Volume 19, No. 5 | February 1, 2023

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Equipping a courageous Church alive with Christ’s transforming love

Faithfulness & Vitality in Small Places

COMMAnts from the Conference Minister

On a cold and snowy January morning, I drove cautiously on a rollercoaster gravel road toward St. John’s UCC in New Albin, Iowa, our one Conference congregation that sits outside the state of Minnesota. Eventually the road leveled and I could see the church off in the distance, its steeple rising into a wintry gray sky. Aside from a farm directly across the road, there was little else around this rural church, but signs of life at the church were soon obvious as members began arriving for worship.

Inside the sanctuary, I discovered a genuinely friendly congregation. The part-time pastor, Paul Burgess, was stationed at the door to welcome people, and members chatted enthusiastically with me before the service. Multiple generations of family sat in the pews, a 91-year-old man who was baptized at St. John’s sitting a few pews ahead of his son, three generations of another family active in the music program. The choir wore formal robes and youth read scripture. Announcements included community events and details about the next Sunday’s youth group activity.

Afterward, several women gathered around me to tell me about their beloved church and its history, and one of the teenagers told me about the church’s surprisingly large and active youth group. Before they rushed off to the Sunday School classes, they invited me to come back in May for their annual Chicken BBQ event.

All in all, there were about 30 people in worship at St. John’s that morning. A small, healthy, vital congregation, there on a lonely gravel road in farm country of northeast Iowa.

That same Sunday another small congregation gathered for worship in Buffalo, Minnesota. United Faith Community has no church building; the congregation of typically less than 10 people gathers in a meeting room of a local business and shares their worship live on Facebook. Founded just a few years ago, United Faith Community offers a distinctively progressive witness of faith in a community they describe as conservative. Their invitation states: “Come and experience what a truly welcoming and inclusive faith community is like. No pretenses, no judgment, no requirements. Just sharing God’s love with all.” They are served by Ole Olson, a part-time pastor licensed for authorized ministry by the Minnesota Conference UCC, and lay members take an extremely active role, helping to lead worship, Bible studies, and community outreach on a rotating basis. Around Buffalo, they’re known as “that church”: that church that always lifts a public voice when a community tragedy or injustice has taken place, that church that welcomes everybody, that church that has a reputation for service and outreach. This faith community is among the smallest in our Conference, and yet I would hasten to describe it as vital and faithful.

In the Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ, 71% of our 120 congregations have an average of 50 or fewer people in worship on any given Sunday. According to data recently shared by the UCC’s national offices, that figure is just slightly higher than what is true in the whole of the United Church of Christ. The same trend is clear in many other denominations. More and more, “micro churches” are the norm. The pandemic experience and its impact on church life everywhere has accelerated this reality.

For small churches, there are a host of special challenges and questions. How can they afford a pastor? If they have a building, how does its upkeep overwhelm the budget and prevent the kind of ministry the congregation desires? At what point do even the most dedicated members burn out from the constant leadership they must provide to keep the church going? Is a long-term sustainable future possible?

In the Minnesota Conference and across the United Church of Christ, the need to reimagine what it looks like to “be Church” is abundantly clear. We have to prayerfully discern how God is doing a new thing among us. We have to wonder how God might be calling us to let go of what we’ve always known for the sake of a new church and forms of ministry that are aching to emerge. We have to rethink a whole lot of things: pastoral leadership, what it looks like and how it’s formed; church buildings; membership; ecumenical partnerships.

To be honest, there are a lot more questions than answers. No one has absolute clarity about what’s ahead for the Church or what we need to do in the meantime to nurture a faithful, hopeful future. But I think of the two churches I’ve described here, and many more like them across the Minnesota Conference and beyond, and I know this much:

Faithfulness and vitality come in many shapes and sizes.

God is revealed whenever and wherever we make space for goodness, justice, and unfailing love to flourish.

And the Holy Spirit is actively working out among us what we cannot yet see.

I invite your prayers for all our small churches, and for our medium and large churches, too. Each congregation – no matter its size or location — is a blessing in this community of the Minnesota Conference UCC, and each has precious gifts and wisdom to share. For all of you, I am grateful.

Blessed by your ministries,

Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister


Conference News & Events

A Report from the Young Adult Retreat

Last weekend, eight young adults from seven congregations gathered for a retreat hosted by the Outdoor Ministry of the Minnesota Conference. They had an opportunity to reconnect and reengage through discussions, playing games, and creating a meal together. This group looks forward to having more of these events tailored to the needs of young people as they grow into leaders for their congregations, the UCC, and in their communities, wherever they may be.

Here's what a couple of the young adults had to say about the retreat:

"Refreshing! It was place to reconnect with yourself and those around you." —Cole Marshall, First Congregational, Anoka


"It was an opportunity to get involved with the church again for those of us who haven't been in a while, and to give our ideas about what might help us stay interested in and passionate about the things we talked about." —Skyler Honer, First Congregational, Wadena

Another retreat is in the works for the end of the summer, to focus on pressing issues in the lives of young people today. Watch for more details this spring.

Registration Ends TODAY for February 4 Covenant Day

Robbinsdale Parkway UCC

Saturday, February 4, 9:30 am to 3:30 pm

REGISTER today (Wednesday, February 1)

The Minnesota Conference UCC will host its second Covenant Day this Sunday, February 4. All are welcome but you must register by today, Wednesday, February 1. This is a day to swap stories, share challenges, celebrate joys, and benefit from the wisdom and experience that all of us bring to the Conference “table.” We believe participants will walk away strengthened and encouraged, spiritually fed, with some gratitude in their hearts for the community we share in the Conference.

