On Gather 2019: My Journey, Hope, and Lament
On Gather 2019: My Journey, Hope, and Lament
This past week, Osheta and I attended the Annual Meeting, called “Gather,” of the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) in Omaha, NE.[1] We drove down from the Twin Cities and spent the week meeting with some of my favorite people in the world. The ECC is filled with beloved colleagues who are both friends and mentors. We shared meals and drinks, prayers and frustrations, sat in business meetings, and did a lot of processing. I’m so grateful for the many colleagues, friends, and mentors who were there to celebrate my ordination. While the primary reason for our attendance was my ordination, a cause for celebration, I also recognize that this gathering has generated many headlines and much heartache. It has also no doubt generated a lot of questions. That is why I am writing to share my perspective. My hope is to respond by:
  1. Providing some background on the ECC—its polity, its unique history and theology;
  2. Sharing with you some of my own journey to ordination in this denomination;
  3. Naming the decisions that were made this past week; and
  4. Commenting on how I am processing this past week’s events and how I will move forward in hope.
I am fully aware that no singular perspective can be comprehensive, nor should it attempt to be. Instead, it is necessary that we hear from a diversity of perspectives. I add mine as merely one of many.

I. Some Background on the ECC

To understand why this year’s gathering was so significant it is important to know a few things about the ECC.[2] For starters, it’s helpful to understand some things about the ECC’s “polity.” Polity is a nerdy term that, in this context, refers to how a particular church has decided to organize and govern itself. The ECC is unlike some other denominations, in that local churches are given autonomy to organize themselves.[3] This means “Churches call their own pastors, own their own property, set their own budgets and design their own ministry approach.”[4] However, the ECC is a bit of a hybrid. More similar to “mainline” denominations (e.g. Methodist, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc.), ECC churches also participate mutually in a denominational structure. For example, licensing and ordination are not done locally but by the regional and national leadership. Care and discipline of ministers is also overseen by regional and national boards, rather than local ones. This combination of local autonomy with regional support and national structure forms a robust ecclesiological system. From my perspective, and in my personal experience, the ECC takes very good care of its ministers. The ECC’s hybrid polity is not the only way it is out of the ordinary for “evangelical” denominations. The ECC is also one of the very few denominations in the broader evangelical tradition [5] that is “non-doctrinaire.” [6] This applies to many areas where other evangelical churches are rigidly defined by precise doctrinal formulations. The ECC was borne out of the Pietist movement in Sweden, that challenged the “dead orthodoxy” of the state Lutheran church. It’s a movement that has less to do with doctrinal precision and more to do with mission partnership. [7] For example, the ECC does not require affirmation of biblical “inerrancy.” This often comes as a shock to other evangelicals who presume such belief is a requirement for all evangelicals. It isn’t. The ECC also does not privilege a particular atonement theory (e.g. Penal Substitution) as some other evangelical groups do. [8] In fact, one of the ECC’s most historic theologians, Peter Paul Waldenström, specifically challenged and refuted aspects of the Penal Substitutionary atonement theory when the ECC was in its infancy as Swedish Piestism. [9] The list goes on and on. The ECC has not allowed itself to get bogged down in theological debates and has instead focused on the essentials of a lived Christian faith. Instead of an elaborate doctrinal statement, the ECC is united around six “Affirmations” that are broad enough to encompass a very rich and diverse coalition of churches and ministers. [10] The ECC has endeavored to be more of a “centered-set” than “bounded-set” church—a church comprised less of those who fit neatly inside a set of boundaries, but rather those who are moving toward Jesus, even if from different starting places or at different speeds. [11] Our culture is one more of dialog than dictates, more relational than legalistic. The ‘generous orthodoxy’ and organic cultural milieu are two of the primary reasons I was initially drawn to the ECC, why I’ve stayed, and why I’ve sought ordination with this denomination. Nevertheless, the ECC’s highest governing body is the “Annual Meeting.” The Annual Meeting brings together the ministerium (all licensed and ordained clergy) and delegates from member churches to vote upon resolutions, budgets, appointments, and other business matters. This is where democratic system is most visibly present in the decision making process of the denomination. This is also where the ECC’s relational and dialogical ethos comes into direct confrontation with the cold calculus of majority rule. While the cultural norms of the ECC are highly relational and dialogical, the Annual Meeting is often where a majority vote feels like a conversation-stopper. That dynamic was felt particularly harshly at this year’s Annual Meeting.

