Following the Good News Toward Christian Unity

Disciples of Christ Elect First African-American Woman to Lead Denomination
Commentary
By Robert Wilson-Black 7-13-2017

This week Rev. Teresa Hord Owens was elected General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), becoming the first African-American woman installed as head of a denomination (although there have been moderators like Belva Brown Jordan, leading pastors, and bishops of other denominations over the decades).

Much can and should be made of the firsts represented by her election. What's also noteworthy are her words to a small group in Indianapolis, where the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) General Assembly was held, of which I was a part: "This is about God's work in the church we all love; the church universal. So I need you to show up. You've been prepared. You have tremendous gifts. Show up for justice. Show up with your local congregations. Be who you know you can be. I cannot do this job alone. … I need my family to show up and I know you will."

President Hord Owens' ministry student, Danielle Cox, a University of Lynchburg graduate, shared with me, "She is collaborative, open to sharing beyond the hierarchy of senior minister to student intern, dedicated to trying out new things and teamwork. I trust she'll bring collaborative leadership, bringing people together, having a foot in so many realms as a bi-vocational pastor. She has a spirituality grounded in prayer life; you feel connected with the body of Christ when you're with her, drawn into it."

The challenges she will face include traditional mainline needs for spiritual revitalization and a renewing of congregational models. She'll also be tasked with reimagining what members really want in an association of churches and how to do justice among regions defining it differently. Restoration movements in Christianity, like the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), have a perennial problem, by design: What happens when movement becomes institution? Organization and time can drive movements toward a crusty institutionalization. Its leaders must regularly ask themselves what manner of dynamism is needed to keep us from ossifying?

The stance of the founders of this movement was: "We are not just another group, but want to restore the unity of all Christians.” Success in that call meant that 100 years ago this non-denominational denomination was the fastest-growing faith group in the United States and its homegrown religious body of greatest size. And so the American religious landscape seemed to retort, "get in line and take a number; you're a denomination now."

As a part of this restoration movement myself, having led the Disciples History & Thought seminar at the University of Chicago's Disciples Divinity House for six years, I can attest it's an exciting time for us again. Just down Pennsylvania Avenue from Sojourners is National City Christian Church, a flagship congregation of this denomination that was claimed by Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, and James Garfield. But there were also activists Carry Nation of the temperance movement and present-day prophet Rev. Dr. William Barber II of the new poor people's campaign. Today leaders in this American-born church are working across the lines that divide us to be part of how God is reshaping the post-denominational church today. This was demonstrated throughout the faithful leadership of former Sojourners board member, Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, whose own historic 12 years as General Minister and President has concluded with a churchwide resolution calling on individuals, congregations, and ministries to achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2030.

For religious leaders and followers, it's neither prudent nor wise to ditch well-worn trails that are helpful along the journey of faith. But if you're losing the scent of the good news, ditch the trail. Follow the scent. Trails can mean historical knowledge or the trap of tradition. Trails can mean respect for elders or suffering the limitations of their mistakes. Scent can mean sensitized to the Spirit or trend-following. Scent can mean attuned to vocation or whimsical wandering.

If President Hord Owens serves for two terms, she will be in office as preparations are underway for the bicentennial of the 1831 merger between Stone and Campbell movements, which became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Within hours of her election, she was already signaling that she would focus her attention on the restoration movements' two strong currents: faithful evangelical impulse and unity of all Christians on the basis of a high view of scriptural authority and Jesus as Lord.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has had the particular burden for decades that is familiar to Sojourners as we approach our 50-year mark: How do we not lose the scent of the Spirit as we grow and mature as a movement? Follow the scent of mission while expanding our impact as institution? When intellectual dogma is the beating heart of faith communities, Christian unity may be unlikely. When the good news of Jesus for the poor proclaimed in the scriptures is central, Christian unity becomes more easily imagined if not easily achieved.

If you believe that institutions are the embodiment of what we've decided to do together, then ask yourself what you can do to support leaders and challenge institutions simultaneously. Visit your executive pastor, seminary dean, chaplain, seminarian, not to point out something wrong (that we get regularly) but to ask them what they need, pray, and walk with them. Pastor Terri answers that call with vigor: "show up, walk alongside, be the church you know you can be." Let it be so, and let it begin with us. We're with you General Minister and President Teresa Hord Owens.

Photo: Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Rob Wilson-Black is the CEO of Sojourners.

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