About a week after Easter Sunday, I was away for a couple of days participating in a special UCC church-wide event: the “From the Ground Up: Re-Imagining Theological Formation” summit that was held in Cleveland (where the national offices of our United Church of Christ are located). About 135 people from across the spectrum of the UCC were there—local church pastors, Christian Education / Faith Formation specialists, seminary faculty, denominational staff, and more. All of us had our own reasons for voluntarily taking time (and money) to participate in the conversation, a conversation that was admittedly not highly defined as we went into it.
That fact, in and of itself—that even with some ambiguity about exactly what this summit about “theological formation” was going to be about, that nevertheless a significant number of people from across settings of the church felt it important to take part—said something about the deep yearning that many of us feel around the questions of theology in the United Church of Christ. Namely, are we a church that has a sense of what we believe? And does what we believe have much to do with God, or is it largely about ourselves and our work in the world?
UCC pastor Tony Robinson relates this story in his 2006 book What’s Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church:
Not long ago, I was leading a leadership and planning retreat for a large metropolitan congregation of my denomination (United Church of Christ). We had been working on identifying and responding to some of the congregation’s particular organizational challenges when one leader blurted out, “But what do we believe? That’s what I want to know!”
As if some dam had been opened, another person jumped in, saying, “Yes, I just feel that we’re not sure who we are or what we believe.” A startled and awkward silence fell over the group, as if no one quite knew how to respond or even if such questions were acceptable or legitimate.
Had these two lay leaders, both of whom happened to be women and both on the younger side (say, under 40), named the elephant in the room? Were a clear identity and a discernible center of faith and conviction lacking? At least one person was sure they had not named the elephant in the room. This older man gruffly interrupted the silence: “Attempts to define what we believe make me nervous!” This seemed to elicit several nods of agreement, as if some voice of authority had spoken.
Robinson goes on to talk about what happened next, and identifies three interrelated concerns in the conversation: Most obvious was the question of identity—who are we and what do we believe? Implicit in the older man’s response was also the question of boundaries—if we define our identity, will that create boundaries with which we can or cannot live? But thirdly, the exchange also probed at the process of communicating and discussing these issues—are these matters open to discussion or are they not?
At the theological formation summit in Cleveland, many of us in the room felt that our denomination’s good intentions around keeping our boundaries as open and flexible as possible has often led to lack of clarity about our identity, particularly our theological identity. We’re very good at talking about the good work and justice-seeking that we engage in; we’re not so good at talking about who we are in Christ.
What about here at SCC? Who are we in Christ? Are we able to speak about our identity with any theological coherence or clarity? What is the perspective through which we see life? Is it a perspective formed and shaped by cross and resurrection or by some other story or theology or doctrine?
Yours in the journey,
 About this, Robinson notes, “In an odd way, the apparently open-minded perspective of the older man [‘Attempts to define what we believe make me nervous!’] actually had a closing, not opening, effect on the discussion. He signaled for himself, and seemingly for others, discomfort with such conversation. When such topics are outside the bounds of permissible conversation, one danger is that a congregation becomes clan or clublike, with authority given to the longest standing members and to unwritten rules. Attempts to openly and theologically address identity and boundaries may, paradoxically, have the effect of opening up the congregation and leveling the playing field between newer and long-time members.