The greatest challenge the United Church of Christ is facing and will face over the next decades is leadership, according to the denomination’s outgoing head.
“Whether for large, vital congregations, or small, vital congregations, or for congregations ready for renewal, or for emerging and developing congregations, the role of the pastoral leader is crucial,” said UCC General Minister and President John H. Thomas in his last interview with his denomination’s news agency.
Thomas, whose tenure is scheduled to end Sept. 30, emphasized to United Church News (UCNews) the need for leaders in congregations of all types – from the “courageous” and “generous” to the evangelical.
“Our whole church needs to shift from a culture of leadership consumption to leadership production,” he exclaimed.
Over the course of Thomas’ 10-year tenure as head of the UCC, the mainline Protestant denomination has overall grown smaller. According to its 2008 annual report, the denomination has about 1.1 million members in about 5,300 local congregations. In 2004, the year before it became the first mainline denomination to officially support same-sex marriages, the UCC had approximately 1.3 million members in approximately 5,750 local churches.
“We're not alone among denominations in this, but that doesn't make it feel any better,” Thomas said.
He further noted that the reasons for the decline "are complex and long standing."
"[A]nd that cautions against simplistic finger pointing,” Thomas stated.
Despite the losses, the outgoing leader, who is ineligible to serve for another full, four-year term, expressed confidence in the increasing number of local churches across the UCC that are growing, noting that they are the ones that "have been welcoming to all, courageous in their commitments to justice and peace, committed to excellence in worship, and passionate about transmitting the Gospel to a new generation of Christians."
Thomas also said he is "anxious, but still hopeful" about what he describes as the transition from "respectable religion" to "evangelical faith."
"Paradoxically, we have grown smaller as a denomination at precisely the time we are learning more and more about how to be faithful and vital in the waning years of Christendom," Thomas said. "Every generation has wrestled with this [transition], but it seems particularly challenging and important today. Will we make this transition? I would say I'm anxious, but still hopeful."
On Oct. 1, the UCC will officially hand off leadership from Thomas to the Rev. Geoffrey Black, who was elected to succeed Thomas during the denomination’s 27th General Synod late June.
Black, the second African-American man to serve as UCC president, expressed following his election that he believes the “big bleed is over” though a continued decline in membership is expected.
"The churches that couldn't live with that (the 2005 synod vote) have made their way out of the denomination," he had stated.
The president-elect also said he believes the trend can be reversed as churches welcome immigrants, single parents and people of color.
In his departing words, Thomas encouraged members of the denomination to embrace Black has they had embraced him.
“Support him, care for him, celebrate his gifts. He has great gifts to offer,” Thomas stated.
First elected in 1999 to serve a partial two-year term, Thomas went on to serve two full four-year terms in office. After he hands over the presidency, Thomas is expected to join Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) as the senior advisor to the president and visiting professor in church ministries.
Thomas' new appointment will take effect Jan. 1, 2010.