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Rev. David Gaewski Delivers "State of the Conference" Speech

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The following speech was delivered by Rev. David Gaewski, Conference Minister of the New York Conference, UCC at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Conference:


State of the Conference

June 2016

            Good evening Saints!  How are you?  Are you ready for this Annual Meeting?  Shall we let justice roll like a mighty river?  It is good to be here with you.  I’ve been looking forward to this half hour, in particular when I share with you, from my perspective, the state of the New York Conference of our beloved United Church of Christ.  I need to tell you that I have struggled a bit with what I needed to say this year.  This is my fourth state of the conference, and the year behind as well as the year ahead; seem to me, as they say, complicated.  So rather than be the New Englander of my birth, where you don’t say what you really mean until you’ve known someone for seven years, I’m going to be more of the New Yorker that I am becoming and say it like I see it before someone even asks.  What is the state of the New York Conference?  It’s complicated.

            You know me, I always start with some sort of history, but rather than starting in 1725, where the first draft of this speech began, instead I’m going to start on May 31st, 1963.  On that date a certificate of incorporation was filled both in what was then New York County and also in Erie County.  And to be precise there were two filings in New York County, one for the New York Congregational Christian Conference, and the other for the New York Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed Church.  In Erie County, the certificate was filed on behalf of The Evangelical and Reformed Churches of the Western New York Synod.  These three entities, on that date, incorporated into the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ.  However I think that after 53 years, we continue to struggle with our identity as one conference.  Unlike conferences to our east and others to our west who enjoyed centuries of unity, the New York Conference was a quilt sown together within the parameters of New York State.

            To fast forward to the year 2001, something happened in the United Church of Christ that was feared, was wonderful, and was truly unexpected.  We actually became one denomination rather than a collection of former denominations.  And that unexpected thing was “God is Still Speaking”.  As is normal for the UCC, our first reaction to this identity campaign were all across the board.  But the more we heard things like “Never place a period where God has placed a comma”, and “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” the more they resonated with who we strove to be.  And concepts such as extravagant welcome and changing lives became part of a common denominational vocabulary.  I believe this is true for our churches in New York as well.

            But the quilt work of our conception has been and continues to be a challenge for the New York Conference.  For decades we chose a model of Regions and Regional Conference Ministers.  And this only served to pull at the seam work of our quilt.  And in doing so, it weakened us.   I think we have even taken some pride in identifying as the Upstate Church or the Downstate Church, the Southeast Church, or the Western Churches.  But pride in our separateness is a misconception of what it means to be the Body of Christ.  In Christ there is no east or west, no north or south, no Congregational Christian or E&R, no urban or rural Christian.  And in a time when we speak of being post modern/post denominational, the 21st century is providing opportunities (yes opportunities not challenges) to the Christian church, as we are pulled toward no longer clearly defining what is UCC and what is not.  The beauty of the diversity of this denomination allows us to speak of UCC theologies and even UCC polities. Many of us love our relationship with Bishop Yvette Flunder and the Fellowship of Affirming Churches, but they are a perfect example of a polity within a polity.  It is true that our polity is evolving, whether we like it or not.  For those of you who attended General Synod with me last summer, you know that there are some changes to our polity that I don’t welcome with open arms.  But change is the one thing in all of life that is constant.  And the genius of the UCC is that we have created a very big tent, under which many opinions may find a home.  Within the next six months the Manual on Ministry of our denomination will be replaced, and I suspect that as soon as it is, it will be somewhat outdated.  And this is because we are nimble enough to evolve quickly.

            To borrow a beautiful phrase from our Disciples sisters and brothers, we in the UCC and particularly we in the New York Conference must become very, very, very clear as to what is “our polar star.”  For four years I have looked you in the eye and this is what I’ve seen.  Jesus changes lives.  Islam is to be respected.  Jews are our brethren.  Atheist and Agnostic are part of the family. Radical hospitality means acceptance is not enough, unconditional love for gay, straight, lesbian, trans, bi, queer, questioning, rich, poor, middle class, black, white, brown, mullato, Asian, First Nations, African, European, Latino, Pacific Islander, differently abled, and none of the above, unconditional love for all is what is holy.  Accepting falls short of love, and what we want most for ourselves, for the church of the saints, for our communities, for our nation, and our world is an unconditional love.  I may not like you or what you do, but for Christ’s sake, I will love you.  That is our  polar star.  And so we care that the Gospel is preached and preached well.  We care about racial equality.  We care about just wages for all workers.  We care about the immigrant and the refugee no matter what kind of paperwork they have or don’t have.  We care not so much for making life easy, but for making it meaningful.  And Lord, some days, a little bit easier would be okay too.  We care about faith.  Not a tepid faith, but rather a BOLD faith.  A faith with vision and is very, very, very relevant for what is happening in the street and in the field, in business world and in the non-profit—from the dirt road to Main Street to Wall Street.  A BOLD faith for today.  That is what we value and it is our polar star.

