When our family arrived in Denver, CO, in March of 2003, the snow from one of Colorado’s largest storms was still melting. Our daughters Danielle and Daryn were 9 and 6 years old, respectively, and neither had ever seen snow. They were excited to get out of the car and just touch the stuff! I had done my best to convince the two of them along with my wife, Angelle, that this was our ‘spring break trip’.
We were moving to Denver from Sarasota, Florida, where I’d served as an Associate Pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ, a large, bi-racial congregation where many of the members were retired senior citizens. Sarasota is one of those famous towns for ‘snowbirds’ who regularly ‘winter’ away from the Midwest or northeast.
After I accepted the call to become Senior Pastor of the United Church of Montbello in Denver, one of my ministerial colleagues mentioned that I’d hold standing in the three denominations of our union. At the time, I didn’t have the basis to understand the full scope of this reality, but I did have quite a bit of ecumenical experience. I thought back to my summer camp experiences at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Chicago. Certainly it would help that I spent my college years at Illinois Wesleyan University, a UMC College in Bloomington, Illinois, right?
I believe that ecumenism is the way of the church of the future as denominations reshape, reform, and decline.
Then there was my pastoral mentor, the Rev. Dr. Reuben A. Sheares, II. After my ‘trial sermon’ at the church of my birth and baptism, the Congregational Church of Park Manor (UCC), Rev. Sheares told me I would do well to line up some preaching assignments away from my home church. Well, we had friends at Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Chicago, and their pastor really appreciated seminarians, so I got to preach on fill-in Sundays…for pay!
There was also the support rendered by the Rev. Kenneth Smith, the president of my seminary. At his suggestion I served as the Seminarian Representative for Chicago Theological Seminary on the United Church Board for World Ministry, a joint board for on world mission and ministry made possible by a partnership between the UCC and the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ. Rev. Smith also recommended me to be part of a seventeen-person ecumenical and interfaith team that was sent to Brazil to study the globalization of theological education and the devastating poverty that was crushing Brazil then and continues even now.
Looking back, perhaps God was trying to tell me something in all those experiences.
It wasn’t until the first full day I spent in the office of the United Church of Montbello that the weight of relating to these three denominations started to seem like an unbearably heavy responsibility. I called the UCC ecumenical officer in a panic. “How can I faithfully serve an Ecumenical (Federated) church like this one?”, I asked the Rev. Lydia Veliko, my ecumenical officer. “How can I know what to do in these three church families?”
We need to stick close to our friends, allies, and like-minded believers if we are to participate in God’s mission. God’s will for all God’s people is just too important for us to remain separate and divided.
Fortunately, Rev. Veliko had a longstanding friendship with the PC(USA) ecumenical officer, Rev. Robina Winbush. After she calmed me down a bit, Rev. Veliko told me she thought it might be helpful for me to continue service beyond the local church, something I had experience within the UCC. She reconnected me with Rev. Winbush, and I began my service as the UCC Ecumenical Representative on the PC(USA) Mission Agency Board, where I have learned a great deal. Rev. Veliko also reminded me that the relationships I’d build with folks from other parts of the church and other parts of the country would be sustaining ones in my new ecumenical ministry.
Finally, Rev. Veliko promised to send me a great resource called, GEMS: God’s Ecumenical Ministry Shared. That booklet arrived in the mail shortly thereafter, and I read it cover-to-cover. It helped me immensely as I navigated new realities, like going into meetings and being reminded by officers that our mission dollars were always split three ways (between the UCC/PCUSA/UMC). It remains a relevant and invaluable resource, even though, published in 1999, it is over 15 years old! The contributors include: American Baptist Churches, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Methodist Church, and my own United Church of Christ.
Living and working ecumenically has widened my circle of friends and taught me deep lessons about hospitality. I have learned the importance of carrying my Christian faith as an ‘ambassador’ rather than a sledgehammer. I believe that ecumenism is the way of the church of the future as denominations reshape, reform, and decline. Coming from a Congregationalist tradition, the charism of the PC(USA) that I’ll always treasure is that sense of connectedness that we seek one with another. I’m glad to serve an ecumenical congregation and grateful for our witness to God’s grace in our present age and in our changing neighborhood in far northeast Denver. Here we remember and live out that formative phrase, “Ecclesia semper reformada est” – the church is continually in need of renewal.
I can hardly believe that I’ve been in Christian ministry for more than twenty years now. During those years, a lesson that has been reinforced over and over again is that justice work in God’s world can be slow and sometimes discouraging. We need to stick close to our friends, allies, and like-minded believers if we are to participate in God’s mission. God’s will for all God’s people is just too important for us to remain separate and divided. Living and working together ecumenically, I believe, makes our Creator smile.
AUTHOR BIO: Rev. Dr. James Ellis Fouther, Jr. is a native Chicagoan and dedicated fan of the Bears, Bulls, and White Sox. He was born, baptized and ordained into the United Church of Christ and has served the church ecumenically since his seminary years. Theologically, his commitment to social, racial, and economic justice is a driving force in his ministry.