Scott’s Column: Clergy on the Beach Jan 17, 2023 | News Last Monday morning I exited my hotel room and was greeted with the sunrise over the bay. I then walked around the corner and there were the calm waters of the Gulf lapping the beach. Soon, I was downstairs, barefoot, walking across the sand to dip my toes in the water. And God said it was good. I was in St. Pete Beach, Florida to attend an annual gathering of UCC Senior Ministers that I had long wanted to attend and am so glad I finally did. The 40 folks gathered represented multi-staffed churches from Maine to Hawaii. I reconnected with some very longtime friends and made new ones, pleased to have found a cohort of clergy in my age and professional demographic dealing with all the same sorts of issues. Sunday night there’d been a gathering reception, but the serious work began Monday morning as we each took turns to share a brag and a struggle of our ministries. The themes of the latter were generally common and related to post-pandemic challenges—sharp declines in youth attendance, struggles with getting enough volunteers, how to handle hybrid worship well, financial and building challenges, etc. There were some unique ones. I didn’t envy the Florida pastor who said, because of hurricane insurance, they pay $100,000 a year just in insurance. Or the Washington pastor who said their biggest challenge was the salmon culvert that runs under their parking lot that is falling apart and that to repair it according to current state law will require somewhere between 7 and 14 million dollars. The key takeaway from this first session was that no one knows really what church is going to look like post-pandemic, no one has figured out exactly what to do and not do, we are all experimenting and making it up as we go along. Our keynote speaker for the week was the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, former Senior Minister of Riverside Church in New York City. She spoke about the challenges of ministry in our times, and how we as pastors must be the theologians-in-residence for our communities, theologically reflecting upon the issues we face, particularly around politics and economics. She identified that a key problem for many churches in these times is that they operate out of a scarcity mindset instead of a theology of abundance, despite the reality that churches possess great assets and resources. She said, “the narrative of scarcity is not true and is evidence of a lack of imagination.” She reminded us that God has been at work long before us and will be at work long after us, and that our challenge is to find where God is currently at work and join God there. In her final session on Tuesday, Dr. Butler shared, for the first time publicly, the story of her 2019 termination at Riverside, reflecting particularly upon sexism in the church and the way broken institutions damage people. This elicited a powerful conversation from the group about their experiences, with primarily the female and queer ministers sharing their stories. The key challenge was identified by one of my colleagues—we ministers must bring our whole, authentic, vulnerable selves to our work, but congregations aren’t always open to that. Our first session Wednesday morning explored the challenges of post-pandemic hybrid worship. With everyone sharing what they had tried and what issues they were still facing. I took lots of notes and will share more of those details with the Worship Ministry and Council. The real epiphany I had in that session was when one colleague pointed out that from now on, our online service is going to be our front door, as most people will attend that first before ever showing up in person. We also all acknowledged that God is doing a new thing through this season of church life. The next session Wednesday was a bunch of breakouts around various topics. I joined in the discussion of the changing nature of volunteerism in the church. Again, I took lots of notes and will be sharing the details of that session. One interesting thing was realizing how many churches who had ministry team models are now evolving to an even looser structure with an on-staff volunteer coordinator. Everyone is trying to reduce the number of meetings and reorient around tasks. I liked the pastor who said the intent of their volunteer recruitment efforts is to “get people embedded in their spirituality.” But the week wasn’t all work. There were lots of fun meals and excursions to gay bars and good conversations. There was daily yoga on the beach. We sunned, swam, and soaked in the hot tub. A group of all genders even went for pedicures one day. Throw out whatever stereotypes you might have once had about what the top clergy in the denomination are like. Dr. Butler asked, “Can I cuss in this group?” And there was a loud chorus of “yes.” The week was everything I needed it to be professionally and personally. Thursday morning I packed my swimsuit, shorts, and sandals, and put on long pants and a sweater, and headed back to Omaha were it was nineteen degrees when I landed, five hours later than I was supposed to.