost entirely Black, and so forth. In addition, the median age of UCC congregants seems to be about 60, and their median hair color seems to be about…gray.  I hasten to add that there are many notable and glorious exceptions to this pattern—multicultural churches that sparkle with genuine social, economic, and theological diversity—but still, too often and in too many churches, we see more homogeneity than diversity.

Indeed, some UCC congregants, leaders, and pastors—particularly in small, rural, and conservative churches—are almost Evangelical in their theology and preferred worship style, and say that they feel uncomfortable with the United Church of Christ’s support of “gay marriage” and LGBTQ rights, its use of gender-neutral language in worship, its unwavering embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement, and its advocacy on behalf of other social justice issues.

To be sure, these are United Church of Christ people and churches—and we in the UCC try to demonstrate our diversity and inclusivity by the way we welcome these folks and congregations with open arms, and include them in our fellowship.  Even so, many of us hope that over time they will become more accepting, more progressive…and more like the UCC itself.

I believe that the United Church of Christ is neither as diverse nor as liberal as we like to think it is. I also believe that what many UCC people want most of all is for our Church to become more liberal (or progressive).

I do suspect that the acid test of our diversity as individual UCC congregants, pastors and leaders, and as a denomination, is in our hiring and employment practices at the National and Conference levels.  As I said, we spend a good deal of time and significant resources reassuring small, rural, and/or Conservative UCC churches that they have a home in, and are valued members of, our denomination—regardless of whether or not they become Open and Affirming (a UCC term designating LGBTQ-friendly congregations that welcome gay people into all phases of their ministry and service, including ordained pastoral leadership), because the United Church of Christ is diverse, and it welcomes all sorts of churches, theologies, and practices into its fellowship.  And we are sincere in offering them that reassurance.

Yet I wonder.  When the National Church and the Conferences engage in search processes to fill vacant staff positions, how many of the leaders (ordained and non-ordained women and men) who are eventually called or hired for such ministries and offices do you suppose are theologically conservative or Evangelical, embrace pro-life positions, are homophobic, and/or fly the Confederate flag on their porches?  You would probably be correct if you guessed zero, nada, zilch, no one.

You would not even be looked at, let alone called or hired for a National or Conference-level position in the United Church of Christ, if you were theologically conservative, or did not support our denomination’s commitment to social, racial, and economic justice, or did not embrace an open and affirming position.

And that is as it should be. A person who holds such views may be a leader in a small rural UCC church, but she or he cannot—and should not—work in the National “Church House” in Cleveland, or serve on a Conference Staff.

Indeed, under certain circumstances, the presence and involvement of theologically Conservative and Evangelical people in UCC church programs and services can incite controversy.  In their 2007 book, Steeplejacking: How the Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion, Sheldon Culver of the UCC’s Missouri Mid-South Conference, and John Dorhauer, formerly of the Missouri Mid-South Conference and now UCC General Minister and President, chronicled how “conservative renewal groups” affiliated with the Christian right have “infiltrate[d] mainline churches, and stir[red] up dissent” among congregants, “with the goal of taking over the leadership of th[os]e church[es], and ultimately, th[eir] denomination[s].”  Culver and Dorhauer noted pointedly that United Church of Christ congregations have been targeted by such attacks.

I don’t know if the Christian Right is still engaging in this kind of activity in 2016;  Culver and Dorhauer wrote their book ten years ago, and I suspect that mainline churches have gotten a lot smarter since then about not allowing “hostile takeovers” to get started. But I also suspect that the Christian Right’s “steeplejacking” activities were enabled, at least in some cases, by mushy thinking on the part of mainline church leaders about diversity, inclusivity, and toleration. It is one thing when our conversations about diversity are driven by God’s love and the demands of justice, and manifest themselves in efforts to create more multi-cultural, multi-racial, and open and affirming churches; it is quite another thing when leaders attempt, in the name of diversity, to please an entire spectrum of folks, from near-Unitarians to Evangelicals, all of whom happen to attend the same UCC church—or worse, try to mollify and hang on to congregants who have extreme and intolerant beliefs.

We in the United Church of Christ embrace all Christian people. We welcome all Churches and worship traditions into our fellowship. We are diverse in the sense that we want to encourage small, rural, and conservative UCC churches to stay in our denomination, to get involved with their sister UCC churches, and to acquire Christ’s passion for inclusion—for embracing and serving “the least of these” in the world. But we do not welcome or embrace sectarian prejudices and racist, homophobic, and exclusionary theologies.

I would never advise a rural, conservative UCC church to leave our denomination. I would never tell someone with Conservative or Evangelical beliefs that she or he should not attend or join a UCC church. And I would never discourage someone who did not have Liberal or Progressive theological and social values from applying for a ministry position in Cleveland, at the Conference setting, or at a local UCC church.

But why would a Conservative or Evangelical church that is unhappy with our denomination want to stay in the UCC? And why would an individual who thinks that the United Church of Christ is unacceptably liberal want to attend or pastor a UCC church (let alone join the staff of a United Church of Christ Conference or work in the “Church House” in Cleveland)?

This is not a matter of excluding anyone, or of being intolerant of Conservative churches, leaders, or congregants.  It’s just that people need to be happy with their church and denominational affiliations—or else, they should make whatever changes are necessary in order to become happy.  Life is too short to do otherwise.

 

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Chris Xenakis

Chris Xenakis is a pastor, an adjunct lecturer in political science, an old school black and white photographer, and a sometime amateur actor.

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