Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Shape of Things to Come?

Don't worry; be happy! That's the thrust of this pro-homosexual article on the Metro Community Church and its coming irrelevance--irrevelance as Protestant denominations slowly become more "welcoming and affirming."

UFMCC cuts budget, moves offices

UFMCC moderator the Reverend Nancy Wilson and MCC-SF senior pastor Penny Nixon at the San Francisco church's 35th anniversary celebration in November. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

Budget cuts at an LGBT-focused religious denomination might correlate with greater collaboration with its more financially healthy cousin.

The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches' move to cut almost $400,000 from its overall expenses over 2005, and its new moderator's recent goodwill visit with the progressive United Church of Christ's leadership, foreshadows greater ecumenical alliances and parallels wider melding among progressive branches of all mainstream U.S. faiths.

Clergy are weighing in on various interpretations of UFMCC Moderator Nancy Wilson's communication to pastors, detailing her discussion with the UCC heads about dual clergy credentialing, congregational affiliation, and affiliation transfers.

UFMCC churches have inquired about UCC affiliation following the denomination's adopting into official policy its support for same-sex marriage rights last August, while some UCC congregations have threatened to disaffiliate.

"Some have explicitly said they are leaving because of the general synod action," said Michael Schuenemeyer, head of UCC's homeless, AIDS, and LGBT ministries. Though "not on a large scale," he added.

UFMCC began restructuring its top posts in 1999, anticipating founder Reverend Troy Perry's retirement and the transition to a new moderator. Wilson was installed during a ceremony in Washington, D.C. in October.
The newly approved 2006 budget of about $3.3 million, based on projected tithing from churches (frozen at 14 percent), was achieved through flattening the hierarchy and moving from a global headquarters to decentralized operations points.

Palm Springs' 110-member Coachella Valley MCC is one of about a fourth of the churches that volunteer to tithe at 15 percent with the extra 1 percent earmarked for church planting.

After September 11, 2001, ensuring missionaries' security and fighting severe homophobic oppression in nations not as hospitable to U.S.-born – especially LGBT – clergy made church planting overseas slower, so tithing income from overseas expansion fell.

Dallas' Cathedral of Hope, once UFMCC's largest congregation, began discussing aligning with UCC 12 years ago. It disaffiliated from UFMCC in 2003, and voted to join UCC last October, a "painful, long, protracted" ordeal and ultimate relief, said Wilson. The move meant that UFMCC no longer received money from that church.

Without a development director since 2001, UFMCC will delay hiring another until it takes steps to develop an audit, has a more detailed strategic plan, and forms a separate 501(c)3 foundation – a new function – before raising outside funds.

The denomination "did not have any of that kind of structure in its history," said UFMCC Executive Director Cindi Love.

The West Coast regional office will move to MCC Los Angeles' second floor, next door to the former world headquarters on Santa Monica Boulevard. The headquarters space has been leased to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. NGLTF agreed to lease the office space for three years. This brings $90,000 in income for 2006, according to UFMCC budget documents.
UFMCC clergy salaries average $34,000 annually, according to the last church survey.

Wilson called those "movement wages," and noted that first-year clergy and those at smaller churches face underemployment, and sometimes need to work two jobs.

UCC compensation is 30 percent to 40 percent higher, believes the Reverend Dr. Jim Mitulski, formerly of MCC-San Francisco, now a regional elder for the fellowship.

Years of real estate investment and endowment assets support mainline churches, unlike UFMCC where the worship service offering mostly funds clergy salaries.

"Investments make American Protestantism viable," said Mitulski.
UCC lent the multi-ethnic, Pentecostal-flavored City of Refuge an initial 1998 loan to purchase its South of Market property, the kind of boost that could help individual UFMCC ministries.

Nondenominational at its inception in 1991, City of Refuge later chose the UCC umbrella for its impressive infrastructure, access to worship and liturgy support, autonomous congregations, and commitment to social justice.
UFMCC's recent increased medical, disability, and life insurance benefits for pastors correspond with greater education expectations, customarily, a master's degree in divinity, said MCC Sacramento's the Reverend Roland Stringfellow.

"Requiring more education, clergy can turn around and say I want to be compensated to the degree I've earned this pay," said Stringfellow. "The benefits show the denomination has heard that, and is moving in a competitive direction."

UFMCC is creating a more proactive, grassroots, cheaper, and faster system of receiving and accepting the boom in out theology students.

"A whole generation is more candid and truthful," said Mitulski, who graduated from the UCC-affiliated Pacific School of Religion, where MCC employs two trustees, offers two MCC-specific courses, an annual weeklong summer orientation, and scholarships. PSR is the alma mater of 40 UFMCC pastors.
At least one dozen students are currently seeking dual credentialing, which is "a trend for the future," said Mitulski.

