Saturday, May 20, 2017

A region in spite of ourselves

A region in spite of ourselves

   (a meditation on the Christian Church in Ohio)

Jeff Gill


As a Christian my faith is lived out as part of a local assembly, or church, or congregation, and that congregation in the denomination I am part of is itself part of what we call a "region." The Ohio region happens to have the same boundaries as the state of the same name; this is not always the case across the United States and Canada in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but is true as often as not. The regions correspond somewhat to what other Christian traditions call a diocese or a synod or a conference: not the highest authority, but the level of accountability and participation that is the most a church member or even many ministers will ever deal with directly.


The Christian Church in Ohio is the direct descendant of an association called the Ohio Christian Missionary Society: the OCMS was founded in 1852, and during a church-wide restructuring in 1967, the state or area societies became regions. In my religious tradition, without bishops or any church hierarchy to speak of, each congregation is autonomous, owning its own property, calling or releasing its own clergy, electing their own elders and diaconate and officers under the general guidelines of the New Testament model of the early church. There are no "state societies" let alone regions in Acts or the Letters to Timothy, but we do see from as early as Acts chapter 15 the different assemblies across a wide area having conferences and meetings and in those gatherings a commitment to work together in ordaining ministers and appointing evangelists and sharing resources.


The early church had the original apostles to "tell the stories of Jesus," succeeded by elders in each assembly or "congregation" (a churchy word for assembly, truth be told, "congregate" the root), and while the elders tended the flock in spiritual growth and interpretation of the words of that apostolic story – which shifted in those early days from the first-hand in-person accounts of eyewitnesses to the written, approved accounts we call "Gospels" today – the practical matters of church service, the meal prep and clean-up, the financial arrangements and so on, were handled by the deacons and deaconesses. There are hints at other roles in the New Testament writings, presiders and set-apart vowed widows and such, and then the next century or so the "Church Fathers" left written accounts of more such offices and structures of church accountability. These apostolic and patristic accounts focus around an office of overseer, with and among the elders, whose title becomes known in English as a "bishop."


When our movement's founders, Barton Stone in Kentucky and the Campbells in western Pennsylvania and Virginia, in the period from 1801 to 1811, looked at common forms of frontier church life, they saw a broken model. Overseers had become bishops had become a multi-layered hierarchy, with elaborations on the early church model laid out in creeds and confessions and catechisms. They not only believed these writings had gone far beyond the Biblical basis Christian life and practice had started from, they observed that they weren't working too well, either. On the American frontier, educated and ordained clergy were few and far between, assemblies were ad hoc and in homes as much as in church buildings, and budgets were more barter than monetary . . . given that there was precious little cash money or hard coinage about in the first place.


So they went back to the original model as they understood it. Stone and the Campbells argued that to "restore" the early church structure was to renew Christianity on the frontier, and to begin a Restoration Movement around which the scattered Christian communions could all agree, and work in unity through. Baptism by immersion, weekly communion, and a ministry flexible enough to work in the field and on the fly – that was their program, such as it was, and it was enough to spur growth and little enough that many could participate.


These Restoration Movement churches, these "Christians only, not the only Christians," spread rapidly, and just as quickly felt the need to consult with one another, to pool resources to reach the next county, the settlements across the river, the places their children were now moving to, and this is where the state societies began. They were annual meetings, occasional mailings, and a pool of money with a trusted, elected group of co-equal colleagues asked and voted into responsibility for that fund. They oversaw that work . . . and began to be overseers, of a sort, just as Acts and the apostolic letters anticipated.  The state secretaries became regional ministers, and the regional ministers became overseers, or in Greek "episcopoi," or essentially bishops in fact, if not in name.


I grew up in Indiana; there had been since 1849 an Indiana Christian Home Missionary Society which developed in Disciples' "restructure" into the Indiana Region. Most of my adult life and ministry as a Christian preacher has been in the Ohio Region. But my seminary training for ministry, and my ordination process, was in Indiana. And just over the border in the Hoosier State, people told me that Ohio was . . . different.