II. My Journey to the ECC

This was only the second Annual Meeting that I’ve attended even though I’ve been licensed in the ECC since 2012. It was that year that Osheta and I became recommended church planters, planting New City Covenant Church in Boston, MA. We’d lived in Boston since 2005, and I had been attending seminary at Gordon-Conwell’s Center for Urban Ministerial Education (CUME). At CUME, I had several wonderful professors like Dr. Eldin Villafañe, Dr. John Frederick, and Jeff Bass. But, by far, the professor who had the most impact on me was Dr. Soong-Chan Rah. When I had Christian Social Ethics with him in 2006, he was working through the content that would become his first monograph: The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. [12] I can still remember him saying that he was part of an evangelical tradition (the ECC) that had “never bifurcated the mission of the church” between social justice and evangelism. That was the hook that sunk into me. I’d been a part of both a Fundamentalist Pentecostal denomination and a Liberal Presbyterian denomination. I wanted to be part of a movement that embraced the holistic Gospel, and that was racially and ethnically diverse. Soon after being taught by Dr. Rah, I started to realize that several of the urban ministers I admired most were already part of the ECC. Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil (author of The Heart of Racial Justice), Dr. Efrem Smith, and Phil Jackson (co-authors of The Hip Hop Church), John Teter, and Alex Gee (co-authors of Jesus and the Hip Hop Prophets) were all Covenant pastors. [13] Being the life-long hip hop head that I am, finding out that the several of the ministers who were pioneering the Hip Hop church in America were Covenant helped confirm that I’d found my tribe. I’ve been on this journey toward ordination in the ECC since 2011 when I first began to seek licensing. I’ve taken all four Orientation classes and have been interviewed by the Board of Ordered Ministry. Since beginning this journey, we’ve moved from Boston to L.A. and from L.A. to St. Paul, MN. In three different regional conferences I’ve submitted myself to their Board of Ordered Ministry for licensing. I’ve attended at least six Midwinter conferences and our children practically grew up at Pilgrim Pines, the ECC’s family camp in New Hampshire. In these last eight years, I’ve been incredibly grateful to find amazing Covenant colleagues, friends, and mentors. I’ve also felt deeply supported and loved by many of the ECC’s denominational leaders. The ECC has felt less like a denomination to me and more like extended family.

III. Decisions Made at Gather 2019

With all that background in mind, it is easier to see why some of the decisions made at this year’s Annual Meeting were substantial enough to warrant national headlines and some very big emotions. But, before I mention the decisions made having to do with the removal of credentials of ministers or the involuntary dismissal of churches, I want to first comment on a resolution passed by the ECC ministerium that has not generated headlines (that I’ve seen!) but is highly praiseworthy. At this year’s Annual Meeting, the ministerium voted and passed a historic resolution on Anti-racism. [14] For decades, the ECC has demonstrated a growing knowledge of its own participation in white supremacist structures and norms. And for almost as long the ECC has been a vocal proponent of Racial Reconciliation and Righteousness. Among evangelical denominations, the ECC is highly diverse racially and ethnically. And the ECC is home to hundreds of leaders of color and white accomplices who are champions of racial justice. This was the other primary reason I was drawn to the ECC, have stayed, and sought ordination with the denomination. It’s a shame to me that this historic resolution is not what is making headlines across the country, at a time when for many Americans “evangelical” is synonymous with “racist.” Two personal friends and colleagues who are mentors were honored and promoted at this year’s Annual Meeting as well. Rev. Dr. Dennis Edwards is a close friend and mentor who has planted two urban, multiethnic churches, one in Brooklyn with the Evangelical Free Church, and one in Washington DC with the Mennonite USA Church. Most recently he was the Senior Pastor of Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis before transitioning to teach theology at Northern Seminary outside Chicago. At this year’s Annual Meeting it was officially announced that he is coming onto faculty at North Park Seminary in the theology department. Now that’s cause for celebration! Rev. Paul Robinson is also a friend and mentor who I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know better since moving to the Twin Cities. He is pastor of Grace Outreach Church in Coon Rapids, MN. At this year’s Annual Meeting it was announced that he will be the next Executive Minister of the Love Mercy, Do Justice mission priority. This is yet another cause for celebration! What is instead making headlines across the country [15] are the decisions surrounding the removal of ministerial credentials of Revs. Dan Collison and Steven Armfield and the involuntary dismissal of First Covenant Minneapolis from the ECC. This not being a comprehensive nor official report on the results of these critical votes, I will not attempt to capture all of the details. I will however, attempt, as best I can, to summarize them. At the 2019 Annual Meeting, church delegates voted to involuntarily remove First Covenant Church of Minneapolis from the roster of ECC churches. This does not mean that their building is in danger of being taken away or that they will have to change their name. It also doesn’t mean that they will have to fire their pastor, Rev. Dan Collison. It means that they will no longer be a member church of the ECC. The official reasons given by the ECC are the following:
“ECC’s Executive Board found FCCM to be out of harmony by contravening the following: • The ECC’s standard of marriage by permitting same-sex marriage; • The ECC’s prohibition of clergy officiating and participating at same-sex weddings; • The ECC’s requirement that clergy adhere to a personal behavioral standard of celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in heterosexual marriage; • The ECC’s guideline and expectation that congregations refrain from hosting same-sex weddings and related events; • The authority of the Board of the Ordered Ministry by locally credentialing a pastor.” [16]
“Delegates also voted to remove the credentials of Steven Armfield and Daniel Collison after extended debate in executive session.” [17] It’s also important to note that while some ECC ministers have had their credentials removed in the past, the decision to involuntarily remove a church from the roster of churches has never before happened in the ECC’s 134 year history.

