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State of the Conference

Saturday, May 18, 2019

This is the State of the Conference address given by Conference Minister Rev. David Gaewski at the 2019 Annual Meeting in Poughkeepsie.

 

When they were together, Christ was made known to them in breaking of the bread. Not when they were alone. When they were together. In our sacred texts, we hear:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness…” (Gen 1:26)

The emphasis is on “our” likeness. In our trinitarian faith, God is a dynamic community.

So, our likeness of God is most closely manifested in our life as community. (Gen 2:18) But God then said, “It is not good for humanity to be alone.” (Gen 2:18)  And so, God created a partner because when two or more are gathered, the fullness of God is in their midst.

The prayer of Christ that has been identified as the touchstone for the United Church of Christ is this: “It is not for these alone that I pray, but for those also who through their words put their faith in me. May they all be one; as you, Elohim, are in me, and I in you, so also may they be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:20-21)

The Book of Acts 4:32 “The whole company of believers was united in heart and soul. Not one of them claimed any of their possessions as their own; everything was held in common.” (Act 4:32)  Gal 3:26 “Baptized into union with Christ, you have all put on Christ like a garment. There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:26)

About 1500 years after Paul’s letters, a congregational church in New England chose these words to describe their covenant community life- this is a modification of the Salem Covenant: “We do give ourselves to one another accepting and embracing counsels and reproofs with all humbleness and thankfulness and watchfully avoiding all sinful stumbling blocks and contentions and needless uneasiness, as becomes a people whom God has bound up together in the bundle of life.” (Yarmouth Covenant, circa 1630)

At the time of the union between the Evangelical and Reformed Church with the Congregational Christian Churches in 1957, The Christian Century wrote that such a union of two faith traditions was so impressive that it boded world transforming hope for the ministry of the Christian faith. UCC historian Louis Gunneman wrote: “…these two communions were able to transcend the differences their individual histories had produced and to experience a renewal of the vitality that is evident to this day.” (The Shaping of the United Church of Christ Gunneman pg 135)

A Church United and Uniting. I have mused that this denomination should change its name to “The Uniting Church of Christ” recognizing that this is our core value, our core identity and our core vocation.

Contemporary UCC historian, Randi Walker has written: “The United Church of Christ is not simply interested in the institutional union of churches, but in the unity of humanity.” (The Evolution of a UCC Style Randi Walker pg11)

It was only about 20 years ago that the United Church of Christ added this paragraph to our Constitution: "Within the United Church of Christ, the various expressions of the church relate to each other in a covenantal manner. Each expression of the church has responsibilities and rights in relation to the others, to the end that the whole church will seek God’s will and be faithful to God’s mission. Decisions are made in consultation and collaboration amount the various parts of the structure. As members of the Body of Christ, each expression of the church is called to honor and respect the work and ministry of each other part. Each expression of the church listens, hears and carefully considers the advice, counsel, and requests of others. In this covenant, the various expressions of the United Church of Christ seek to walk together in all God’s ways.”

The reason I have taken this much time to review the scriptural and theological foundation of our faith’s commitment to community, is because the state of the New York Conference is inextricable linked to this core UCC value: unity in the midst of honored diversity.

A little over a month ago I was asked to generate a report on the ecumenical activities of the New York Conference. About a thousand words latter, I was awestruck with how this United and Uniting vocation defines the New York Conference. And it is much more than ecumenical and inter-faith, but as Randi Walker phrases it: this conference is best characterized by our engagement in the unity of humanity.