            But we also have some problems that can eclipse the polar star toward which we aspire.  We have three years to resolve our fiscal direction.  And if we don’t we need to begin dismantling this conference.  When you called me as your conference minister I told you that my daily mantra has been and will be as long as I am engaged in ministry: equip the saints.  You are the saints and if you are equipped to live a BOLD faith for today, I know the potential for the realm of God into which you will breathe life.   I know this, because I see it every week from Tonawanda to the Bronx and from Saratoga Springs to Patchogue.  I see the incredible ministry that you do.  But there is much more to be done. 

             So when you called me to lead this conference, I listened for my first six months, and then I acted.  Many of you said we needed our old Regional Conference Ministers back.  But I disagreed with that.  Instead I introduced what I continue to believe is what God called me to do:  I created a team of pastors.  Whether you are from Riverhead or Fairport, Corning or E-town every church, every pastor, every layperson has in the New York Conference five pastors.  Assembling the team of four ACMs has been one of my greatest joys.  Freeman, Ryan, Marjorie, and Marsha are such a unique team of differently gifted, church loving, Spirit filled, and prophetic ministers, which I believe are providentially called to serve in your midst.  When you called me I told you that I would not to lead a diminishing church.  With this team I am confident we are and will thrive as the United Church of Christ in New York.

            But as I said, we’ve got problems.  Because we were sown together as a quilt from different swaths of cloth, we have had neither a common identity nor a common commitment for the whole.  A diverse quilt representing many aspects of the realm of God is a beautiful thing, but if the stitching is weak or loose, the quilt will not last.  How we administer our wealth in the New York conference threatens to undo us.  About half of the other UCC conferences have both OCWM income as well as conference per capita income or assessments.  New York never had that because we never had one common goal or identity prior to becoming the United Church of Christ in this state.  Recognizing the financial challenges of this conference before accepting the call, I knew I would need to offer a multi-dimensional plan to address huge deficits.  Step one of the plan was to offer the services that were worthy of support.  Hence I created the current staffing pattern with what I consider my Dream Team.  And the team is offering a mosaic of programs and relationships that breathes life into the ministries we share.

            The second step was to offer a hybrid to per capita giving, which we called Covenant Share.  We voted at the 2013 Annual Meeting to begin this special offering asking individuals, not congregations for financial commitment. Individual giving envelopes have been sent to congregations to place in the pews since 2013.  Some churches collect all the gifts and send one check to the conference.  Others have promoted individual direct giving.   In 2013, $24,886 was received from 66 congregations, 3 individuals, and one Association.  In 2014, this dropped to $21,085 from 54 congregations, and because we began to offer an online giving option, 32 individuals and one women’s fellowship.  In 2015, Covenant Share income rose to $27,038 from 70 churches and 45 individuals. And this year, even before the Covenant Share mailing was sent 12 churches and 20 individuals have made gifts.  So, what does this show?  It shows that neither the Annual Meeting, nor the Stewardship Committee, nor the staff could convince a majority of our churches and only a small fraction of our 35,000 members, to directly contribute to the missional goals of the conference. While it may indicate the conference is not meeting the missional needs of churches, I think it is more likely that the vast majority of UCC membership in New York has no idea what Covenant Share is or that this is an opportunity to support the UCC mission in New York.  The Board of Directors of the Conference has had some conversation about this, and the continuing opinion is that Covenant Share needs more time to become established.

            In addition to Covenant Share, another avenue for revenue has been emphasized, which is Friends of the Conference.  This is an end of the year direct mailing to individuals.  Our staff has been very thorough with providing thank you letters for every gift to the Friends Offering.  While Friends is also a modest income stream, it is one through which we hope to nurture relationships with some potential large donors as well as provide another opportunity of support from faithful donors who may or may not attend worship in our congregations.