Having lived here now over twenty years, I can assert that Buckeye Disciples are and are not different. The Ohio Region did have a reputation for insularity, but after hearing for four years at Christian Theological Seminary that if you weren't raised in Ohio, you'd never get "called" there, I did, right out of seminary. After hearing as I started in Ohio that, if you didn't go to Camp Christian as a youth, as a pastor you would never (insert three of four honored roles here), I have. Much of that history is, in truth, history.


But there is something about this region that, having served in two others and done work in a "consulting" basis in four or five others, I would agree is different. As most quickly observe, that difference is Camp Christian.


Or is it? I think there's a historical question to ask, and reflect on at least a little bit, before we take it for granted that the presence and purpose of Camp Christian is the entire particular gift and grace of the Ohio Region. Because Camp Christian was only purchased in 1949, really became a central element of the regional life in the mid-1950s, and while the high school and college and junior high/middle school summer week-long programs did turn into the central source of ministerial vocations and lay leadership formation over the next four or five decades, they were not before, and have not for some time, been quite as central – yet I believe one can trace some of the distinctives of the Ohio Region both before and after the ascendance of "the Camp Christian experience."


Ohio has actually had a very de-centered history, which would surprise those limited to their own memories, even the fairly experienced. The state society office was fairly mobile early on, settled into a Cleveland area period, proudly claimed a spot in the famous Terminal Tower, but moved to the suburbs after the war like so many, residing in Elyria for decades, then moving in 2005 to Columbus.


By contrast, the Indiana state society and successor region always was centered in Indianapolis, the center of the state, and the state's main city. Historically and more recently, Hoosier Disciples enjoy complaining about "Indianapolis" (which in the wider Disciples of Christ stands in for both the regional AND general offices of church life). Not that Buckeye Disciples don't complain, but their sense of who or what they complain about has been much more . . . personality driven. More on that later.


Alanson Wilcox wrote in 1917, when he could still consult those who heard Alexander Campbell speak in person about the Restoration plea, that Campbell had said "…the whole future of organized missionary work among the disciples of Christ depends upon the Ohio Society." And even before the OCMS began in 1852, the American Christian Missionary Society was founded with Alexander Campbell as secretary in 1849 in Cincinnati, and even earlier co-operative work was first formally done by congregations in Ohio, to hire and commission in 1827 Walter Scott as their first traveling evangelist.


Campbell and Scott clearly saw Ohio as an early dramatic stage for the production of co-operative ministry between churches. They were themselves lead actors on that stage, and the early history of Buckeye Disciples is filled with church dedications and events where Campbell and Scott preached. There were occasions when Campbell visited Indiana, but they were much less frequent, not as extensive in touring; later in Campbell's life, the question of abolition led Ovid Butler to contradict the great reformer in his reluctance to speak out against slavery. Butler went on to not only publish his beliefs for a wider audience, but also to establish his own educational institution more in keeping with his vision of the Restoration Movement, what became known as Butler University from 1855.


Butler was not a preacher, however. Nor was he really an editor, in the tradition of the common refrain about the Disciples of Christ's second era after the Founders': "the Disciples do not have bishops, they have editors." There were few periodicals originating out of Indiana until the beginning of the College of Missions in 1911 and "Missionary Tidings" (which later became "World Call" in 1928).


Ohio was a center of publishing activity, starting with the "Christian Standard" launched by Isaac Errett in 1866, not coincidentally the year of Alexander Campbell's death. And to compress a great deal of Restoration Movement history, the editors and publishers and owners of Standard Publishing become, between the "instrumentalist" controversy over musical instruments (particularly pianos and organs) in worship and the liberal/conservative controversy over open membership, the primary voice of the "independent" Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, while the Indianapolis consolidation of general ministry offices and hence publications in 1928 made Indiana the public face (and address) of the organized aspect of the Disciples of Christ.