Consider this:  At our Annual Meeting last year in Syracuse we passed a resolution to become an Anti-racism conference. We also accomplished a significant fund-raising effort to fund this unbudgeted part of our justice ministries — and as I recall there was haircut in it for me. I want to report that anti-racism ministry is a core commitment for our conference. Our New and Right Spirit anti-racism ministry continues to facilitate community conversations on racism and white privilege with an expanded group of facilitators. What is new in the past year is securing an Anti-racism consultant within our conference who is employed on a per diem basis to work with both communities and congregations. Also, our New and Right Spirit ministry has now produced the publication of our Diversity Assessment Inventory for congregations. We have tested it among several diverse congregations, and as promised the conference will now engage with our own assessment of the institutionalized racism within conference life. We are now ready to assist your local congregation in an analysis of unrecognized racism within congregational community life by utilizing the diversity assessment tool. God said, “Let us make humanity in OUR likeness”. The richness of our full diversity is the most perfect reflection of the divine image.

Consider this: After several years of youth exchanges between New York and German young adults, in a couple of months, New York Youth will travel to Frankfort joining our EKHN friends there, but then traveling together to Poland to interact with Polish youth. 

Lest you think this is just a fun trip (and I am sure there will be fun to be had), I would urge you to consider the improbability of such an exchange in 1943 during the height of Polish concentration camps or 1948 when Poles could not understand why the Allies had “agreed” on where to draw an Iron Curtain with freedom on one side and totalitarianism on their side. The fact that American, German and Polish youth will gather as one is a profound witness of contrition, reconciliation, and hope for humanity. At a time when white nationalism is on the rise in all three countries, consider the witness of these youth who come from progressive, inclusive Christian Churches. This is the Uniting Church of Christ in action.

Consider this: Seventy-nine congregations in New York have now voted to become Open and Affirming. While ONA is certainly about radical hospitality, I encourage us to see this as much more than extravagant welcome. It’s also about saving lives. The suicide rate among LGBTQ youth is three times that of the general population. Youth today have a new reality which is the public sanctioning of bullying. There are youth who will never set foot in your church, but a rainbow flag outside by your sign is a signal of safety and hope. It just might save a life. The New York Conference is a financial co-sponsor of the Faith-Days LGBTQ booth at the New York State Fair. Each year, UCCers who populate that booth come away with stories about lives that were saved simply by communicating unconditional love and affirmation. If you believe your congregation is open and affirming by practice and therefore not in need of actually doing the process, I’d request that you consider these two things: first, a public declaration matters for any marginalized community and second, if your congregation has not declared itself ONA, it will not appear as such in any online search engine. Therefore, if someone either googles your church or utilizes either the national or conference “find a church” app, if you do not pop up as ONA, anyone searching will assume you are not. Your conference staff stands ready to assist you with this life-saving ministry. Our ONA ministries are concrete expressions of our theology of God binding us together in sacred bundles of life. 

Consider this: In 2010 the New York Conference voted to set a goal of twenty new church starts or new church affiliations by the year 2020. I reported last year that we met our goal in 2017. Over the past 12 months there has been one more new church, which is Double Love Experience in Brooklyn. There have been two other inquiries from potentially affiliating congregations, and I am aware of at least two more that are having an affiliation conversation right now. We celebrate all of this in the UCC because, as I said earlier, the unity of the body of Christ is our DNA, our core value, our unique vocation. However, it needs to be acknowledged that a growing number of these existing congregations that are exploring affiliation with the UCC are doing so from a place of deep pain. On the one hand our commitment to extravagant welcome springs from a place of profound and joyful faith, nonetheless, the other hand requires that we grieve the movements afoot within other faith bodies that allow doctrinal rigidity to outweigh compassion and love. 

The United Church of Christ has never embraced a proselytizing strategy that accepts another denomination’s loss as our gain. That is not who we are. Our ecumenical commitments have been built upon mutual respect and affirming our faith diversities. 

However, the United Church of Christ must have clarity that our institutional life can never outweigh our commitments to human dignity, justice, and radical inclusivity. When other faith communities make the painful decisions that draw lines between who is “in” and who is “out”, the United Church of Christ in New York will always commit to being the safe harbor that welcomes any communities set adrift. Doing the right thing is more faith filled than following institutional agreements. God intended us to dwell together in loving, respectful and affirming communities. 

