By Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane
Something unexpected has happened in the South over the past decade, and the Massachusetts Conference is partly responsible.
When first organized in 1966, the Southeast Conference comprised churches in 10 associations, the largest of which at that time was the East Alabama-West Georgia Association. The congregations of that Association were of the Christian tradition – rural or small town and exclusively white. Because the formation of the Southeast Conference effectively meant the integration of Congregational churches in this region – at the height of the civil rights era – many of the Christian churches opted to leave the Association and the newly organized UCC in the South. This trend continued during the following decades.
The Rev. Dr. Timothy C. Downs, recently retired Conference Minister of the Southeast Conference UCC, explained: “The peace movement, advocacy for the rights of women in both pew and pulpit, and the increasing advocacy for the rights of LGBT folk increased the distance between the denomination and churches of the East Alabama-West Georgia Association. And then, finally, the action of the General Synod held in Atlanta in 2005 to pass a resolution supporting marriage equality triggered a final exodus of churches that left only three congregations in that Association.”
That sounds grim. But surprisingly, the number of members of the Southeast Conference has doubled over the last decade.
“If it wasn’t for a new strategy and partners who helped us spiritually and financially, we would not have survived,” Downs said.
That strategy was inspired by the God is Still Speaking campaign, which began in 2004, and was made possible in part by a grant given by the Massachusetts Conference to the Southeast Conference as part of The Gift and The Promise Capital Campaign of the late 1990s.
“Early in my time, the members of the Massachusetts Conference gave us a gift of $150,000 from their capital campaign for new church development,” said Downs. “Former Massachusetts Conference Minister and President Bennie Whiten delivered it in person and preached at our annual meeting. This gift was a key part of making it possible to initiate a new church development program that has changed the face of the UCC in the South.”
Downs wanted to capture the energy of the God is Still Speaking (GiSS) campaign – which was gathering amazing attention in the South – and create a new church strategy that would focus on serving the growing and identifiable need for progressive, social justice-minded congregations. There was a clamor from people who were searching the UCC website for GISS-focused churches and were not able to find them in the Southeast states. The Massachusetts Conference support, coupled with funding from a Chicago church and others, helped the Southeast Conference build 15 new congregations. “More importantly,” Downs said, “many of these new congregations were predominantly feminist or LGBT – in a geographic location where it is not easy to be feminist, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgender.”
Around the same time, several established non-UCC churches in the Southeast Conference area who were ‘gay-friendly’ were asked to leave their own conservative affiliations. Again with the financial help of the Massachusetts Conference, the Southeast Conference was able to welcome into the UCC 11 of those churches which were from non-denominational, Southern Baptist and Pentecostal backgrounds, as well as other traditions.
Over the past decade, the Southeast Conference has continued to concentrate on building churches who value Christian unity, celebrate diversity, and proclaim a Gospel of justice and welcome to all. Sometimes those churches do not include buildings at all. “We have gone beyond starting traditional physical churches, and we are now growing experimental congregations,” said Downs.
One church, started in a coffee shop by a female pastor and her female partner, has grown to 150 people and they are now looking for more room. Another church is devoted to mission work, so they do not put their funds into a physical plant but instead worship in a Unitarian church; their worship numbers have now surpassed their host congregation. A third church does their work online, utilizing Facebook, Twitter, and websites to evangelize and attract new members. On the other end of the spectrum, as a result of being able to welcome the disaffiliated, the Southeast Conference also took in their first-ever mega-church, a traditional African-American church with 6,000 members.
“There are very few Conferences that can say they doubled in size over the past ten years, and increased their OCWM by 60%,” said Downs, who believes that these trends signal the growth of the urban and suburban South and the search on the part of many for an alternative Christian voice among the churches of the South. Downs believes that these well-developed strategies of new church development, hospitality to churches seeking affiliation with the United Church of Christ, and the vitality and growth of existing churches, are the reasons that well over half the Southeast Conference churches have become members of the UCC in just the last decade.
“UCC Conferences were extraordinarily generous with their prayers and support – financial and otherwise – during our most dire times. And one of the leading conferences in that regard was Massachusetts,” Downs said in an email to current Massachusetts Conference Minister and President Jim Antal. “So, my friend, please let your board and Conference know of my deep gratitude to them for their generosity, and add, please, that it warms my heart that the conference in which I began ministry in 1974 in Lowell, was the one that stepped up first in covenant with us.”
“A majority of the members in the Southeast now are a direct result of the Massachusetts Conference funding and support then,” he said. “The impact of that gift was stronger than anyone had imagined.”