Miles and meetings

My career as a pastor has taken place in locations where congregations of the United Church of Christ are few and far between. In 41 years of ordained ministry, continually employed as a full-time local church pastor, I have never served a congregation that is in the same time zone as the conference office. My friends who have served their careers in the northeastern part of the United States can’t quite comprehend the distances that are a part of our everyday lives. In Connecticut, for example, there is a congregation of the United Church of Christ in every town. People complain if they have to drive more than 40 miles to attend a church meeting. When we lived in North Dakota, we routinely drove 150 miles one way to attend meetings. The Northern Plains Conference of the United Church of Christ is the geographically largest conference in our denomination. It consists of the State of North Dakota and the nation of Canada. At the time we served there, there were three congregations in Canada and the most distant of those was in Josephsburg, near Edmonton, Alberta. One year that congregation hosted our conference annual meeting. I drove a bus 900 miles each way to take delegates to that meeting. We stopped overnight making two days of travel each way.

When we served in Idaho, our Conference Office was in Portland, Oregon, 415 miles away. We routinely drove to meetings there taking one day to drive each way. When I would attend national meetings and my colleagues from other conferences complained about the time they took to travel to meetings, I would just roll my eyes and tell them some stories.

Moving to South Dakota, we didn’t blink our eyes at the distances. The conference office in Sioux Falls was only 350 miles from our home and many meetings of the conference took place in Chamberlain, only 210 miles. The year we moved to South Dakota the national 55mph speed limit was lifted and I could get to Chamberlain in 3 hours instead of four. I sometimes joke about meetings in Chamberlain. Because of the time zone change, I have to allow four hours on the clock to get to a meeting there. If the meeting starts at 10 am, I have to be on the road by 6. But when I go home, I only have to allow two hours on the clock. I can leave Chamberlain at 5 pm and be home by 7. I tell people that if they had all of the meetings in Rapid City, all of those folk would be coming the two hour direction and would save all that time. Another joke I make about meetings in Chamberlain is that it is a perfect place to meet. We drive 210 miles and the folks from Sioux Falls drive 140 and they truly believe that they came half way.

These days, our Conference is the combination of what once was three Conferences spanning the states of South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa. Our conference office is in Des Moines, which is 625 mils from Rapid City. It can be driven in a day, but it takes all day. This weekend we are attending a conference annual meeting in Omaha, NE, which is 525 miles from Rapid City. Rapid City is one of the most distant congregations from the location of the meeting. Because of the number of members and the number of authorized ministers in our church, we are entitled to a large number of delegates to the meeting, but the distance and time involved meant that only four from our congregation are attending. The more distant conference office combined with other changes in denominational life have meant that it is harder to recruit delegates to conference meetings than was the case years ago. Three days of conference meetings plus two days of travel is a big chunk out of a week. It means that I have to be gone on a Sunday, which is always a challenge. I also had to miss important meetings at our church last night.

I remember the days when going to a Conference meeting was an exciting adventure for me. I’ve always loved traveling, so I didn’t mind the miles. And I would meet friends and mentors at Conference meetings. It was a good time to worship as a member of the congregation instead of as the leader. I also was involved in Conference committees, so had business to conduct at the meetings. These days there is less of a family reunion feel to Conference meetings for me. I will see folks who are old friends at the meeting, but there will be plenty of folks whom I’ve never met and whose life and work are very distant and different from mine. I’m sure I will enjoy the worship, the collegiality and other aspects of the meeting, but I have less enthusiasm than I did earlier in my career. I miss my congregation and its worship when I am gone. We have a strong music program and I often miss our musicians when I am worshiping in other settings.

Mostly, however, I have a strong sense that the real work of the church is what we do in local congregations. The body of Christ is built and maintained in local congregations, not in Conference meetings. I’m not saying that the Holy Spirit is absent from Conference meetings, that isn’t the case. However, the future of the church is not determined by judicatory meetings or the actions of Conferences. The future of the church is the ministries we do at home, serving those in need, caring for our congregation, worshipping faithfully, inviting others to join. As we were driving yesterday, we were going over the list of new members who will be received into our congregation on the first Sunday of July. That conversation was more exciting to me than anticipating the meetings that will take place over the next three days.

Maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe the world is changing. Probably both are the case. At any rate, I’m a pastor who belongs with his congregation and I’m glad that I’m not a Conference Minister who has to plan these meetings.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!