So Indiana, as a geographic region and as what would become the Indiana Region of the Disciples of Christ, found its own identity in the organization itself, the idea of co-operative ministries and shared programming. The center was the focus, if you will. Both the idea of a state society, and a national (later "general") missionary society, had roots in Ohio but first developed in the hands of Indiana leadership; Ohio quickly adopted the same models, but disputes were sooner, sharper, and carried on much longer in the Buckeye State than they did in their neighboring region, which became the site of the general unit offices, in part to escape the contentiousness, especially in Cincinnati. Ohio, during the same period, found itself pulled very strongly in two directions, the independent and co-operative factions, each of which had strong, charismatic, vocal leadership. Indiana had its share of more conservative and ultimately independent leaning congregations, but there was very little in the way of public, organized leadership for that in the state. When the last stage of denominational Restructure came through in 1968, Ohio lost more congregations, numerically and percentage-wise, than Indiana.


And at the risk of sounding ungracious towards my home state, Indiana simply did not have the same sort of big name, big personality, big reputation leadership through the independent vs. co-operative controversy period. From 1920 when the United Christian Missionary Society became the umbrella organization based in Indianapolis for the general units of the Disciples of Christ, up through 1968 when the last International Convention approved the provisional Design and created the denominational General Assemblies we've had biannually since, the larger church itself and the idea of supporting co-operative work as a principal was the unifying principal of the Indiana Region.


Through that same period, the Ohio Christian Missionary Society, which was in the process of becoming the Ohio Region, largely worked on avoiding the subject of the developing and in fact ongoing split. One of the biggest names in both the region and the general controversy was "P. H." Welshimer, minister of the First Christian Church in Canton and leader until his death in 1957 in both the co-operative OCMS and the independent (and Standard Publishing sponsored) North American Christian Convention, the event which was co-ordinating gathering for the independent Christian Churches. His noted catch phrase was "we can disagree without being disagreeable."


Welshimer was what we'd call regional moderator today. The regional minister of Ohio, or state secretary as they were then, had been Gaines Cook in P.E.'s earlier years, and Herald Monroe later on. Their relationships were, to say the least, complicated. But the lesson for Ohio Disciples today in understanding where we're at as a region is to see how this whole period from World War I through Restructure and after was different here than it was in comparable regions like Indiana.


Ohio has been whipsawed for many generations by big personalities and big institutions. While there has been an upside in reputation and visibility for the Christian Church in Ohio, the downside has been that our internal and secondary culture of leadership has been dispersed, distracted, and to some degree discounted. Since World War I, we've been accustomed to state secretaries & regional ministers who served for over two decades at a time; our congregations have been asked to choose sides over matters relating to national or global issues again and again, while the mission field of Ohio rarely gets focused, sustained attention.


Our state has been deeply riven by the stresses of the pressure groups gathered around Standard Publishing and the Cincinnati Bible College.  Those claiming the standard of independent and un-denominational status for their congregations have had a long and persistent history of "turning" Disciples' churches to an independent stance: the Ohio Region has not, since Restructure, had any real intentional strategy for pushing back against these efforts. Now the popularity of non-denominational affiliation has created a whole new front on which we do battle against individuals and socially conservative movements trying to lure Disciples' congregations into an un-affiliated non-relationship.


Ironically, Standard Publishing has been sold and sold again in recent years, and is a shadow of its former self in terms of influence; Cincinnati Christian University is struggling and has merged with Kentucky Christian University with a future status quite unclear; the North American Christian Convention has seen dramatically lower attendance figures year after year just as the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has dwindled in registrations.


All of which is to say: Camp Christian has been both focal point and distraction. A very useful focal point for our regional priority of leadership development and both Christian & community formation, but also a distraction from divisions growing over women in the pulpit, open membership, musical preferences in worship, and social engagement more generally. Rather than have a frank and open discussion of some of these issues, we've said, "hey, let's talk about camp!"


Herald Monroe, one of those big personality, dominant figure, charismatic megafauna in our Ohio Region history, wanted to talk about Martin Luther King's "Beloved Community," but found few willing to listen in Ohio Disciples churches: then he realized that the Christian churches could do so freely and happily in the context of our camps and conferences. Racial reconciliation was controversial in the cities and a point of no little tension in the rural parts of the state, but there was a consensus, carved out by Dr. Monroe, around making Camp Christian an expression of "the Beloved Community." Issues around war and peace and nationalism were divisive in congregational life around the region, but at Camp Christian, there was and is consensus around the focus on Christian community over patriotism and civil religion. At camp, we could look at the excluded and marginalized in the form of youth, and find a general regional agreement for acceptance and inclusion and affirmation that wouldn't as readily find fertile soil in congregational life.


