SESSION 3 COVENANT AND THE PARTS OF THE UCC
3A) The Ministries of the UCC
Goal: To help the participants understand the various branches of the church’s national and regional settings. While it probably isn’t necessary for everyone to totally understand the structure, each person should be able to grasp that they are part of a local church that is part of an association that is part of a conference. It becomes more confusing when addressing the different branches of the national setting (represented at this time by the General Minister & President as well as the two Associate General Ministers). However, a good sense of the websites should help gain some understanding.
Facilitators: It is important for this section that you have a strong sense of the structure of the UCC. The homework resources should help with that. Most importantly, it is helpful to understand the role you Association and Conference play in the life of the church. This actually varies between Associations and Conferences (a very UCC trait). Take some time to familiarize yourself with the services of both groups (if your congregation is part of both) so that participants will have you as a resource. Do the same with national settings, explaining as you do that each of these entities is independent and speaks to not for the others.
Group Discussion: Remember your scavenger hunt from the video we ended with last time? Did you find information on the various terms you found and wrote down? Let’s go through them now...
Did this give you a sense of what the UCC is about at the national level? What other questions do you still have? Your congregation is also part of an Association of local congregations and part of a larger Conference of local congregations that contains--most likely--a number of associations. What do you know about them?
3B) Covenant: What Binds Us Together
Goal: Covenant is a hard concept to grasp in many ways. We know it when we see or experience it, but words often fail to encompass all that goes into it. The goal in this final section is to get people thinking and talking about what it means to be in covenant and to think of ways to grow and sustain the covenantal relationships in the UCC.
Facilitators: Covenant is a kind of relationship among other kinds. In addition to the reading on the subject, prepare by thinking of other covenantal relationships in your life. Many of us have partners, spouses and close friends, for example, who we have a sort of covenantal relationship with. It is also worthwhile here to consider the role of worship in instituting, maintaining, and restoring covenant. This section, in fact, has two group discussions. The first is more general and the last discussion is about worship in our tradition.
Group Discussion 1
For today you spent some time looking at the various ministries of the United Church of Christ. This can be a confusing process! Because of our Covenantal Polity, each of these ministries is independent of the other. From the General Synod (the biennial convention where delegates meet from all over the UCC) to your local church, each unit speaks to but not for the others. It can feel pretty inefficient at times. However, this ongoing conversation is one of the things that makes the UCC unique. What are the problems with a decentralized system based on relationships like ours? How do we maintain the relationships necessary to remain united?
Based on your reading, what do you think a working definition of covenant would be for you? What role does God play?
Facilitators: Discussion 1 and Discussion 2 might flow into and out of each other. The important thing is to help people pick up God’s presence in our communal life.
Group Discussion 2
Did anyone notice that we have not talked about worship and the sacraments in this course? We are now. In fact, we saved the best for last! In the UCC we recognize two sacraments--Baptism and Communion--each of them has a strong covenantal element to them. So, too, does worship, itself. One of the covenantal relationships we maintain is with each other. Another, of course, is with God. As we close this series, let’s take some time to look at where we find this covenant at work in what we have learned. Where has it been missing in our history or in our polity (how we run ourselves)? Where do we need more of the grace of God in our communal life?
Homework: Next Steps
Yes, there is homework. You and your session-mates constitute an ad hoc committee for what comes next. As a group, take some time to think about what you have learned and what you would like to do with it. Do you want to invite the Conference Minister or Associate Conference Minister to preach at your church? Do you want to participate in the UCC’s Wider Ministries? Do you want to spend more time at the local level? Or do you want to spend more time developing vibrant worship in your congregation that reflects our life together? These are just examples and the sky's the limit. Plan a simple next step and see where it takes you.
SESSION 2: STATEMENT OF FAITH & ACTING IN THE WORLD
2A) Statement of Faith: Statement v. Creed
Goal: To help participants understand the nature of the Statement of Faith in comparison to older, more creedal statements and to help them practice articulating their understanding of these differences.
Facilitators: The use of the word “statement” rather than “creed” is an intentional element of our Statement of Faith. Roger Shinn, one of the foremost experts on the statement surmises that--while the terms are in some sense synonymous--”’Statement of Faith’ suggests a less rigid, less authoritarian document than ‘creed’. Perhaps it suggests also a more modest attempt to say what it is that contemporary Christians believe.” To begin this session, have everyone read at least two of the versions of the Statement together and prepare to discuss the differences and relative flexibility between the versions, while also addressing, the question of “statement” versus “creed”.
Group Discussion: Roger Shinn, former professor of Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, says that Christians “constantly try to express their faith in language, knowing that faith can never be reduced to language.” When we see these different versions of the Statement of Faith, which one speaks to you the most? How well do these statements do in expressing a belief that cannot be fully expressed using words? Do you think that the term “statement” implies more flexibility than the word “creed” or are they the same to you? What do you think the intention was in creating a statement of faith (or in some sense statements of faith) instead of a creed?