I’d like to tell you a quick story of a woman from Central America. For her safety, I won’t even mention her first name, but I came to know her well. She was and is a courageous lay leader of her congregation. Drug cartels control her country. Violence in her neighborhood is, particularly against youth, is a daily reality. One day in church she preached a sermon denouncing the violence and calling forth something I read on Judson Memorial’s Easter Sunday sign, it said “Rise, and Resist”. That was the anti-violence Gospel she preached. That same Sunday afternoon, the gangs came to her house. She was left barely alive, permanently losing sight in one of her eyes. They told her to take her children and leave the country. And she did. I won’t tell you any more about her story in order to maximize her protection. Our Central American partners pleaded with us not to mention them on social media, not to publicly ask for prayers, and not to visit them in 2019. Neither the conference staff nor our local churches have ignored the atrocities south of the boarder, and with increasing severity, atrocities on the boarder. I am profoundly grateful to our congregations that have engaged in prophetic and courageous ministries with those who flee from violence, simply trying to save their lives. The “Reuniting Families” witness of the conference is one very small example of the Galatian imperative of “putting on Christ, like a garment”. The ministries to the undocumented both here in New York as well as on the Mexican border are the answer to Christ’s question, “Where were you when I was hungry and naked?” Some of you have been on government watch lists, that’s where we were. We are there with you and with every refugee. No exceptions.

The Resolution that is coming to our Annual Meeting is a timely one for this conference.  Over the past three years we have increased our smart use of technology that has reduced our travel needs and therefore decreased our carbon footprint. Just this year, the conference’s new record retention policy, as recommended to us by legal counsel, will drastically cut our use of paper files. Two years ago, the conference Board of Directors gave a mandate to our conference investment committee to create a plan that would eventually result in all conference investments being moved to Fossil Free Investment Funds. The Investment Committee needs to be commended for prudently making strives in this direction over two years. But I am particularly proud to announce today that this week the Investment Committee has voted to move the remainder of all investments, making 100% of the conference invested funds in Fossil Free Investment Funds. Each church needs to discern their own most faithful approach in caring for creation and addressing our Global Warming crisis. I suggest that given the New York Conference's unique investment in anti-racism ministries, that our New and Right Spirit ministry assumes a leading role in teaching about the systemic existence of environmental racism, particularly in our upstate urban centers where it is most often hidden from public view.

So, I am now three-fourths of the way through my annual State of the New York Conference speech, and I have not even mentioned money! Lest you be disappointed, I will make a few comments. 

In 2016 I stood before you and said that the New York Conference had three years to solve our fiscal deficit problems and if we didn’t, we would need to close our doors and cease to exist. That was three years ago. Since then we have taken austere measures without cutting programmatic staff. We have tightened our belts, we become smarter in our use of technology. Our last budget cut in the programming area was in 2017. 

We have increased several streams of revenue. In 2018 we had a budget that allowed for $156,000 deficit. We ended 2018 with an actual deficit of $100,000. $56,000 better than budgeted. Our 2019 budget allows for a $116,000 deficit, I anticipate we will come in under that. For 2020 we are presenting a budget that has cut our deficit to under $30,000. How is that possible? It is possible because we have again increased revenues and decreased expenditures through smart use of technology and overall good stewardship. A key piece to the 2020 budget is in regard to the use of the Amistad Center in Syracuse. Over the past 18 months the conference Board of Directors and the staff have engaged in an analysis of both usage of and attitudes toward the conference office building. While no decision is made, it is becoming increasingly evident that it is no longer good stewardship for 3 part time and 2 full time employees to occupy our 4600 sq. ft of office space. There are less than two meetings per month on the average that occur in this building, and staff can count the number of visitors per six months on one hand. This is not good stewardship. What made perfect sense for a conference office in 2007 based on how conferences functioned at that time, is no longer the case in 2019. Again, while no decision has been made, the 2020 budget is based on an assumption that at some point after the 2020 Annual Meeting, the conference will lease a major portion of the building. The conference board continues to review options and recommendations. A recent consultant advised that given the current square foot rental rate in East Syracuse, it is more advisable to sell than to lease the building. 

