Annual Meeting Speakers Encourage Churches to Embrace Who They Are Today

Annual Meeting Speakers Encourage Churches to Embrace Who They Are Today

The Third Annual Meeting of the Southern New England Conference - held June 18 online - focused on how the churches of the Conference might build on the foundation of their forebears by embracing who they are in these new times, finding relevance in their communities in ways that are transforming and transformative.
Rev. Dr. Patrick Duggan, Executive Director of the Church Building & Loan Fund, shares the story of the St. Peter's United Church of Christ in Louisville, Kentucky.  See the video recording in the Annual Meeting showcase
In his keynote address, the Rev. Dr. Patrick Duggan, Executive Director of the Church Building & Loan Fund, shared examples of exciting ways United Church of Christ congregations are rethinking the use of their properties in order to better serve as mission centers. But first, he outlined the difficult times many churches are finding themselves in.

"You've seen the graphs. One in three practicing Christians has stopped attending church during COVID-19. The news is all over the place," he said. "And then those of us who haven't been pushed away, our buildings are beautiful, especially in Southern New England, some of the most beautiful historic churches, but the costs are so high. They're hard to be in. You can't do anything with them. They're hard to repurpose. They're hard to heat or cool or renovate. We need a change. The change is not so much the buildings. It's our thinking ... We need to co-create God's new thing."

"We are Easter people, and we have to live into the reality that the church is in a Good Friday season," Rev. Duggan said. "I love that term, Good Friday. Because it is a day of mourning. It is a day of death, but it's still called Good Friday. and we know why ...  it's good because of what came after. So we need to stop the whispering and the worrying and the mourning and the news and looking at the latest decline statistics."

"It's important that we stop pretending about death.  Maybe we should embrace who we are today and go forward from that premise with honesty. And so how do we do that? How do we live into the reality? Well, it really is about being who we are. We have to think in terms of first: keeping it mission focused. Because the thing that will rally us to turn around our ministries, our congregations, our communities, is to focus on who we are," he said.

Rev. Duggan referred to the gospels, saying Jesus laid out an array of ideas in his earthly ministry, ideas that can help churches think about how they can engage in sustainable mission-focused business practices.

"When we enter into these entrepreneurial ministries, basically we look at a problem, we go after it without any fear of breaking tradition or going against the grain, but with the idea that if we are just so tied into our mission, that we love it, and we want to do everything to accomplish it, than we will have mission-focused business models," he said.

Rev. Duggan went on to give examples of churches that have engaged with clothing, food, water, healthcare and prison ministries in their communities. (See his Powerpoint presentation.) One in particular he talked about was at St. Peter's United Church of Christ in Louisville, Kentucky. The church, with 50 members, initially approached the UCC Building & Loan Fund for help in renovating their 1890s stone church, repairs that would have cost $10 million. Instead, they ended up working with the Fund to build a mixed-use facility next door to the church that is housing businesses that serve the community: a restaurant, a health clinic, a credit union, a daycare center. 

"These businesses, most of them are minority and women led. And through this development, the congregation has accomplished a few things. One, they were able to transform the community around them. Two, they were able to create 100 jobs for community residents. Three, they now have about $75,000 in revenue that they get from their fully leased property. And lastly, they are now on phase two of the project, which is to redevelop the church building," he said.

Preaching in the closing worship service, Rev. Darrell Goodwin, Executive Conference Minister, amplified what Rev. Duggan had introduced.

"So much of what Rev. Dr. Patrick Duggin presented today was an invitation for us to be relevant today. For us to use the missional resources and assets we have to ask: how are we engaging in our locales? How are we ministering in the towns in which we find ourselves?" Rev. Goodwin said. "Maybe that means that to be relevant we are the yoga studio. Maybe that means that we are the food bank. Maybe that means that we are the safe shelter in the midst of the wind and the storm. Maybe it means that our very church, as one of our churches has done, gifts their building back to the town so that it becomes the town hall of the town. And then the church will worship there in perpetuity for as long as it exists. These are the ways in which today, in 2022, we might continue to be relevant as the church."
Darrell Goodwin
Rev. Darrell Goodwin, Executive Conference Minister, gives the sermon from the First Congregational Church UCC in Wellfleet, MA.  See the video recording in the Annual Meeting showcase
Rev. Goodwin issued what he called three invitations to congregations, the first urging them to be relevant.

"The next invitation is for us to be transformed and to be transformative. The being transformed means we are going to do some evangelism," he said. "That means we're going to go share the good news of what God is doing in the congregational churches of Southern New England. It means that we will not be quiet about the ways in which we stand for justice; the ways in which we stand for an inclusive and open and affirming understanding of God; the ways in which we will come against things like war; the ways in which we will proclaim that we need sensible gun laws in this country; the ways in which we will declare that it is not somehow sinful for a transgender child to be raised in a loving environment by their parents even if certain governors choose to say the opposite. We will speak the truth of the good news. And my friends when you share the good news, I am persuaded that it truly will transform you."

Rev. Goodin went on to say that if our churches do this work, they will become known - as the church providing affordable day care, or that handed out masks and provided tests during the pandemic, or that helped to provide affordable housing. 

"And then the last boldness my friends is to be prophetic. Being prophetic means celebrating like some of our churches who just in the past few months decided after over hundreds of years of worshipping independently, they might come together and merge and form a new partnership as their new church together," he said. "Or others of our churches who have discerned that during this time period, after hundreds of years of ministry, they have done everything the Holy Spirit has called them to do for such a time as this. And now they will resurrect in a different way. They'll resurrect through scholarships for seminarians, they'll resurrect through new church starts that are burgeoning in their midst. They will resurrect in giving funds, like the Greenfield fund, who's helping our churches discern what is going to happen next."

"The foundation we are creating now will be the foundation that will hopefully exist for hundreds of years to come," he said. "It will be a foundation built on radical inclusivity, a foundation built on extravagant welcome, a foundation built knowing that what we are building is not just for us, but it's for all of God's children."

Recordings from the meeting, and other materials, can be found online here.


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Tiffany Vail

Tiffany Vail is the Director of Media & Communications for the Southern New England Conference.

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