An Introduction to the United Church of Christ

by Bob von Trebra

Part 1

First Congregational Church of Loveland is a congregation of the United Church of Christ. The relationship between our church and the wider denomination has not always been very strong, and many people who have joined our church in recent years may know very little about the UCC. It seemed good for both long-time members and newcomers to provide an introduction to United Church of Christ “basics” in our monthly newsletter – beginning with this one.
The United Church of Christ was something of an oddity when it was formed in 1957. Ever since the Protestant Reformation five centuries ago, the worldwide Christian Church has fragmented into thousands of different denominations, each with its own beliefs and ways of organizing. We now have Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Churches of a bewildering variety: Lutheran, Reformed, Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, etc.
In the middle part of the 20th century, there was a movement to try to reunite some of these many different denominations. The United Church of Christ is a denomination formed by the union of what were once four different Protestant denominations: Congregational, Christian, Evangelical and Reformed, along with a few other smaller groups, like some historically Black churches.
The Congregational Churches were started by the Pilgrims and Puritans who left the Church of England and came to New England in North America in the 17th century. The Christian Churches were a small group that broke away from the Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist Churches in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They were mostly located in Ohio and Kentucky. The Congregational and Christian Churches united in the 1930s.
The Evangelical Churches were started by mostly German people who had come from Lutheran and Reformed backgrounds in Germany. Many of them settled in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. The Reformed Churches were made up of people who had come to the United States from Switzerland and Germany. They, also, settled mainly in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. The Evangelical and Reformed Churches united in the 1930s. Then the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Churches united in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ.
First Congregational Church of Loveland was originally started as a German Evangelical Church, but became Congregational because its founders wanted the freedom from church authorities that the Congregational Churches allowed. But its traditions are much closer to the Evangelical Churches that are part of the UCC.
Congregational Church polity (system of governance) allowed each local congregation to decide whether to become a part of the United Church of Christ. Our church here in Loveland voted to become a part of the UCC in the early 1960s.
If you are interested in learning about United Church of Christ history and beliefs, you can visit their website at www.ucc.org.

Part 2

One of the unique features of the United Church of Christ is its congregational “polity” (its system of church governance). Many Christian denominations have what might be called a “top-down” polity. Important decisions about the life of the church are made by church authorities, who are usually men (the Pope, bishops, Metropolitan, etc.), and those decisions are then binding on all churches and members within that denomination.
One of the faith traditions that gave rise to the United Church of Christ was the Congregational Churches. They originally broke away from the Church of England, in part because some of the bishops in the Church of England were political appointees, and not particularly spiritual men. The Congregationalist decided they would not have bishops. Instead, each local congregation was free to decide themselves how to worship, whom to call as pastor (and when to dismiss that person), how to raise money, and how to spend it. Each congregation is “autonomous.” That congregational polity is still central to the United Church of Christ today, and it is one of the things that appealed to the early founders of First Congregational Church.
But we are not alone and isolated. UCC congregations are a part of larger groups of UCC churches as means of mutual support. The smallest of these gatherings are the associations. In our case, we are part of the Platte Valley Association: thirteen UCC congregations in Loveland, Longmont, Fort Collins, Windsor, Greeley (2), Prospect Valley, Fort Morgan, and Sterling, CO; and Laramie, Wheatland, Douglas, and Casper, WY. It is the associations that have the critical jobs of determining which congregations can be a part of the United Church of Christ, who can be an authorized minister of the United Church of Christ (ordained, licensed or commissioned), and how to discipline authorized ministers who may violate ethical standards for ministers.
All UCC congregations are a part of an association. We are bound together by covenant – a promise to respect and support one another in our common work. Members of local congregations serve as delegates to association meetings (Linda and Greg Greaves are our association delegates), and as elected officers and committee members of association ministries. Each congregation provides some financial support to its local association.
As we conduct our search for a new pastor here at First Congregational Church, we depend on the members and leaders of UCC associations throughout the country to carefully evaluate the preparation and fitness of those who are ordained to ministry in the United Church of Christ. We may be autonomous as a local congregation, but we depend on our connections to the wider United Church of Christ for our ongoing work and health.
In my case, I was carefully guided and examined for several years by volunteers in the Metropolitan Denver Association of the United Church of Christ, before being ordained by them in 1996. I was ordained only after receiving a call to be the pastor of a church in the Fox Valley Association in Illinois. I am currently a member of the Inter-mountain Association here in the Rocky Mountain Conference.
The key lesson is this. We are “autonomous” as a local congregation of the United Church of Christ. But we depend on our connections to other UCC churches here in Colorado, and throughout the United States.