            A fourth tactic that the Stewardship Committee has embraced is to annually talk about “Fair Share” in OCWM giving.  A healthy family is one that can talk about money openly without defensiveness or avoidance.  So for the past two years, at some point in the middle of the Summer the Stewardship Committee looks at the ten year giving pattern of each church, factors in what we know about the fiscal strength or weakness of each church, and offers a suggested “fair share” of OCWM for the next budgetary cycle of each congregation. 

            A fifth approach has been tightening our budget.  The proposed 2017 budget includes modest programmatic cuts.  I will be working with the Board of Directors and the Personnel Committee in the year ahead to focus missional priorities that may result in further program and possibly staff reduction.  As I say this, I am cognizant that our patchwork, quilted history, contributes to difficulties of the conference.  In too many ways we still function in the pre-1963 mode of identity.  I have examined closely the budgets of our Associations, and I can identify about $120,000 of primarily staff and office expenses within the Associations, that duplicate what the office in Syracuse can provide, with very minor changes.  Even as southern New England, Iowa/Nebraska/South Dakota, and Eastern Pennsylvania UCC Conferences are negotiating mergers, in New York, we haven’t truly merged our own Associations into one Conference.  This is a problem.  And we have allowed our regionalization to threaten the larger UCC identity in this state.  I will ask Joe Medlin to place this on the agenda for your Board of Directors in the year ahead with the hope that we will engage all Associations in this conversation.

            A sixth avenue of addressing our significant budget deficits has been to increase our number of congregations affiliated with the New York Conference.  In the year 2010, the conference set a goal of twenty new churches or new affiliations by the year 2020.  It is very possible that we will not only reach, but exceed that goal. This last approach toward financial stability of this conference causes me to tell you a story.  It’s a story that returns us to following our polar star and embracing the core values of the United Church of Christ and the New York Conference.  And frankly, it is the polar star toward which affiliating congregations find the UCC a safe home into which they find family.

            There once was a well self-educated farmer.  He was a political refugee.  His home had been destroyed by war and his country overrun by a foreign oppressor.  He was also a man of deep faith. He found himself an immigrant living in a place where there were no places of worship similar to his home.  Many living around him did not speak his language.  So he invited his friends to his house on a weekly basis so that they could read their holy text and worship their God as they had done in their homeland.  While this could have been the story of a Syrian refugee today, it rather is one of a German exile that came to a place called Falkner’s Swamp in Pennsylvania.  The year was 1725.  The city of Heidelberg had been destroyed by French invaders and all public expressions of the Reformed Christian faith were banned.

            After a short amount of time, those attending the Falkner Swamp Bible Study encouraged Johann Boehm to start a church.  However, being the good German he was, he insisted on an orderly process that included requesting authorization from a higher ecclesiastical body.  But there was no German Reformed Church in America yet, and in his Palatinate homeland, the Reformed Church had been banned.  But he heard that on the island hamlet of New Amsterdam in a place called New York, there was a Reformed Church from the Netherlands.  So he sought authorization from the Dutch Reformed.  The Dutch offered the Pennsylvania German Reformed radical hospitality.  They not only ordained Johann Boehm, but they requested and received significant funds from the Netherlands to establish many German Reformed Churches in Pennsylvania (no strings attached, no expectation that the churches would become beholden in any way to the Dutch Reformed.)  The Germans in Pennsylvania would become one of the four foundational streams of the United Church of Christ today.  And that Dutch Reformed Church continues as an RCA congregation today in NYC.  The New Amsterdam Classis of the Dutch Reformed would become the Regional Synod of New York, Reformed Church in America.

            The RCA has had several “complicated” years.  As in several other denominations there is intense theological debate that follows the cultural divide within our country.  Some would say there has been a “lurch” to the theological right in the denomination.  This has resulted in the more progressive leaning churches, particularly in New York, to sense discomfort.  The question of permissibility of LGBTQ ordination and marriage is on the line—interestingly sometimes being manifested through liturgies that contain the phrase “one man and one woman”. 