More LGBT seminary graduates want to work with UCC than there are gay-friendly vacant pulpits, hospital chaplainries, and campus ministries to hire them. The UCC affiliation is made more challenging because UCC defines ordination as a church "calling" the formed priest.

"Basically, you must have a paid position to be ordained," said MCC-San Jose senior pastor the Reverend Michael Ellard.

"Certainly it's not the case where the majority of congregations are ready to call an openly gay pastor," said UCC's Schuenemeyer.

UCC's open and affirming wing has not eclipsed UFMCC founder Perry's still relevant 1968 vision of his church (now in 17 countries) as an influential catalyst in convincing mainstream religion that denying gay people spirituality is unjust. Large denominations like Southern Baptist, evangelical, and Catholic have no open and affirming sanctuaries.

"[Perry's] dream was that that would happen in his lifetime," said Love. "It may take a little longer. We hear that some churches are opening up. Great, but it is a very tiny percentage in the U.S. and the world who even accept us as members, much less as clergy."

Ready optimism about welcoming churches does not bare out in numbers, especially outside urban areas – "the California bubble where everyone is ready to take everybody," Mitulski called it. All mainstream gay-inclusive worship sites combined plus Episcopalians, Unitarians, UCC's 580 churches and UFMCC's 200 churches still equal a small number.

"So few it's statistically insignificant," said Mitulski. "I don't see MCC going out of business."

The future?

Across denominational lines gay inclusion is a small part of American Protestantism's reordering as churches recognize, collaborate, and form strategic alliances together.

"Twenty years from now the whole landscape will look very different," said Mitulski.

"Folks are less and less concerned with what denomination to go to," said Karen Foster, senior pastor of Berkeley's triple-affiliated New Spirit Church. The church was created in 2000 as an intentional bridge-building enterprise between like-minded theologies of UFMCC, UCC, and the Disciples of Christ.

Foster, the first UFMCC-ordained minister to achieve UCC clergy standing, said the connection allows her a voice within the larger Christian church as a partner, erasing distinctions.

"Ecumenical interface," serves to "break down religious oppression," agreed Love.

Wilson rejected the suggestion that her letter about her visit with UCC officials attempted to provoke acceptance of a denominational merger, noting UFMCC's global movement versus UCC's mainly domestic mission.

Merging would require a general conference vote, due diligence, and bringing polity and by-laws into conformity. For example, UFMCC models its inclusiveness with universally open Communion, whereas such rituals are open to congregational discernment in UCC.

UCC and UFMCC are mutually beneficial, prodding each other on social justice issues and commitment to gay liberation, respectively, said Mitulski.

UCC still "retains knowledge of its history," said San Jose's Ellard, thus an absorbed UFMCC could preserve its queer identity intact, he believes.
The 1.4 million-member UCC is a 1957 union of Congregational Churches founded by Mayflower Pilgrims and Puritans, frontier Christian churches, Reformed Church Pennsylvanians and German Evangelical Missourians, all strongly committed to autonomous self-government and freedom of religious expression.

"There are ongoing healthy discussions about any places where we can partner, that are a fit for us," said Love. But those contacted, including MCC-San
Francisco senior pastor Penny Nixon, have heard no rumblings about a merger so far.

"I'm just making sure MCC is the best spiritual home for the well being of our community," said Nixon. "We're up to our ears in what we're doing right here."
Wilson called UCC "our most faithful and treasured colleagues," and added, "we want to have a long, good relationship, sharing resources, clergy, and congregations."


1 comment:

James Simmons said...

It's great to finally see some real leadership at UFMCC. While a worthwhile denomination with a worthy cause, the fact that Revs. Wilson and Nixon are even holding discussions with UCC are clear signs that UFMCC has no real future as an independent denomination. As more and more MCC congregations disaffiliate or seek dual affiliation with other denominations, UFMCC is left with a declining membership, a more sharply declining contributions base and a waning popularity in favor of larger, more accepting mainstream denominational churches. The UFMCC is not and never has carried enough clout to have much of a voice in the overall big picture of worldwide religion. Furthermore, the denomination has seen virtually no real membership growth whatsoever over the past decade, and is dwarfed in comparison to its mainstream counterparts. Small denomination, smaller voice. All that really remains of UFMCC is a small, but ever dedicated group of educated, spiritual and extraordinarily talented clergy that ANY other denomination would be very fortunate to have. Problem is, no other denomination save the UCC is clever enough to recognize that fact. In retrospect, perhaps the folks at Cathedral of Hope had the right idea after all.