We could do at Camp Christian what we'd like to do in our congregations and communities, but often cannot. So camp became our surrogate for the region as a form of "Beloved Community," when the region could not live into that reality in any other way.


Indiana had camps, but their identity was scattered and smaller. Regional staff did not build the identity of them, and there were three, with different loyalties in different ends of the state. The region itself was not as deeply invested in what went on at camp, and camp did not define the regional life, especially with a lower level of participation than has been the case in Ohio at Camp Christian.


And here the contrast between Indiana and Ohio as regions does come down to a very particular aspect of the Camp Christian experience. Indiana has had a focus on the idea of unity and a single "power center" in the center of the state, at Indianapolis. Ohio through Camp Christian created a "divide and unite" rather than divide and conquer strategy: while there were competing power structures in Cleveland and Cincinnati for nearly a century of church life among Ohio Disciples, the central-ish location of Camp Christian became a unitary focus. At the same time, the innovation of CYF (senior high age youth fellowship) conferences geographically defined meant that each summer, the four "quadrants" of the state gathered, counselors who formerly were mostly clergy and youth who often were soon to be Christian leaders themselves, one week at a time. The Cleveland area had their week, the Cincinnati area had theirs, and the other two "ends" of the state came for their own camp session. Whatever else divided us, and through the 50s and 60s and 70s there was much dividing Disciples generally, there was that single site near the center which counterbalanced the centrifugal forces trying to pull us apart. And the role of regional staff and significant clergy leaders in directing and counseling meant the personal identity of the region had a unitary focus through that week which carried over into myriad relationships and mentoring through the rest of each year.


Was that camp-focused method of developing regional unity better than a different approach? It's hard to say. Indiana and Ohio are both at about the same point in number of congregations and active members. To extend the comparisons cautiously across another state line to Illinois, that state (now part of a multi-state region) had a secondary center at Lincoln Bible College that led the push for independent and more conservative Christian Church affiliations, and had no camp and conference program: they took much more significant losses through the Restructure period than did either Indiana or Ohio.


What does this tell Ohio Disciples moving forward? I think, with respect, that we need to make sure that we are as a region not looking for a "regional pastor and president" to save us. Many might say, indignantly, that this is not what we've done, but I would argue that historically that's exactly what we've become accustomed to. After 1930, Gaines Cook, Dale Fiers, Herald Monroe – they set a pattern among the co-operative movement that became the heart of the Disciples of Christ of long-tenured, dynamic, personally powerful, vocal Christian leadership. The leader became the mission. Camp was a lens through which Herald Monroe and later Howard Ratcliff could focus their leadership across the region. This lens also, I would suggest with respect, also functioned as blinders, allowing us to "not see" areas of stress and tension that we preferred to avoid. P.E. Welshimer didn't want to hear regional staff promoting what he believed was denominational positions, but he had no problem with camp. Congregations that were not happy about racial justice marches in the South or talk of reconciliation in the Buckeye State were happy to see camp embody the Beloved Community, and hear more from their teens about life together for a week with others who were different.


Camp Christian has been, and is, a two-edged sword. We can use it to unite us, but we can also use camp to avoid discussing unpleasant realities. We could go to camp at its central, Magnetic Springs location, and turn and face out to look at this state, the state of the Gospel in our communities, and talk about what we need to go home and do after a blessed time in the Beloved Community. Largely over the last 67 years, we leave those conversations behind at camp to pick them up again only when we return.


Bill Edwards did some of his best work in his twelve years as regional pastor in trying to bring forward the discussion and action long deferred in Ohio around racism, and racial justice. Attempts to make regional activities and governance more inclusive were no longer accepted as attempts, but were pressed to be made into realities. Resistance was as passive as it was vocal, but as I've said, we're not good historically in Ohio at having our disagreements out in the open.


