St. James, as a member of the United Church of Christ, exists within a system that is fairly unique among American church denominations. While authority exists primarily in the local congregation, we also build relationships of covenant with other local congregations. At the more local level, our congregations form Associations (ours is called “Ursinus” after the 16th-Century German reformer, theologian, and author of the Heidelberg Catechism). The Associations join regionally to form Conferences. As a covenantal member of the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference (PSEC) of the UCC, we join together not for hierarchical control, but for mutual support in ministry and mission. We can accomplish more for God’s church by working together than is possible as individual congregations!
One of the great sources of ministry in the long history of our PSEC (and even before it was formed) has been our camp, Mensch Mill. Many of you will have already heard that at the Fall Meeting of the PSEC on Nov. 10, a vote passed very narrowly (by 2 votes!) to put the camp up for sale. The combination of a large mortgage and poor stewardship of the camp in recent decades has led many in our Conference to question the wisdom and faithfulness of keeping the camp, when our resources may be used better elsewhere to support new ministries and missions. In addition, the sale of the “Church House” Conference facility in Collegeville was also approved for similar reasons.
At the meeting, I presented an alternative proposal, along with the Rev. Mrs. Beth Lyon of Glenside UCC. The proposal provided for a Renewal Team which would revitalize the camp and raise funds to pay off the mortgage. This proposal was also narrowly defeated, by about 10 votes! However, it was also a success in some ways. My intention for the proposal, in addition to keeping our camp, was to re-cast our conversation from being one about mistrust and frustration toward Conference Consistory, to being one about the most faithful use of our Conference-wide resources for mission and ministry. Instead of angry finger-pointing, we were able to have a mostly-civil dialogue about the diverse visions for our future held by church members who come from a variety of places: urban and rural, large churches and small, older and younger, representing many races, cultures, and communities.
It was a wonderful opportunity to practice civil discourse at a time in place where this seems to be rare. I personally was pleased with this outcome, even if the proposal failed. The dialogue and vote communicated a very clear message: that there is not consensus about our vision in the PSEC right now! I agree with many who see the potential of Mensch Mill to be a place for the renewal of our covenantal relationships, a place to educate and empower future ministers (both lay and ordained), and a place to nurture peace and justice (perhaps especially environmental justice). However, I can also understand why many of our partners feel our resources could be better used in other ways: providing seminary scholarships, supporting new congregations, providing for regional missions in the areas of housing, food, and disaster relief; just to name a few.
Since the Nov. 10 meeting, I’ve heard many times the phrase “a vote to sell is not the same thing as a sale.” It could be years before we are able to sell a property like Mensch Mill! In the meanwhile, we will continue to explore other options. But perhaps even more importantly, we’ll be working to restore healthier relationships for dialogue as we begin to work together to discern a clear new vision for the PSEC in the 21st Century. I am excited and thankful to be a part of that process, and I welcome your suggestions and perspectives at all times as a part of our work together. What does it mean to be a Christian Church in this area, at this time? May God show us the way to an answer, and may we be humble and prayerful enough to hear what our still-speaking God is calling forth for us in this new hour! -Pastor Rachael