by BARBARA CARTER
Some pastors may ask “Why would I want my congregation to get involved in ecumenical or interfaith endeavors? We are overloaded with congregational life as it is.” This is a good question. Many congregational leaders feel overloaded and strapped for time. So for them, the idea of additional involvement, no matter how meaningful and relevant, just doesn’t seem doable. Maybe you are one of those leaders. My experience with ecumenical and interfaith groups is exactly the opposite: it energizes and brings a sense of wholeness to not only those who engage, but the congregation as a whole.
Ecumenical ministries is about Christians and Christian communions (denominations) working together, seeking opportunities to express the unity of the church and the witness of the gospel in complementary and responsible ways. Ecumenical ministries happen when churches work together to support common causes in neighborhoods, cities, states, and nations. They are empowered in this by the mutual witness of Jesus Christ as they rely on the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to serve all creation to the glory of the Lord.
Ecumenical ministries often provide opportunity for dialogue about the various traditions that comprise ecumenical Christianity. This includes Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, historic African American, Roman Catholic, and Living Peace Churches. These communions often advocate for economic justice for all people. They also advocate for policies that protect God’s good creation and the environment, and often offer a moral witness about social conditions and issues that exist in the communities where the church lives out its life and witness.
Interfaith ministries have to do with working with other religious traditions not usually associated with Christianity. This would include working alongside communities of faith such as Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and many other worldwide religious traditions. Interfaith ministries also seek to promote mutual understanding and dialogue about various religious traditions and beliefs. Like ecumenical efforts, interfaith ministries seek to collaborate on working for a more just world in light of the mutual witness of the world’s religious traditions.
Given the above, ecumenical and interfaith groups:
- strive to bring people and groups together to accomplish what cannot be achieved alone;
- share responsibility for addressing needs of the community;
- promote understanding and connectedness between faith groups;
- offer a combined witness of hope.
Asking, “Where does God need me?” opens us to see and hear with new eyes. When done with sincere intention the opportunities abound. I had this experience when living in Southern Illinois. We had recently moved to the area and I was looking for ways to engage in the place where we lived. I began the practice of opening myself up with new eyes and new ears (see the practice “Hearing with New Eyes and New Ears” following this article). When out around people, I would “listen” for the answer to the question “where does God need me?” My husband and I were checking out at the grocery store one day. The checker was a member of the local congregation. She made comment on how “healthy” our food was. She told us of her concern about the health of the community because she sees what they eat. She was deeply concerned there is a generation that doesn’t know how to eat natural, unprocessed foods and the impact that is having on juvenile diabetes. As we were driving home, I realized the conversation was one of those moments when God was saying “you are needed here.”
Getting started in ecumenical and interfaith work may seem daunting. It starts through an individual’s awareness and resolve to seek connections with others for bringing resources together. It can also start when a congregation identifies that being part of a larger faith voice in their community is important to them.
If this happens through an individual it usually centers on an identified need in the community. The person contacts others who are being led to respond to the need and dialogue begins. Contact can occur through several ways: personal friendships, advertising, calls or visits to other faith groups, and intentional visits with people who have skill sets needed. This can be a difficult time for individuals because it is time-consuming and progress may seem slow. Not all individuals that hear about the endeavor and receive the invitation to join will respond and that can be discouraging. Perseverance and steadfastness are important, as is a good support group.
It is important for the individual who is beginning an ecumenical/interfaith coalition to communicate with the leadership of the congregation so they are aware of this opportunity.
If members of a congregation sense the leadings of the Holy Spirit to engage in ecumenical/interfaith work, it can begin either by connecting with existing coalitions or by starting one. Either way the starting point is research. The Internet is a ripe source to begin with. In searching on the Internet the key words are ecumenical and interfaith. Research each search result carefully before making contact because there are many groups that are not ones that would support the enduring principles of Community of Christ. I would then recommend that you make an appointment with a few clergy members involved in one of the groups to introduce yourself and find out more about the group. Questions you might ask are: What is their mission statement, what are they currently focused on, who are members of the group, how long has the group been in existence? It is important to interview them. If this is a group you would like to explore further, ask if you can attend a meeting as an observer. I have found that clergy from United Church of Christ (UCC) and Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic ministers are especially good contacts to seek out when you are staring to explore the possibilities.
If you do not find a group or you don’t find one that has the focus or intent that you believe God is leading your congregation to, then it may be time to start a new ecumenical/interfaith group in your community. Begin by creating a purpose statement for the group. This may be as simple as: “We are going to have three community worship services a year: Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.” Or “We will provide school supplies for 25 children.” Or “We will create three opportunities for the community to learn about faith organizations in our community.” Over time this purpose statement will change and develop as you are responding to where God is at work.
It is also necessary to understand that ecumenical and interfaith associations are fluid and transitional. This is because people taking part in the group change and because the needs of the community change. This fluidity can be one of its strengths and for some, one of its frustrations.
Community of Christ has wonderful blessings and a powerful witness to offer the ecumenical and interfaith community. Please do not hesitate to engage and receive.
When considering ecumenical or interfaith involvement, there are some helpful questions for the pastor to consider.
- What ecumenical or interfaith ministries are active in this community?
In some areas, there may be no ecumenical or interfaith organizations at all. In many places, there is more than one. Find out what ecumenical and interfaith organizations are in your community. You might find this information on the Internet or in the phone book. Most likely though, your best source of information will be local pastors. Make sure that you ask them if there is more than one organization in your area.
- Which ecumenical/interfaith organization should I associate with?
As alluded to above, not all organizations are the same. Sometimes, ecumenical organizations have different purposes. It is important to keep in mind the principles voiced in this article when considering what group(s) to associate with.
- Who should represent our congregation?
Many times, ecumenical and interfaith groups meet during the daytime when many self-sustaining pastors are at work. Is there another minister in the congregation who could represent the congregation? This should be a person who is well-grounded in Community of Christ identity and who is appreciative of ecumenical/interfaith relationships. Ask them to read this article. Meet with this person from time to time to keep abreast of what’s happening.
|Hearing with New Eyes and New Ears|
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To help pastors and leaders be intentionally open and receptive to the Holy Spirit in hearing and seeing the needs of people in the community where we live, work, and play.
- Spend time in daily prayer and meditation about the needs of others in your community.
- When going out in public, remind yourself to be fully aware of what is going on around you. Subtle reminders may be helpful, such as placing an object or “sticky note” in your car. Or, choose to associate a common action with the reminder of your commitment to be more aware: such as, holding keys in your hand, fastening your seat belt.
- Observe the witness being offered by the churches in your community. Try to understand others as you hope to be understood by them. How do Community of Christ’s identity, mission, message, and beliefs call you and your congregation to a “unity of witness” with others?
- When you hear or see needs, make a mental or written note. What did you hear? What ideas of ministry came to mind? Where were you? Were others with you?
- When a particular need strikes you, begin praying about this need, seeking God’s direction. How might Christian unity be advanced through common mission? Observe, pray, then act accordingly.
- Seek counsel and support from your mission center ecumenical/interfaith minister or your mission center president. Also, you may seek counsel from the Ecumenical and Interfaith Ministries Office at International Headquarters. Contact: Ecumenical and Interfaith Officer, Dale E. Luffman at (816) 833-1000, ext. 3028 or dluffman@CofChrist.org.