IV. Some Reflections

Those are the decisions that are generating a lot of headlines, frustration, and questions. Here are a few of my own reflections on these results. First and foremost, disunity in the body of Christ is occasion only for lament. There are no winners when followers of Christ fail to reconcile. We must feel about these results the way Stanley Hauerwas feels about “Reformation Sunday”:
“Reformation Sunday does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure. Of course, the church rightly names failure, or at least horror, as part of our church year. We do, after all, go through crucifixion as part of Holy Week. Certainly if the Reformation is to be narrated rightly, it is to be narrated as part of those dark days. Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We who remain in the Protestant tradition want to say that Reformation was a success. But when we make Reformation a success, it only ends up killing us. After all, the very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday.” [18]
If we do not lament the results of the 134th Annual Meeting of the ECC, then we become anathema. Jesus’s prayer for his church is unity (cf. John 17). Anything less is sin. [19] I am also very grateful to the many colleagues of color with whom I had the privilege of sharing fellowship this week. Several of them expressed frustration at the social and relational climate in which these results came about, naming in particular that they felt clergy of color were pitted against those members of the ministerium who are more progressive. They expressed the frustration that times when it felt as if the African American “narrative of oppression” had been co-opted by members who are not African American. Or, they expressed frustration that clergy of color were tasked with representing the denomination’s mostly white executive leadership and often suffering the brunt of the backlash in their stead. They also named a very covert dynamic at work within all the deliberation: white privilege. From their perspective, there was an arrogance to the demand-making that was indicative of white entitlement. This may be an uncomfortable observation for progressives who pride themselves on being conscious of their biases, but it remains an incisive and insightful critique. All week, I was part of heavy conversations with fellow clergy who felt deeply wounded. Some felt betrayed by the ECC; the denomination they loved had disappointed them. Others felt wounded by the way they were being portrayed by those in disagreement. Almost everyone felt misunderstood, misrepresented. It didn’t help that almost no one felt heard. How could they be, given the complexity? At Midwinter, the ECC’s annual pastor’s conference in January, on the final day we close with communion. If only we could have come to the Lord’s Table together at Annual Meeting, bending our knees, and returning to the foundation of our faith: God’s love in Christ demonstrated in self-giving humility, vulnerability, and sacrifice. This week, a fellow ECC clergy member named Zach Lovig posted a message for those of being ordained that brought tears to my eyes. He agreed to allow me to share it more widely. He wrote,
“To the ordinands whose hearts are conflicted even to the point of breaking: I would like to share with you the way I see you this afternoon. I see you as those who, after a moment of trauma and grief, come forward to a community in need. You come to give blood, perishables, blankets, everything required for life. Though you do not know what any of this may mean, or what will be required for the long term, you come and give yourselves. Considering the trust that you are about to place in us, I hope for the group and promise for myself to strive to be worthier of you and your trust. I pray that God would bless you as you seek to serve others.”
As a brokenhearted ordinand, Zach’s words gave me a lot of comfort and hope that there will be a brighter future for the ECC—one in which wounds and divisions are healed. That’s the hope with which I’m moving forward. The results of Annual Meeting don’t change our calling as ministers of reconciliation in our local contexts. These decisions do not change my commitment to seek a third way together through contentious issues. In my ministry there is no litmus test for fellowship and shared mission beyond a declared trust in Jesus as Lord and a commitment to treat each other generously and equally. I am grateful for the diversity of views in the ECC and I continue to believe that every voice is important. I’m committed to staying. I’m committed to contributing. I’m committed to helping the ECC find a new way forward for as long as they allow me to participate. With our sisters and brothers to the North, I agree: “Generosity, kindness and resolve in equal measure is what we trust to hold [the ECC] together through this season as we follow the Spirit’s leading.” [20]  
