All professions – doctors, teachers, lawyers, social workers, etc. have processes through which the professions’ practitioners are vetted. There are boards or committees that oversee professional certification and determine whether the practitioners have met the criteria for authorization. These entities also provide ongoing support and oversight for the professions. Ministry is no different. In the United Church of Christ, this work is done by Committees on Ministry of UCC Associations. Committees on Ministry (COMs) have daunting responsibilities – they determine “fitness for ministry,” and provide ongoing support for churches and ministers, not just within their Association, but on behalf of the entire United Church of Christ. It is essential, therefore, that the work of COMs be carried out with the utmost care, dedication, and skill.
Doing COM work in Associations is increasingly difficult as church membership and resources dwindle. There is a provision in the UCC constitution that allows Associations to delegate their COM responsibilities to their Conference. Given membership and resource shrinkage, as well as ongoing and increasing professional demands and complexities, more and more UCC Associations are discovering the wisdom of pooling resources and delegating these essential COM responsibilities to their Conferences. Doing so allows for coordinated training, greater staff assistance, and a more equitable and efficient sharing of COM work across the breadth of the UCC.
In the Rocky Mountain Conference, we currently have 5 Committees on Ministry, one in each of our 5 Associations. Over the last 4 years, leaders from all of the Associations have been coming together to explore, reflect and discern how best to carry out the work of ministerial authorization, oversight and accountability within the rapidly changing context of church and religious life. This time of discernment has led us to the conclusion that COM work within the Rocky Mountain Conference can be better done by uniting in a single Conference Wide Committee on Ministry (CWCOM).
In the last 50 years the Rocky Mountain Conference has gone from 103 churches and just over 20,000 members to 69 churches with just under 10,000 members. Of those 69 churches, 22 have part-time clergy and 4 are lay-led congregations, making it increasingly more difficult to ensure that each of the Association COMs are fully staffed, equipped, and trained to do this essential work in and on behalf of the entire UCC.
In addition, we are witnessing the emergence of all kinds of new forms of ministry, requiring COMs to engage in their own discernment of what kind of calls require ordination, and how the wider church can best support these emerging ministries. Over the past decade of increased technological innovation, local church ministry has also become more complex, requiring new skills and competencies for local church pastors, which heightens the need for support and accountability provided by Committees on Ministry.
In 2018 the Ministerial Support, Excellence and Authorization Team (MESA) of the National Setting of the UCC put out a new Manual on Ministry that offers guidance and best practices on authorizing ministry in the United Church of Christ. Ensuring all 5 COMs are trained and equipped on the latest practices in the Manual on Ministry so we can create consistent guidelines and provide needed oversight and support across our Conference is another challenge.
All this is to say that the demands on Committees on Ministry are increasing, even as our ability to maintain our current COM structures is decreasing.
In considering all these variables, and considering the incredible technologies available to us today that weren’t present when the United Church of Christ was formed in 1957, what has emerged is the recommendation to create a Conference Wide Committee on Ministry (CWCOM) that carries out the responsibilities of authorization, oversight and accountability in the Rocky Mountain Conference.
At the 2019 Fall Association Meetings, we presented the first draft of a model for a CWCOM and were planning to carry that work forward at Spring Association Meetings in 2020. When it quickly became clear that COVID-19 was not going anywhere, Associations canceled their meetings, and this movement towards a Conference Wide COM was put on hold.
In the last few months, I have worked with a small team of people from across all Associations to reignite this move towards a CWCOM. From multiple sources of feedback, we have continued to update and improve the model and are excited to share it with Associations and the entire Conference.
On behalf of all who have worked on this project, we are asking Associations to consider delegating the work of their COM to the CWCOM for a two-year experimental period in which we try on this model. At the end of the two years, we will evaluate whether we collectively want to make this an official change to our Association and Conference bylaws. Download the CWCOM proposal here.
In order to help Associations prepare for that decision, we will be offering a webinar that outlines the changes, would they may mean for Associations, and a general timeline and plan for the transition from 5 COM’s to 1 CWCOM, and a time for Questions and Answers. The webinar will be offered at these times:
While we can’t fully know what the future church will look like, we do know that wise and excellent leadership, is and will continue to be, essential in order to effectively navigate this changing landscape. I believe that a well-trained, courageous, compassionate, collaborative, CWCOM is an essential part of ensuring that our authorized ministers are equipped for effective navigation. The CWCOM will enable us to carry out the responsibility of authorization and oversight of ministers in our Conference with the greatest of care and a depth of awareness for what is needed today. Our churches and ministers need the support and accountability the CWCOM can provide. I look forward to our collective discernment in the coming months.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Erin Gilmore
Associate Conference Minister
Rocky Mountain Conference