Part 3

Last month I wrote about how UCC congregations like ours are “autonomous” – we own our church building and land, we decide how to worship, how to organize our church life, how to raise money and spend it, whom to call as our pastor, and when it is time to dismiss that pastor. There are no church authorities – like bishops – who can tell us what we must do. But we are also connected to other UCC churches with whom we are in covenant relationship. The smallest of these covenant groups is the association. We are a part of the Platte Valley Association, which includes UCC churches in Fort Collins, Fort Morgan, Greeley, Longmont, Prospect Valley, Sterling, Windsor, and four churches in southeastern Wyoming. It is the association, through its committees on church and ministry, that decides which churches can be a part of the UCC, and who can serve as an authorized minister in the United Church of Christ.
We are also a part of a larger group of churches known as a conference. There are 38 conferences in the United Church of Christ. Our conference – the Rocky Mountain Conference – is the largest of all the conferences geographically. It is made up of 75 UCC churches in Colorado, Utah, and southern Wyoming. The total membership of those 75 churches is a little over 13,000 members. There are five associations that make up the Rocky Mountain Conference. Because of our large geographical area, it is a challenge to keep all 75 churches connected.
The conferences exist to support local churches. Our Rocky Mountain Conference has a Conference Minister, Rev. Sue Artt, and now an Associate Conference Minister, Rev. Erin Gilmore. Sue and Erin help train local church pastoral search committees (like ours) in how best to conduct a search for a pastor. They officiate at ordinations and installations. They help provide training for ministers and church members. They also advise associations on how to carry out fitness reviews or disciplinary proceedings for ministers whose actions violate the code of ethics for authorized ministers. They sometimes serve as “pastors to pastors.”
The Rocky Mountain Conference acts as a facilitator for the pastoral search process, helping both churches and ministers prepare profiles. They then help churches looking for pastors to post their openings online, and direct profiles from interested candidates to church search committees.
If you would like to see the current pastoral openings in the Rocky Mountain Conference (including our announcement), go to this link: http://oppsearch.ucc.org/web/searchresult.aspx?q=customername&v=ROCKY%20MOUNTAIN%20CONFERENCE%20UCC
rowThe Rocky Mountain Conference also oversees and supports the LaForet Camp and Retreat Center near Colo-rado Springs. Rev. Chris Gilmore works for the conference part-time to plan, staff and oversee the many camping opportunities that are offered at LaForet. For more information about the conference, LaForet and camps, visit the conference website at www.rmcucc.org.
If you are interested in learning about United Church of Christ history and beliefs, you can visit their website at www.ucc.org


Part 8

During the month of July we received several people into membership in our church. This may seem like a ceremonial formality, but it is much more. In the United Church of Christ, as I have pointed out in past news-letters, the local church is autonomous; we have no bishops or other church authorities who can tell a local congregation how they can organize themselves and live out their faith. Our United Church of Christ Consti-tution states that Jesus Christ the Head of the Church – not any chosen or elected person.
But both legally and theologically, it is the covenanted members who make up the local church. Legally, the church members elect leaders from among themselves to guide the work of the church and manage its re-sources. Theologically, the church members have the responsibility to discern the will of Christ for them-selves and for the church as a body. We are not really free to do whatever we want; we are free to discern for ourselves what it means to follow Christ in our setting.
The importance of church membership has been challenged in recent years. Younger generations are less likely to join a church – or any organization -- than previous generations. Young people who grow up in a church are likely to move away when they become young adults. Many folks will attend a church regularly for months or years without becoming a member. Churches are trying to adapt to these changes – by allowing non-members to get involved in many church activities. But in the United Church of Christ, membership is still central to our idea of what it means to be the church.