2022 Annual Information Reviews Due for All Authorized Ministers

The Committee on Ministry is calling on all authorized ministers – retired, actively serving and exempt – to please submit your 2022 Annual Information Review if you have not already. These information forms are imperative for us to keep track of our more than 350 clergy in the Minnesota Conference, and to help us serve each of you well. They are an important piece of the Covenant we share.

Also, the National Office is creating the Annual Yearbook and the information they have for our authorized ministers comes directly from the Annual Information Reviews. Not sure if you sent one in? You can email See Chang at COMadmin@uccmn.org and ask. Letters and emails have been sent (in the last 10 days) to those who have not submitted them. Finally, you can submit another one if you are not sure – we don’t mind!

Questions? Contact Kelly Gallagher.

Our Whole Lives Training Offered May 19-21 at Camp Onamia

Clergy and lay leaders who plan to offer an Our Whole Lives program in their congregations are invited to three days of facilitation training May 19-21, 2023, at Camp Onomia in Onamia, MN.

Cost is $350 for a shared double-occupancy room, meals and training for UCC participants and $450 for non-UCC participants. A limited number of private rooms are available for an additional fee of $75. MORE INFORMATION & REGISTRATION

Boundary Training for Authorized Ministers is February 22 & 23

Rev. Dr. Diane Weible, ordained minister and trained facilitator, will lead two Zoom sessions on Feb 22 & 23 from 9 am-noon. For credit, participants must be fully present and participate in both sessions. Each topic will include a case study and be discussed as a full group before breaking out into small groups for discussion.

Topics covered include: Power and Vulnerability, Social Media, Finances, Pastoral Identity and Vocation, Self-Care (burn-out, stress, compassion fatigue), Receiving Gifts, Boundaries and Church Conflict, When a Minister Leaves/Retires, Ministers as Church Members/Ministers in Four-Way Covenants Cultural Boundaries.

This training fulfills the standing requirement for authorized ministers in the Minnesota Conference. Cost is $60. REGISTER

The Damascus Project Launches "Ministry Studies: Faith Formation & Pastoral Care"

Explore best practices for forming faith in people of all ages, and develop skills and tools for effective pastoral and spiritual care in congregations. The course begins February 2.


Virtual National Gathering of UCC Rural/Small Town Churches Set for February 9-11

A Virtual National Gathering of UCC Rural/Small Town Churches and Ministries, "Nourishing the Seeds of Faith," is being presented by the Coalition for UCC Rural Ministries. It is being hosted by the UCC National Faith INFO Ministry Team of the Justice and Local Church Ministries. The event will be held from February 9-11, 4-7 pm ET. REGISTER.

Stewardship Theme Materials Available


“Because of You, Our Church Changes Lives” is this year's UCC stewardship theme, making the connection between donor generosity and the ministry and mission of your congregation.

Materials are available HERE.

Partner News & Events

United Theological Seminary to Offer Doctor of Ministry in Spiritual Direction

United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities (United) has announced that it will offer a new Doctor of Ministry (DMin) in spiritual direction, as well as reconfigure the existing Master of Arts in Leadership and Master of Divinity degrees in spiritual direction.

Through a partnership with St. Catherine University in St. Paul, which has a long and storied history of spiritual direction programs, United has been able to offer the two masters’ level degrees. This fall, United will assume responsibility for the MAL and MDiv and the new DMin in spiritual direction with the support of St. Catherine’s Theology Department Program Director. 

United is pleased to welcome Dr. Cynthia Bailey Manns, a nationally recognized expert in and practitioner of spiritual direction, as an adjunct instructor for United. LEARN MORE

Behind in Planning for Lent?

The Ministry Lab's Rev. Emily Meyer has accepted a call for Lenten pulpit supply in the little northwoods congregation in which she is a third generation member — and where her mom, Madelyn Lawrence, is the long-standing, well-beloved organist. Listen in as Emily and Maddy plan Lent 2023, including worship, prayer, study, and youth involvement. In the process, flesh out your own ideas, process your own challenges, and get resourcing and creative support from two leaders who have learned how to balance tradition and transformation. LEARN MORE & REGISTER.

Workshops Offered for Moderators, Treasurers and Other Lay Leadership Positions

Saturday, February 25, 9 am – noon

The Center for Transformational Leadership will offer basic training over Zoom for new and returning moderators, assistant moderators, treasurers, and pastor-parish relations committee members. The workshops are offered at no cost. REGISTER BY FEB 17.

Joys & Concerns

You are invited to the ordination of Rev. Nathan Roberts on February 19, 2:30-3:30 pm, at Edina Morningside Church. Rev. Roberts will continue to serve as Director of Community Engagement at First Lutheran Church, and will now be an ordained UCC Minister with rights and responsibilities to serve Word and Sacrament. Masks strongly encouraged. Clergy are invited to wear red stoles.

Upcoming Conference Events
More Resources & Opportunities

  • Send story ideas, insights and more to communications@uccmn.org. COMMAntary is published on Wednesdays; submissions are due the Monday prior to publication at noon.

  • The Conference website offers a wealth of resources related to faith formation, racial justice, and more.

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The Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ (UCC) equips a courageous Church alive with Christ’s transforming love. Through advice, support, and resources, we strengthen the 126 congregations throughout the state to do the redemptive work of God in the world.