A real failure of the last fifteen years from my own particular perch is that during the intentional interim period between Howard Ratcliff and Bill Edwards, when Suzanne Webb came as both leader and resource for what was clearly shaping up to be a challenging era for regional life and budgets, she brought to us a region-wide attempt to do what's called "Appreciative Inquiry." In brief, this model trains facilitators, then goes out to as many stakeholders as feasible and finds out from them, in a positively-oriented discussion, what self-determined change would look like.


We spent four or five months doing AI in Ohio across this region, and the results were in one sense unsurprising. Camp Christian was identified as our leading asset in Christian formation and leadership development, and the hope expressed was that we would continue to find ways to bring together regional staff, congregational leaders in ministry, and active members of the Ohio Region not just during the summer, but in ongoing programming and training the whole year round. Giving members of churches from around the state a chance to be directly "in community" with active clergy leaders and the regional ministry team was a value we were asked to renew and enhance.


And to be blunt, this process was largely honored in the breach. A few programs were held, but rarely and erratically; regional staff was seen to be stepping back from Camp Christian involvement, not towards; the camp week pattern during the summer was "de-geographied" which made a certain practical sense, but added to the distance some parts of the state felt from regional life; regional leadership prioritized other efforts while creating the impression that Camp Christian was a secondary issue . . . which, to be clear, might be a valid leadership option, but cemented the idea that the voice of the stakeholders, consulted in 2004, was being ignored since.


This is where the other significant element of Ohio Region life has to be addressed, and that is the role of big personalities and individual presence and wider issues. Campbell himself in the first generation, as present in Ohio churches as he was in (West) Virginia where he lived; Errett and Burnet and Raines as a second generation; the state secretaries on the road competing through the early 20th century against Standard Publishing's campaign for non-cooperation and regional staff in the latter half of it traveling to deal with the fallout from Restructure.


When Herald Monroe became state society executive secretary in 1946, there were two professional, ordained staffers for the OCMS. In 1950 that increased to three. By the 1980s, there were seven (possibly six, it depends on whom you ask). Since the mid-90s, that number has steadily ticked down to the recent 1.75. This is also not unusual across the Disciples of Christ in terms of regional (or general) staffing.


But I would argue that in Ohio, our unique challenge has been that outside of camp, we haven't talked much about . . . Ohio. I've read what I can in print, picked up enough pamphlet histories in congregations and scavenged plenty of newsletters and mailings in files over the last fifty-plus years, and what I notice is that we have talked again and again about camp, our Ohio pride and joy, and we talk about national and trans-national and international issues like racism, globalism, militarism, poverty (writ large), and spiritual renewal (writ very large), but since the onset of World War II and the end of the Great Depression, there is remarkably little said about . . . Ohio. And I think I understand why. The stresses and tensions of the multiple power centers, the imminent and then actual departures from fellowship of many congregations, the various personalities striding across the state stirring up dissent and dissention in their wake (James DeForest Murch comes to mind, and those stacks of "Lookout Magazine" in narthexes), and I see clergy hunkering down in their own local setting, with the setting of Camp Christian the one neutral ground where everyone could put down their arms, over Vietnam, Restructure, Watergate, politics in general, and come together to live out Gospel values even if only for a season. Regional staff, fewer each decade, dart about between these citadels, helping hold together identity as best they can, but geography and turnover have made that progressively harder with each passing year. (I think this is also somewhat why the Commission on Ministry has been a bit of a defensive citadel itself over its lifespan since 1951, but that's another essay.)


We have tried to support a shared parish in the Hocking Valley as a region, though outside of CYF conference I don't hear about that valiant mission effort of five small churches very much; there was an Inner City Fund which may be defunct and perhaps reflects an earlier and frankly more racially insensitive way to serve alongside majority persons of color congregations. But as a region, we haven't talked about the region as a mission field in its own right, and we've not really done so I would argue for generations. Not just recently, but ever, in terms of living memory. What does the state of Ohio need the Ohio Region churches to say, to do, to share?


Obviously, we need to share the Gospel, God's good news made known in Jesus Christ, to Ohio and Ohioans. And that is certainly going to be done differently in Parma than in Paulding. But is there a message, a mission for the Christian Church in Ohio to share to Ohio churches, and to the state at large? Do we need to gather . . . probably at Camp Christian at least to start! . . . and talk about Ohio?


