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 Congregationalists 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.