By Associate Conference Minister Daniel Ross-Jones
A few weeks ago, as I was listening to a public radio station on a drive through the Conference, there was a locally-produced show that caught my ear. (Some folks are surprised to learn I don’t spend my drive time listening to podcasts; instead I like to listen to local radio stations that give me more insight to the particular communities and environments of our diverse ministry settings.)
On this show – which I never caught the name of – the host was interviewing the equipment manager for a local high school’s athletics department. It fascinated me to listen to all the detail that went into being a high school athletics equipment manager. It was a part educational and mentorship, a part skill and administration, and another part vision and experimentation.
Sounds a lot like Conference ministry to me! I appreciated the stories that the equipment manager shared about their vocation, of making sure that physical education and varsity sports student-athletes were safe, had the right tools for their task, and that materials were maintained. Likewise, those who felt a bug for sports administration were given opportunities to learn, develop, and be formed for their future endeavors.
I had this image in mind last month as I joined with hundreds of other Conference ministers and leaders, along with National Setting staff members and other covenantal partners, at the biannual AM21 event. One of our keynote addresses was from our skilled General Counsel, Heather Kimmel, who is an invaluable resource partner to our work together as Conference and National Setting.
Her remarks explored some of the more managerial aspects of church administration. One particular area she focused on included nontraditional, entrepreneurial ministries.
Nontraditional, entrepreneurial ministries are exciting, and they demand particular considerations in light of the mission, witness, and ministry of both the sponsoring church (or ministry setting) and the particular ministry being conducted. The example Heather used was of a church coffee shop – a ministry near and dear to my heart after launching Sacred Grounds in my former ministry setting. Ultimately, being a coffee shop with a heart for community service or profit-sharing mission does not automatically make such an endeavor “church” or eligible for tax exempt status! Savvy leaders and visionaries will want to make sure that such a ministry with a church purpose is still aligned with the values and ethos of a local church of the United Church of Christ.
So, what makes a church? It’s a common question around the UCC, especially as our spirited entrepreneurial colleagues discover different ways, spaces and places where God’s presence is inbreaking than where we’ve become accustomed to experiencing it. According both to the IRS and the Constitution & Bylaws of the United Church of Christ, there are some tests to determine if something is a church by definition:
Are there regular, public worship services?
Is there a particular assembly that gathers together regularly in a defined congregation?
Is there an established place where these events happen?
It’s not to say that valid, unique ministry can’t happen outside these parameters; it simply becomes necessary to build a different shell around those activities. It may be that the activity does not qualify as a protected activity under a religious corporation, and instead needs to be shifted to a different kind of nonprofit entity, or even a “B Corp” for-profit public benefit entity. Blending these efforts with an existing local church will then have important consequences on taxation, accounting, liability, and risk.
Back to the equipment manager interview: toward the end, the interviewer made a cast-off comment that one wouldn’t want to use field hockey sticks in a basketball game. The various types of ministries in which we engage – and the ways in which they are structured – are a lot like the different types of sports equipment that the interviewee managed. We don’t need to know how they all work together, but we are reliant upon the resource partners who do, and the collective whole of our communion is made so much richer in the diverse ways in which we practice our spiritual art.
Section C of our Committee on Ministry works with new and emerging ministries seeking membership in the United Church of Christ. I am privileged to be staff person to this Section. Additionally, your Conference staff wants to be an active partner with you as you navigate the sometimes-confusing waters of organization development, governance, finance, law, and risk. Just give us a call or drop us an email.
And maybe you can also let us know the creative, non-traditional ways you’re conspiring with the Holy Spirit in your settings this year, as well.
Thank you, both for what you do and for who you are. Because of who you are and where you are on life’s journey: we are made richer by you!
Follow Daniel’s travels on Instagram: @uccdrj