UCC President Nominee Calls for Letting Go of Certainty

UCC President Nominee Calls for Letting Go of Certainty

In her keynote address to the 4th Annual Meeting of the Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ General Minister nominee the Rev. Dr. Karen Georgia Thompson acknowledged the Conference's newness, and laid out three elements that she said were important for the Conference - and the church as a whole - to move into the future. 

First, she said, was innovation and risk.

"The past four years brought surprises and changes none of us could have ever planned for or imagined," she said.  "It would be challenging to ponder the last four years and not talk about COVID-19, and the many pandemics experienced in the world. We named racism a pandemic, along with the escalating violence and injustices evidenced in our communities and around the world."

"And yet, as these events played out among us, we did not lose hope. Instead, we pivoted," she said. "The doors of the church, which were shuttered like those of so many other places to accommodate the protocols for gathering, re-opened online in a nontraditional way. Churches had long been livestreaming worship. The response to the pandemic pushed the church to look at online worship, which is beyond streaming, and incorporate a level of interactivity that was not expected or experienced before. Audiences grew, some of those in the realm of those who chose to view worship during the week rather than on Sundays. The metrics changed too. We were no longer tabulating members form Sunday morning attendance. Notice was paid to viewership, and when people were watching the content that was living online."

The Southern New England Conference itself, she pointed out, is a product of innovation and risk. 

"You , like the United Church of Christ, was birthed by those who declared it would be best to let go of the prevailing models of Conference ministry and create something different," she said. "There are kinks to be worked out, I’m sure. Shifts to be made, and work to be done. All of this is framed in the possibilities of what is yet to come."

"What does it mean for you to continue the innovation we have seen in the last four years here in the Conference?  In the adaptations to COVID-19? In the emergence of this new Conference and in the ways we understand church?" she asked. "If we say we want to be innovative and live into something new, we have to take risk. We must take risk."

"The truth in all of this is most of us want certainty. We want to know how things are going to turn out, we want to know how the end is going to be. If you’re like me, I stand in the bookstore and read the last two pages because I want to know how the book ends," she said to laughter. "But there are no cheats in what happens in the end of the risks that we take. I believe that certainty is one of the things that stands in the way of deeper relationship with God and the movement of the spirit needed among us to roll the stone away."

"Risk and innovation require living with uncertainty, rather than holding on to the certainty of what we know, and I want to say, to what we think we know," she said. "Certainty is a barrier to more expansive living and deeper spiritual wellness and living. We are invited to trust God and to walk in faith. We live in a time where we want to know all the positive and negatives, we want to deeply explore our options before we make commitments, and we want to diminish our uncertainties. Perhaps too it is that we want to diminish the fears that come with living. We have too much at stake. Ours is an unscripted journey – one that invites us to embrace innovation and risk as we open wider the doors of the church."
The second thing, Rev. Dr. Thompson said, is creativity and new life. 

"You are a young Conference, growing out of the years of experience of the historical conferences. They inform who you are, however, you are no longer the Connecticut Conference, the Massachusetts Conference, the Rhode Island Conference," she said. "You are living into and creating something new that informs mission in southern New England today and in the years to come. What are you willing to create? What do you want to see present among you? What are you willing to surrender in order to create something new?"

"The work of the historic conferences is to be applauded. Those accomplishments are not going away," she said. "But what will you do with this new thing that you are? And what else is there that needs to be released, let go, surrendered, put behind, as you look to the time that lies ahead of you?  We tend to hold on to things well past their shelf lives and wait until things are lacking life before we release them. We call it nostalgia. We long for the good old days, when."

Rev. Dr. Thompson said that people have for years been talking about creating the "church of the 21st Century." 

"We are here," she said. "This is it. What do we have to show for the first quarter of this 21st Century that was visioned with great anticipation?"
Rev. Dr. Karen Georgia Thompson
"We have talked about the possibilities and yet we continue to hold on to old models and old ways. We sit and watch things die and cannot find our way to the newness that wants to emerge out of those places," she said. "We are the children of the resurrection. To roll the stone away is to see signs of the resurrection. The tomb is empty. What do we make of this new thing? The innovation and risk we need to take requires that our institutional machinations be left behind."

"Currently, people are disaffiliating from the church in record numbers and from religious institutions at a very high rate," she said. "While this is true, they continue to seek ways to explore their spirituality. What does this mean for us as church? What are the possibilities for our churches? Are we hearing the yearnings and longings of people who want to live out compassion and justice? Are we willing to create new communities that make room for those who want to know God but may need to do so beyond Sunday morning?"

"I’m sure there are things that you loved about your historic conferences," she said. "Many of you grew up in these conferences and have had to watch them die. They no longer exist. The pain and the grief and the loss are real. As you move into what is next, it is about letting go and allowing new life to spring up. This is your season. This is your springtime. Be present in naming the loss and in continuing to do the work to make way for resurrection and new life through the power of the holy spirit."

The third element Thompson named was collaboration and togetherness.

She recalled her time working as the minister for disaster response and recovery following the devastating hurricane season of 2004 and 2005. The work that was done rebuilding homes was ecumenical and interfaith, she said, because no one denomination or organization could do it alone. 

"You are a part of something greater than yourselves," she said. "You are a part of the United Church of Christ, in covenant with the national settings and the other conferences. You are part of the body of Christ bringing the love of Christ to a world in need of change and justice."

"You do not do this journey alone," she said.



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Tiffany Vail

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

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