Facilitators: One of the important features of the Statement of Faith is that it spends a great deal of time dwelling on how God has acted and still acts in the world. Much in the way we say “God is Still Speaking,” the Statement tells us about God's deeds in the world and in our lives. In the words of Shinn, “God Creates, God Seeks to Save, God Judges, God Comes to Us in Christ, God Bestows the Holy Spirit, God calls us to Discipleship, [and] God Promises.” It is worthwhile taking a moment to consider the ways in which the group sees God acting in their lives and in the world around them.
Also, it is worth considering the ways in which your specific congregation engages with these acts of God. For this next set of discussion questions, it would be good to have a sense of what your church is doing in the community and abroad.
Group Discussion: The statement we read today--in each of its versions--makes claims for how God has acted--or is acting--in the world. Which of these do you see in your own life or in the life of your community? Does your congregation describe itself using any of these terms; “Just Peace, Open and Affirming, Multi-Racial, Multi-Cultural, Anti-Racist, or Accessible to All? What do you think these mean? Also, how do you see the ministries of the church manifesting these actions? Which of these actions do you experience the least? How could the church help to bring this to greater awareness?
2B) Acting in the World: The Advocacy and Outreach of the UCC
Goal: The UCC is more than the sum of its individual congregations. It also provides ways for individual members of member congregations to participate on a national and international level through the programs and initiatives of its various settings. This section is designed to help participants begin to explore this element of life in the UCC.
Facilitators: While individual congregations have service, justice, and advocacy ministries, the United Church of Christ’s national and regional settings do as well. The final session will address the structure of the UCC that helps us do these things together. Right now, however, it makes sense to take a look at the various “outward facing” ministries that we share as a denomination.
You will want to spend some time examining the various ministries found on the UCC webpage and be prepared to bring up a couple of them for further discussion. Have a way to share the web pages you examine and discuss, bringing the Wider Church ministries page up on the shared computer or on separate computers. Then begin by sharing your own impressions of the programs on the site. Think about what interests you and be prepared to share!
Group Discussion: Rev. Traci Blackmon, Associate Minister for Justice and Local Church Ministries says that “Our witness is not divorced from our discipleship.” As disciples of Jesus, who participate in a movement whose beliefs find expression in the UCC Statement of Faith, what stood out to you in the homework material addressing denominational work in the area of Wider Church Ministries? Is there anything that the UCC is doing that might attract your time and energy? Are there ways to use this material in your local church setting?
Facilitators: If time permits, close the session by watching this video together. It is a short interview between Blackmon and Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, the General Minister and President of the UCC. It goes into Some of the background for what motivates the UCC these days. Also, it is a good lead-in to the next session about the covenantal polity and structure of the UCC.
Video Scavenger Hunt: There is a lot of “insider language” in this piece. It was partly picked for that reason. Encourage people to make a game of writing down the words that they do not understand. Then use those lists to structure the next session by finding out what each of them mean. Among the departments and staff titles, there should also be the word “covenant”. If previous discussions have gone long and you run out of time, this can easily be included in the homework for the next session.
Interview with Traci Blackmon Conversations with John: Rev. Traci Blackmon, Associate General Minister for JLCM
In our next session we will be examining the covenantal polity and structure of the UCC. In the exercise with the Traci Blackmon video, you have hopefully written down some of the terms that require definition. Share them with each other--by email if you wish--and then, for your homework, check out these parts of the UCC website and see if you can find ways to define these terms. This will help to maximize your time together in the last session!
Here are some links to help people in the research of terms and to help them get a sense of the many aspects of the UCC. These first two links--Conference and Association--vary with your location. I have included samples for reference.
Association Webpage: https://www.sneucc.org/centralma Central MA Association
Conference Webpage: https://www.sneucc.org/ So. New England Conference (SNEUCC)
Elected Officers: https://www.ucc.org/department/elected-officers/
Affiliated Ministries: https://www.ucc.org/who-we-are/affiliated-ministries/
The branches of the UCC & Wider Church Ministries: https://www.ucc.org/what-we-do/
Finally, what keeps these various institutions together is our--and their--covenant with each other. “Covenant” is a term that may need some definition as many people have many different ideas about what it means. Please take a look at “Covenant” by Jane Fisler Hoffman to get an understanding of the concept in the context of the UCC. You can read the whole thing if you wish, but if you are pressed for time, take a look at Chapters 4, 6, and 9.
Also, read this short essay about baptism and Communion in the UCC. Feel free to check out the links for further information on these two sacraments and on the UCC Book of Worship
SESSION 1: Who We Are
1A) How did you get here?: the UCC Today
Goal: To get a sense of the UCC as it is currently experienced by the participants. There may be questions and themes that are worth returning to later in the course.
Group Discussion: Let's start by learning a bit about each other. What is your religious background? What did you find that attracted you to this congregation?
Facilitators: This section should not take that long. The videos are for the purpose of setting what the UCC is today before looking back to the past. The “discussion” need not be in-depth. The purpose is to get a sense of immediate impressions and any questions participants might want to explore within the structure of the course.