Our staff have conducted the first phase of a virtual office test, which resulted in providing seamless services, no one noticed that in February we were actually working from home offices rather than from the Amistad Center. A second test month will take place later this year. We have consulted with our auditors on best financial practices for a virtual office, we have switched to an all cell phone-based phone system, and we have adopted a legal counsel approved records retention policy and plan that will allow us to maximize digital files and minimize retention of paper files. If a complete Virtual Office is in our future, I want to put to rest a myth that has been circulating. A Virtual Office does not mean that there will be no face to face, in the flesh, conference meetings. 

The fact is that a Virtual Office will result in no more and no less video conferencing than is currently utilized. We will continue to engage in incarnational, face to face, ministry. The only difference is that more meetings will be spread around the state and less will take place in Syracuse. By next year I believe we will have a definitive answer regarding our conference office needs. I know a lot of hard work went into the campaign that resulted in the purchase of the Amistad Center. I am grateful to every person who made that possible. While I can’t speak for the Board, I can say that I will advocate that the value of the real estate asset held in the Amistad Center be held in perpetuity as a principal asset of the New York Conference. What is clear to me as your conference minister, is that I am much more interested in ministry that changes lives than in buildings that require maintenance.

Finally, I will end with some comments on a Capital Campaign. We began a Feasibility Study in 2017 to determine if it was feasible to conduct a $3 million-dollar campaign to establish an endowed fund. We concluded that Feasibility Study in mid-2018 only to find that such a goal was not feasible at that time. Last Fall, however, we were approached by our partners at the UCC Pension Boards inquiring of our interest in a joint venture to create endowed funds for both the New York Conference and the Pension Boards. Brian Bodager spoke to this earlier this afternoon. What I want to emphasize is that neither the Conference nor the Pension Boards is interested in raising money solely for the sake of creating endowments. We, the Conference and the Pension Boards, are passionate about doing ministry. The Generations of Service campaign of the Pension Boards will provide real dollar assistance to saints — particularly those who have served small congregations with modest salaries — that have served the church faithfully and can retire with pension supplements that allows them a retirement with dignity. Generations of Service will ensure the continuation of leadership development work such as the CREDO program and the Next Generation Leadership Initiative (which has raised several notable young clergy leaders in New York, perhaps most notably our new Associate Conference Minister, Shernell) And the Generations of Service campaign will grow the work that the Pensions Boards has initiated in Clergy Financial Wellness exemplified in the Financial Planning services available to all UCC clergy currently at no charge. For the New York Conference, our program will be called the New York Next Generation of Leadership Initiative, creating an endowed Next Generation of Leadership Fund to be used for emerging needs of ministry. 

We know that in 2020 these needs are improving our ability to communicate the ministries of the UCC in New York. We need to communicate our anti-racism work, our ministry to and with the undocumented, the ministry of youth building bridges and tearing walls around the world, the ministry of caring for creation, and the ministries of radical welcoming and inclusion. However, we recognize that we cannot see the priorities of ministry ten years from now. Therefore, the use of the Next Generation of Leadership Fund will be re-evaluated on an annual basis by the Conference Board of Directors, ensuring that we remain flexible and agile in responding the evolving needs of the church.

I conclude by expressing my gratitude to you for allowing me to continue to serve in the most exciting ministry that I could possibly imagine. I also express my thanksgiving to this staff which continues to be my dream team. I personally express my appreciation to my wife and family who ground me, love me, and ultimately give my life meaning.

And finally, to God who wakes us up at night reminding us we cannot rest while injustice prevails and in whom together as a community, we find the eternal peace in knowing that the arc of this universe is bent toward God’s Shalom.

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