            A conversation began two years ago between RCA congregations in New York City and the United Church of Christ.  But since that time, the scope of the conversation has become much, much wider.  What will happen in the RCA over the next few years is anyone’s guess.  What is clear is this.  We have this polar star.  As an Open and Affirming Conference—as a conference—we are committed to inclusivity of LGBTQ and if there is a need for these sisters and brothers to take refuge among us, our doors are wide open (we even have a pot of coffee on, and a warm muffin).  However, the foundational ecumenical commitment of the United Church of Christ does not wane when times get tough, especially economic times.  My counterpart in the RCA Regional Synod of New York has emphatically stated, it is not her intention to encourage any church to leave the RCA even when statements are made by the RCA that speak of “a graceful way to leave our denomination.”  And I want to be very clear, emphatically, it is not the intention of this Conference Minister to encourage or in any way facilitate an RCA congregation from leaving that denomination which contributed to our own birth three hundred years ago.  The voice of the Regional Synod of New York for inclusivity and justice is imperative and the New York Conference, under my leadership, will do all it can to lend support to our ecumenical partners.  This is the most important reason that I am proposing the formation of the Reformed Association.  An RCA church cannot find a home in this Association if it disaffiliates with the RCA.  And I hope that not one of our Associations would encourage, welcome, or support any process of dis-affiliation either.  If tomorrow you vote to create the Reformed Association, I am certain it will evolve—and I hope it will evolve—in future years.  But if you vote to create it, its inception may just become a new form of denominationalism in what is commonly called a post denominational time.  A denominationalism that values connection, values inclusivity, values history, values out-of-the-box thinking, values trying a new thing even if it might fail, and values the whole Body of Christ.  Reformed Association is like adding a new square into our quilt.  It will be unique in many ways and will add to our phenomenal diversity.  While there have been several RCA churches that have indicated an interest in Reformed Association, only two have actually taken an action at the time of the writing of this speech.

            But Reformed Association is only one aspect of the conversations we are having with the Regional Synod of New York.  While other UCC Conferences are discussing merging, our conversation is about partnership and the potential for shared ministry on behalf of 400, or more, churches in New York.  A partnership, not a union, that explores a wider scope of faith-filled prophetic witness and at the same time promotes responsible stewardship of resources.  This coming August your ministry team will attend a joint retreat with the Regional Synod ministry team (and the Regional Synod of New York has extended the invitation to the Regional Synod of Albany—who appear open to the idea—and that is a new and exciting development).

            I have no doubt that some will question our motivations for these directions.  Isn’t this about the positive financial impact these conversation will have on the Conference?  Here is a soul-confession.  When these conversations began, I did think about that.  But as relationships have now begun to emerge, as they have over the years of partnership with our Disciples brethren, it’s about the people—not the money.  AND, if this direction affords the New York Conference greater financial stability and an avenue to continue as the UCC in New York beyond our three year deficit limit—then Praise Be To God.

            There are many aspects of our next two days together that are providentially synchronous.   We will be reflecting on that powerful text from the prophet Amos:  “Let Justice Flow like an Ever-Flowing River”.  Nothing energizes the saints of the church more or revives the ministry of the church better than our passion for acts of justice.  We need merely read the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be reminded over and again that Jesus’ message was to engage the saints in acts of justice and mercy.  Justice and mercy are the polar star; comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable encompass the ministry to which we are called.  Even as we discuss expansion of our partnership with the Regional Synod of New York, RCA, we are gathered here with those with whom we currently live in partnership: The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and tomorrow evening Mary Anne Glover and I will reflect on aspects of our current partnership.  Sunday our partnership with the Disciples will be highlighted with the word preached by the Co-Executives of Global Ministries: Rev. Julia Brown Karimu and Rev. Jim Moos.

            Saints of the church, the quilt work of our shared ministries is a beautiful thing to behold.  It is a quilt that inspires others by how we have unity as we live with diversity.  It is a quilt that comforts refugees and those without a home.  It is a quilt upon which we spread the banquet feast to feed those who hunger in body as well as in Spirit .  It is a quilt always under construction with room for new patches to be added.  It is quilt that needs some work to ensure we don’t come apart at the seams.  Like a good Amish quilt, it has imperfections to remind us that while our God is perfectly faithful, on earth we acknowledge our imperfections and therefore embrace forgiveness and reconciliation.  This is the image I offer you this year as the state of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ.


Rev. David R Gaewski

Conference Minister

New York Conference

United Church of Christ


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