One of the icebreakers frequently used in the church nerd circles in which I travel is “who is the Biblical character you most identify with?” My answer to this question has changed over the years. For a long time, it was Jonah. Jonah ran away from God’s call, only reluctantly said yes, was disappointed when things didn’t turn out the way he expected, and was more interested in his own comfort than the well-being of others. I could identify with that. After I joined the Conference Staff, I began to identify more and more with the Apostle Paul. Paul attempted to minister to a bunch of churches separated by distance: offering encouragement, challenging harmful behaviors, reconciling differing perspectives on mission and ministry, trying to keep churches connected with one another and focused on God’s mission. Seeing ministry through the lens of Paul’s words and deeds helped give me courage and strength to face the challenges and embrace the opportunities before me.
In the last year, I have begun to identify with another Biblical character: John the Baptist. Why? Because John the Baptist stands in the space between what was and what will be. He has one job: to prepare the way for the one who will come after him. He makes this point throughout the four gospels to a variety of conversation partners using a variety of images. Bottom line: his ministry exists for the sake of what will be, not for what is. It’s not about him and it’s not about now.
John the Baptist may be the right patron for “Together as One.” Why? Because we stand in the space between what was and what will be. As our three Conferences come together to become something new, we need remind ourselves over and over again that all we do in this season needs to be for the sake of those who will come after us—for the Conference that will be, for future generations of disciples, for the new ministries and partnerships that will make it possible for us to participate more fully in God’s Mission.
It’s easy to affirm the idea of being future-focused. The reality is much more difficult, complicated, and painful. We may need to let go of ways of doing and being that are so ingrained we are unaware of them. We must confront our sometimes unconscious bias toward the familiar, the known, the proven, what’s worked for “us”. How can we move beyond compromise to embrace a way forward that is future-focused and aligned with God’s Mission? How can we let go of an organizational culture focused primarily on providing services to local churches as they exist so we can embrace the call to co-create with God and one another the church that is to be?
John the Baptist says of the one who will come after him: “He must increase but I must decrease.” [John 3: 30]. Are we as leaders and members of the historic Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut Conferences, ready to decrease the importance of what was and is so that what will come to be can increase and flourish?
Rev. Dr. Michael Ciba is the Senior Regional Minister for the CT Conference, UCC.
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