To say that many of our members in churches on one "end" of the state don't know anyone on the other is to state a truism, and not to point out an actual problem. That's a fairly common state of affairs. The problem I would assert is that they don't know that they are there, or how they are connected to them . . . other than through shared support of Camp Christian. Formerly, an average Christian with a busy and full life in their own community would know they are connected to other Disciples church members through camp, yes, and through both having heard preaching from a regional minister. That shared experience was enough.


We won't bring that experience back in the same form. Six or seven regional ministers traveling the state and preaching regularly in congregations will not be how we restore and renew the bonds of regional covenant. Not gonna happen. And camp itself has changed, had to change. It has not been for some time the primary source of our "calls to ministry" for clergy in the region; those of us who didn't "begin" at camp here respect that heritage, but at one remove, and we are the majority. Add in the fact that young Christian leaders we shape and form and launch from CYF conference tend overwhelmingly to leave the state after college, and it's clear camp can't be the whole effort moving forward, either.


But if we silently seek to restore what was, we could make two major mistakes: one, to make Camp Christian the whole focus as opposed to one focus among many for bringing Ohio Disciples together; two, that we expect the voice and vision of a new regional pastor and president to define us moving forward. They can help us discern that vision as a spiritual director for the region, but what they can't and shouldn't be expected to do is to bring that vision and sell it to the churches in their own name.


Which is where I want to provoke a conversation before we even get going down the path to calling new leadership for the regional office: I think we have a terrible track record for preaching to and about Ohio as Ohio. We have been a region in spite of ourselves. As churches and communities and causes with the focal points of Camp Christian and regional staff loyalties, we've not ever had much to say about what God is doing in Ohio in 2017, and how we can witness through action to that movement of the Spirit.


God bless Indiana (most of my family still lives there), but they have their preachers and leaders. I admire much that's going on in West Virginia, having served there, but I live and am committed in ministry to the State of Ohio, and so through the Christian Church in Ohio to our shared ministries in this state. What is God up to in the Buckeye State, and how should Ohio Disciples point to that movement and support and sustain it?


On the general level, and for this summer's General Assembly in Indianapolis, the "Mission First" effort has tried to identify a mission focus that makes sense for the general church and ministries, and they are discerning a particular call to ministries for and with youth and children. Good for them, and we will have our Ohio part in that work. In the Ohio we are in today, 11.5 million strong, one reality in our mission field is age. Aging. Yes, older people. God loves them, too.


In Ohio, the median age of our citizens has gone up 3 years in each of the last two decades to just over 40; the percentage of Ohioans age 70 to 79 is projected to increase from 5.8% in 2010 to 8.6% of the state in 2040. What is the word of the church to this population? Are we called to use the gifts we already have to minister effectively to the senior population, which is living longer, more active, and contrary to popular belief, not all going to church? In fact, large numbers are not, but are open to the possibility.


And the openings to racial dialogue and healing in Ohio exist, but are awaiting more contact, better communication, deeper awareness. We've found each other but we're still not talking, much.


So again I say, the Ohio Region may not need much more to thrive in mission and ministry than to talk about Ohio, and Jesus, and how to introduce the two to each other. We're no longer a battlefield for the struggles of the larger church (well, we're not "the" battlefield), and the era of big names and giant personalities in the pulpit are largely past.


But I will close with a line from the legendary Herald Monroe, which is one of his aphorisms worth remembering. He understood our polity to a fault, and in that knowledge, said often about regional ministry: "we only have the authority that congregations grant us." Implicit in how I'm told he said that is that the Ohio Region has the responsibility to use that authority wisely and well when it is offered. Many congregations of the Christian Church in Ohio are offering a cautious measure of authority to the region not just through our shared stewardship of Camp Christian, but in an expressed desire to discern together what God expects of us now. May we be an assembly of assemblies, a gathering of the gathered, and fulfill the calling of what we call "a region" as Ohio Disciples in mission and ministry right here, right now.