Manual on Church team has ‘audacious’ goal of having a draft by December

It will be a guide for local churches. And it will be a little different from anything ever available in the United Church of Christ.

Despite all odds, the long-awaited Manual on Church is coming together.

Per a General Synod request, the manual will address all things “local church.” In the words of a 2019 Synod resolution, those things include “the processes for birthing, admitting, strengthening, revitalizing, and releasing congregations.”

The manual will revise and build on a 2005 version. But it will also be a successor, in part, to popular 20th-century resources such as the “Leaders Box” and “Called to Care.” And it will incorporate a broad range of contemporary wisdom and feedback that a drafting team has collected from across the UCC.

UCC people working on a new Manual on Church discuss the project in this 55-minute video.

Progress despite COVID

In March 2020, COVID-19 scuttled the first in-person meeting of the UCC ministers, members and partners assigned to work on the manual.

“Instead, we had six hours on Zoom,” said the Rev. Chris Davies, lead staff member to the working group. “Then we’ve had two hours on Zoom every month. It’s frankly a miracle that we’ve gotten this far.”

After lots of drafting, sharing and revising online, the working group will, at last, meet in person in August. They will be, incidentally, the first such churchwide committee to meet at the UCC’s new national offices in downtown Cleveland, according to Davies, who heads the Faith Education, Innovation and Formation team in Justice and Local Church Ministries.

‘Faithful and vital congregations’

The working group has been working in smaller teams to draft sections of the manual.

“I’m particularly excited about the Marks of Faithful and Vital Congregations in the UCC,” said the Rev. Ellis Arnold, who chairs the entire working group. “It is rooted in extensive research on church vitality, but it manages to weave a distinctively UCC flavor through it by leaning on predecessor work of Conferences and Associations and incorporating the theological voices of UCC elders and theologians from across the UCC.”

That section, plus “discernment resources” that go with it, “will prove helpful for churches who are hoping to better understand the complex combination of practices, attitudes, and attributes that foster vitality in faith communities in the UCC,” Arnold said.

Topics in progress

And though more topics than these will be covered, the other sections currently in progress include:

  • Defining “local church.” This will elaborate on but not “shift the definition of church” found in the UCC Constitution, Davies said.
  • Best practices for congregations entering the UCC, whether newly forming or existing and wanting to join the UCC
  • Defining “autonomy” and “covenant.” “The joy and the challenge of the UCC is the tension that we live in between autonomy and covenant,” Davies said, quoting from a passage in the draft document. “And our work lives in that tension and has to continuously engage it so that congregations have agency as well as accountability.”
  • A congregational code. This will suggest “accountability measures for local congregations in their relationship with the wider church,” Davies said.
  • Local church membership. In a contemporary touch, this will include a discussion of “people who engage with the church online,” Davies said.
  • Church governance recommendations for congregations. Davies said this will include answers to frequently asked questions, such as what to do when a local church wants to change its bylaws (first answer: check your state laws).
  • Committee on Ministry oversight of congregations and local church standing. Davies said this section is perhaps the most groundbreaking part of the manual. Closely related to the congregational code, it will — among other things — suggest when a local church might be removed from the UCC in a process involving the Association (or Conference) of which it is a member. As just one example of many possible situations, Davies hypothetically described a congregation that decides to keep a pastor even after that pastor was found to have committed ministerial misconduct.

‘Support and accountability’

The Rev. Diane Weible, a Conference minister, chairs the subgroup on local church standing. She said that section is one place where the new manual will, in part, mirror the UCC’s Manual on Ministry.

“In many of our settings, we have created an excellent framework for supporting our Authorized Ministers, which includes holding them accountable to the mission and covenant of the United Church of Christ,” said Weible, who leads the Northern California Nevada Conference.

“I am excited about the work of this subcommittee because it is that same framework of support and accountability for our churches that will strengthen our ties as a denomination and invite the Spirit into the work we do together as the church.”

The Rev Chris Davies produced this image as the Manual on Church working group was getting started.

Local wisdom

Local church feedback has been part of the Manual on Church process from the start. Davies said broad surveys in 2019 “helped us understand the expectations of the wider church for the Manual on Church and direct the scope of our energy and work.”

Alongside the subgroups writing on many specific topics, there has also been a team focusing on “local church theology.” As an integral step, she said, that group “will be interviewing key elders and wisdom leaders in the UCC, particularly of different ethnic groups, incorporating their experience, wisdom and stories into the manual.”

Those interviews started at the Council for Racial and Ethnic Ministries2022 Convocation in Rohnert Park, Calif., June 23-26. “My hope is that our deep listening enables people to see themselves in the document right from the start,” Davies said.

Meantime, she said, the drafting team has already tested sections of the manual with the Council of Conference Ministers, plus “key vitality researchers and cultural competency leaders in the UCC.” This summer, “we’re hoping to release those to a specific and small contingent of congregations” that are close to working group members.

Who’s working on it

The 18-member working group includes:

  • The Rev. Ellis Arnold, Decorah, Iowa, chair
  • The Rev. Liddy Barlow, Pittsburgh
  • The Rev. Rock R. Fremont Jr., Phoenix
  • Adam Hanley, Toronto
  • Lisa A. Hart, DeForest, Wis.
  • The Rev. Eric Jackson, Manchester, N.H.
  • The Rev. Nicholas Knoblauch, Broadus, Mont.
  • The Rev. Amanda Lape-Freeberg, Hanover, N.H.
  • Becky Leonard, Redfield, S.D.
  • The Rev. Sharon MacArthur, Hercules, Calif.
  • Kevin Pettit, Boulder, Colo.
  • Yinessa Romero, Dallas
  • The Rev. Viktor Toth, Altadena, Calif.
  • Elizabeth Walker, Philadelphia
  • The Rev. Diane Weible, San Leandro, Calif.
  • Zillah Jackson Wesley, Washington, D.C.
  • The Rev. Marsha Williams, Middletown, N.Y.
  • The Rev. Douglas Anthony Wooten, Indianapolis

That roster reflects a few changes since the group started work. The Rev. Supulona Tanuvasa died unexpectedly in January 2022. Hanley was added to replace two United Church of Canada representatives who had rotated off. Likewise, the Rev. Jonathan New, a veteran of a recent Manual on Ministry revision, stepped down and was replaced by Barlow, another such veteran.

The group also receives staff support from the Rev. Elizabeth Dilley and the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization team, which she leads — and which curates the Manual on Ministry.

‘Audacious’ goal

Davies said the Manual on Church will eventually be presented at a future General Synod, though she does not yet know which one.

Between now and then, the team has ambitious timeline goals.

One involves an event called “Authorizing Ministry for the 21st Century,” also known as AM21. It’s a biennial staff gathering set for Dec. 5-9 in Atlanta. There the drafting team hopes to get feedback from attendees who work closely with congregations, including Conference ministers and associate Conference ministers.

“Our audacious and questionably achievable goal,” she said, “is to have a working draft of the manual by AM21.”

People can learn all about the project in “Manual on Church Update,” available here, at the UCC YouTube channel. The 55-minute conversation was recorded live on Zoom on June 23.

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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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