  1. Gather 2019 [http://gather.covchurch.org] The location of the ECC Annual Meeting changes year to year. This year it was held in Omaha, NE.
  2. This post is not an official communication of the ECC and so it not meant to speak definitively for the denomination. Instead, I am merely sharing what I believe to be true about the ECC. I could be mistaken about some technical details.
  3. Congregational Polity [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congregationalist_polity]
  4. ECC Structure [https://covchurch.org/who-we-are/structure]
  5. On the broader “Evangelical” tradition, see: [https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/march-web-only/what-is-evangelicalism.html][https://www.amazon.com/How-Evangelical-without-Being-Conservative/dp/0310283388][https://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org] [https://www.missioalliance.org/evangelicalism-its-a-brand-but-its-also-a-space][https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2018/11/who-is-an-evangelical-and-who-gets-to-decide]
  6. On the non-doctrinaire nature of Pietism and its relationship to multiethnic churches, see:[https://pietistschoolman.com/2018/05/23/the-pietist-option-for-a-multiethnic-church][https://www.amazon.com/Post-Black-Post-White-Church-Community-Multi-Ethnic/dp/1118036581]
  7. On the ECC’s history: [https://covchurch.org/who-we-are/what-is-the-covenant-church/history/]
  8. On the Southern Baptist resolution on the “necessity” of Penal Substitution: [http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/2278/on-the-necessity-of-penal-substitutionary-atonement]
  9. On Waldenström and atonement, see: [http://covchurch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2010/05/0804-Where-Is-It-Written.pdf]
  10. The ECC's Six Affirmations: [https://covchurch.org/who-we-are/beliefs/affirmations]
  11. For what “centered set vs. bounded set” means, see: Paul Hiebert, “Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories,” Gospel in Context 11:4 (October 1978): 24-29.
  12. Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity: [https://www.amazon.com/Next-Evangelicalism-Freeing-Cultural-Captivity/dp/0830833609]
  13. Brenda Salter-McNeil, The Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change [https://www.amazon.com/Heart-Racial-Justice-Change-Social/dp/0830837221] Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson, The Hip Hop Church: Connecting with the Movement Shaping Our Culture: [https://www.amazon.com/Hip-Hop-Church-Connecting-Movement-Shaping/dp/0830833293] John Teter and Alex Gee, Jesus and the Hip Hop Prophets: Spiritual Insights from Lauryn Hill and 2Pac: [https://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Hip-Hop-Prophets-Spiritual-Insights/dp/0830832343]
  14. Resolution on Antiracism (ECCclergy.org): [https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/5f6832_0ac9591bb16b451ebfaa64161eb8563a.pdf]
  15. For national headlines, see: [https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2019/06/29/us/ap-us-church-expelled-same-sex-marriage.html] [https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/28/us/minneapolis-church-expelled-lgbt-policy/index.html] [https://time.com/5617854/minneapolis-church-expelled-gay-marriage] [https://www.newsweek.com/minneapolis-pastor-church-expelled-evangelical-covenant-denomination-over-views-lgbt-rights-1446694]
  16. “ECC Annual Meeting Votes to Remove FCCM from Roster of Covenant Churches” [https://covchurch.org/news/ecc-annual-meeting-votes-to-remove-fccm-from-roster-of-covenant-churches]
  17. Delegate Summary: [https://covchurch.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/AM19-delegate-summary-sheet.pdf]
  18. Stanley Hauerwas, “On Reformation Sunday,”: [http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/10/stanley-hauerwas-on-reformation-sunday]
  19. Paul Burger, an ECC pastor, has produced a litany of lament following the results of the Annual Meeting using portions of the Covenant Book of Worship: [https://tcmoore.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Prayer-of-Lament-final.pdf]
  20. Commons Church (ECC, Canada): [https://www.commons.church/news/2019/6/28/hpy7v5i4a7rtg9tmckc51p52t26pqt]