The first two videos are part of the “God is Still Speaking” initiative. This initiative was conceived mostly as a marketing campaign. However, it also became a catalyst for change and growth in the denominational identity of the UCC.
All the People
This video is a longer profile of a specific congregation, Peace Congregational Church in Clemson SC.
Peace Congregational Church
You can learn more about this church at https://thepeacechurch.org/
Group Discussion: What have you learned from watching these videos? Does this match with your impressions of your congregation? If there are differences, what are they? What do they tell you about the United Church of Christ as a whole? What does it also tell you about the variety present in our local churches?
2A) How did we get here? :
Goal: To give participants an understanding of the four major denominations that make up the UCC (Evangelical Synod, German Reformed Church, Congregational Church, and Christian Connection) while also gaining a sense of how those movements--along with smaller groups--combined to create the UCC we know today.
Traditionally we tell the history of the UCC as the journey of four religious movements that eventually merged to form a separate institution whose DNA comes from a combination of these predecessor denominations. Of course, the story is more complicated than that. There is a diversity of smaller groups, political forces, scientific discoveries, and cultural changes that have also influenced the UCC. Institutions--like people--do not live in a vacuum.
Faclitators: Here is a chart from Eden seminary that may be helpful for you and for your fellow participants when considering the "four streams" of the UCC.
Facilitators: Play this earworm
United Church of Christ Tribute Song
Group Discussion: For this session we asked you to do a little homework. The article you read tells the story of the four largest denominations that make up the UCC. Was there anything that surprised you or interested you in what you learned? What did you think about the description of the original “parent” denomination of our congregation? Do you see things in our worship, governance, or culture that seem to come from that particular branch?
Facilitators: Depending on your setting, you might want to do some further reading to enrich the experience of the UCC. It is always good to familiarize yourself with the stories and history of your own church as well as some of the “smaller” streams and influences that make up the UCC. Here are some other resources that may be helpful for this portion of the curriculum. You could read them yourself and present them, or recommend them as further reading for interested members.
Hollyday, Joyce, “On the Heels of Freedom” Crossroad Publishing 2005
This book tells the story of the American Missionary Society, founded during the chaos of the American Civil War, the AMA was formed to educate and support the formerly enslaved African Americans in the wake of that conflict.
Zikmund, Barbara Brown, ed. “Hidden Histories in the United Church of Christ” volumes 1 and 2. United Church Press, 1984
This two volume set provides brief histories of a number of “hidden” movements and influences in the United church of Christ. It lends diversity and depth to the more general history given in the “homework” section.
Group Discussion: What do you think is missing in the history [“Who We Are” from the UCC webpage] we all read? What in the missing history would you like to know more about?
The next session will be built around the UCC Statement of Faith. Therefore, the assigned homework will be the Statement, itself. Please have everyone read at least three versions and be ready to discuss them next time.
They can be found here: https://www.ucc.org/who-we-are/about/history/#united-church
Also, we will be talking about the outreach programs of the UCC. Participants should be encouraged to spend time exploring the “Wider Church Ministries” pages on the UCC website.
They can be found here: https://www.ucc.org/what-we-do/wider-church-ministries/
Facilitators: You will want to familiarize yourselves with “Confessing our Faith” by Roger L. Shinn. This book is an elegant breakdown of the Statement that will give insights into how to talk about this document. The second session will be making use of Shinn’s work.
In addition, a somewhat deeper dive into the “Global Ministries” page and the “Global Hope” page would help to provide examples of service and advocacy. These should also be given to the particpants to explore.
Global Ministries: https://www.globalministries.org/
Global H.O.P.E https://www.ucc.org/global-h-o-p-e/
After reading both Shinn and the website, it would be wise to take some notes as conversation prompts for further discussion in Session 2.
The purpose of this curriculum is to inform and educate new members of a historic United Church of Christ congregation about the United Church of Christ and to give them the skills necessary to talk about the denomination, its culture, and its component parts. In it you will find homework for everybody to do before and after sessions, along with additional resources for facilitators. In addition, there are questions to be used as prompts for group discussion. They are meant to keep the conversation going and do not need to be addressed in order or in their entirety.
Facilitators will perhaps want to have certain tools with them. There are videos and websites that need to be accessed during the sessions, so computers and smartphones would be useful. Also, a flip chart with markers may also be of use for keeping track of topics and digressions during conversation. Each 90 minute session is divided into two 45 minute discussions. Feel free to be flexible in the time allotment and follow the flow of conversation. Obviously, it is important to respect the 90 minute time limit for each of the three sessions. However, given the possibility of conversations going short or long, feel free to adapt the length of the conversations to your own setting.
Group Discussion Format: Any large block of italicized text is meant to be read by someone in the group as a prompt for conversation or the conveying of key information. Please have someone in the group read it out loud before commencing discussion. It can, of course, be references as the discussions continue.
There are various homework requirements in this document. To have a good discussion, people need to have something to discuss! Most of them are listed at the end of the session for the upcoming session. However, before the sessions begin, there is one assignment...
This document should be assigned for participants to read before their first session.