As the Southwest Conference:
We are extravagantly welcoming and affirming followers of Christ, called to embody God's unconditional justice and love.
I want to ask you all to think and pray very hard over that sentence.
I want to invite you all into a process of deep discernment over that sentence.
I want you all to participate in a dialogue about what the shared vision and mission of this Conference is, and whether or not that sentence captures that. As we come to the close of this year in which we were invited to discern the movement of God's Holy Spirit, I invite you to reflect on the power of those words.
But, before you do that, let me share with you how those words have come to us.
The Board of Directors made a strong commitment during this annum (which for us is April '09 - April '10) to identify and commit to a shared mission and vision for the Southwest Conference. And it has taken us almost the entire year to come close to that happening.
Key leaders met in the early summer months to build a year-long strategy for this. One of the results of that was a search for someone who could get us started down the right path. Beth Mohr, who works in the City Manager's Office in Albuquerque, and is a member of First Congregational there, was identified and interviewed. She spent a full day with the Board of Directors in the early fall helping us to learn a technique that has proven to be very helpful: Outcomes Directed Thinking.
While undergoing that training, we were able to articulate what we felt were the essential tasks of the Southwest Conference:
The Care and Oversight of All Authorized Clergy and Congregations
Building and Maintaining Vital Relationship Between Missional and Covenant Partners
I will pause here. There is a third essential task, but I need to talk about each of these before we move on to the third one.
These are broad categories that cover a wide array of smaller tasks that take of the life and time, the energy and resources, of the Conference leaders and staff. For example, when talking about care of clergy and churches, we think about the work of CoCAM and about Search and Call facilitation.
The vocabulary in the second item is important. In order to undertake the mission and ministry of the Southwest Conference, we have to build and maintain relationships. That is critical, and has been the single focus of my early ministry. There will never be a time when I serve among you that this will not be the case. Relationships are the sine qua non not just of Conference ministry, but of all effective ministry. Covenant is a term that refers to those partners that have their primary identification through the United Church of Christ. These would include all of our local churches, Associations, Conferences, CHISM agencies, National bodies, etc. Missional is a term that refers to those bodies outside of the UCC that we would rely on for resourcing, networking, and facilitating our shared mission. These might include government agencies, not-for-profits, ecumenical and inter-faith partners, or a whole host of others.
And now the third major task:
Encouraging local church discernment & participation in shared vision
About that last task: it is the one that most excites us. We know that those first two tasks are all about the maintenance of the Church and the Conference - important work, to be sure. But so much is changing so fast, and the Spirit is engaging the church is very enlivening ways. We want to be faithful partners with the Spirit and full participants in the shaping of the church that is emerging.
Ok. Let's take a deep breath. That's a lot to absorb - and very important work.
But we are far from the finish line on this.
After the Board did that work, it did two more things. It paused, and came back late in '09 to test with each other whether or not these were good decisions. They felt strongly that they were. After the pause, the Board decided it was time to focus all of this, and all of our future work together, around a single and shared vision and mission.
It was a mere two weeks ago that the Board met to do that last piece. On retreat together, the Board spent time in worship and discernment. We had a long conversation about what our shared values and non-negotiables were. In other words, as we proceed with whatever changes the Spirit may be coming, are there things that, under no circumstances, will be sacrificed.
On that list were the following: commitments to justice, peace, diversity, unity, to radical hospitality and extravagant welcome; a call to be open and affirming; the health and vitality of our churches; the voice of prophetic witness; a polity that acknowledges that God speaks through all, and that the voice of God is always tested in community; the vital role of youth and young adults in the shaping of our mission; courage.
That is not a comprehensive list, but it gives you a good idea about what our firm commitments call us to.
The rest of the time on the retreat was spent inviting the Spirit to share with us a vision and a mission.
Now we return to the top of the page, and that first sentence.
As the Southwest Conference, we are extravagantly welcoming and affirming followers of Christ, called to embody the unconditional justice and love of God.
As you discern, I invite you into the room and ask you to hear the voices of your called and chosen leaders, who:
Built this statement around two essential phrases, one following the verb "to be" which asks us to claim an identity, and the verb "to call" which asks us to claim a mission
Knew that the acts of both welcoming and AFFIRMING were essential to our identity
Debated long and hard about whether our welcome was extravagant or radical, choosing in the end the word extravagant because of the way it connotes joy and proscribes no limits, and avoiding the word radical because of its unfortunate and recent pairing with the word 'extremist'
Wanted our identity to be fundamentally Christian, and for whom the phrase 'followers of Christ' had more power because of its clear reference to movement, to journeying, to action;
Believed that the call to love and justice fully encapsulated everything that we are called to do in mission
Believed that love and justice emerge from the heart, character, and identity of the God we worship
Believed that love and justice are not things we do, but which we embody, which we take into our core identity - so that what we do emerges from that
Believed that both love and justice are offered without conditions attached
Intentionally placed the word justice after the word unconditional, because most people are accustomed to hearing the phrase 'unconditional love,' and there is something a little jarring about hearing the phrase 'unconditional justice' (in fact, some asked what unconditional justice was, and the reply came "Justice that is not mitigated by what privilege can tolerate at any given time").
Who believe that love and justice are what we are called to embody - and therefore called to offer as gift to all to whom we are sent.
In the same way that your called and chosen leaders have been partnering with the Holy Spirit to discern a true sense of call and mission, I now invite each and every one of you to do the same.
Reflect if you will on these words: We are extravagantly welcoming and affirming followers of Christ, called to embody the unconditional justice and love of God.
Do you feel a sense of call, meaning, and purpose in these words? Do you both feel the impulse of God's Holy Spirit in them, and hear your own call to mission and ministry in them?
Humbly yours in Christ,
Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer
Southwest Conference UCC
" . . . eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." (Eph. 4.3)