Cally Rogers-Witte: Critical presence at the point of deepest need

In the future, denominational missions will be understood as work shared with partners around the world, says the executive minister of the United Church of Christ's Wider Church Ministries.

Editor’s note: As the Christian landscape changes, leaders must ask and answer a new question: What’s the future of denominations? This interview is part of an occasional series that offers insight on this vital issue. To see the entire series, click here.

Global ministry has evolved from denominations saying, “Here we are to solve your problems” to a shared mission with partners around the world, said the Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, United Church of Christ executive minister of Wider Church Ministries and co-executive of the UCC/Disciples Global Ministries.

For 18 years, Rogers-Witte was pastor of Community United Church of Christ in Raleigh, N.C. Following that, she was the UCC’s Southwest Conference minister for 10 years. She is past president of the New Mexico Council of Churches and the North Carolina Council of Churches. Rogers-Witte received a master’s degree in religion from Yale Divinity and an M.Div. from the UCC-affiliated Pacific School of Religion.

Rogers-Witte spoke with Faith & Leadership about global missions and how difficult it is to predict the future of the church. The video is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: From your work with the Wider Church Ministries, how do you see the future of denominations?

We are seeing dramatic changes because the people in the church pews now come from a variety of denominations. They’re not looking necessarily for the denomination. They’re looking for the local experience they want their family to have. That means there’s less loyalty than there used to be. I don’t know whether that’s permanent, or if, as people learn some of the reasons for being part of something bigger than themselves, they will also be interested in whether it’s a denomination as we know it today or some new configuration of churches coming together to do the things they can’t do as well alone.

Q: If people don’t come to church for the denominational brand, what will be their reasons for coming together?

There is tremendous value in knowing we’re part of something that’s historical as well as global, connected to people around the world. Of course that’s my particular passion. In training pastors or even with something as simple as Sunday school curriculum, we need groups to come together to do what one local church can’t do for itself nearly as well. Churches that are independent at this point will figure out that they’re going to need that, and maybe that’s even more exciting.

We have historical organizations that do certain missions together, but they were started by people who had passion. Maybe now it seems like a bureaucracy instead of a passionate movement, so maybe there’ll be new movements where churches come together and start almost the same thing over again.

For example, we’re at Duke this week for the Church World Service board of directors’ meeting. If we didn’t have a Church World Service, the churches would have to invent some way to work together in relation to disasters, in relation to ways to eradicate poverty, to work for the betterment of humankind around the world; but if they had created it themselves, they might have more passion for being part of it.

Q: You make the point that, historically, denominations started as some kind of passionate movement; do you have any sense of what future movements might look like?

I’m very hesitant to say anything beyond this year, practically. Everything is changing so quickly. But I also remember being in college a million years ago and reading, outside of class I think, Bishop John Robinson’s book “Honest to God” and other books that talked about the death of God in the 1960s. Well, it certainly didn’t prove to be true 40 years later, so I think whatever we think we know -- about the future of denominations, about religion, about what will feed people’s souls, what will cause them to come together to share God’s love with other people -- it is going to be very different even 20 years from now. So I guess I still don’t feel like I’m old enough to say this, but the experience of years makes me less likely to predict what’s going to happen next.

I think we see certainly a growth of a more conservative religious understanding than I have followed these years, but I’m not sure that that’s going to continue forever, either. That may be a pendulum swing; people who have come into churches that really gave them some answers quickly may begin to ask questions that can’t be answered so quickly. They may want to learn more about their faith, about what people around the world believe, what other Christians believe, and we’ll see some shifting. Some of our United Church of Christ understanding that’s not as popular today may come back in vogue.

Q: Could you talk about the scope of your leadership as executive minister of the UCC Wider Church Ministries?

Actually, the United Church of Christ restructured five years ago and we now have four covenanted ministries; Wider Church Ministries is one of them. We have the Office of General Ministries. We have Local Church Ministries, Justice and Witness Ministries. Wider Church Ministries includes our global work, our national disaster work, volunteer ministries, refugee resettlement, those kinds of things, also health and wholeness ministries and our advocacy for the LGBT community. That is what the “wider church” is.

Then, because we do all of our work with mission partners and personnel around the world jointly with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in an organization called Common Global Ministries, I’m co-executive with the UCC/Disciples Global Ministries. I have two titles and a million names.

Q: In your 2007 speech accepting your position with Wider Ministries, you said, “I want to borrow from the wonderful theme of yesterday’s United Black Christians’ luncheon ... : ‘Remembering our way into the future.’” What lessons might the past hold for the future of denominations?

When I was pastor of Community United Church of Christ in Raleigh, N.C., we celebrated our 100th anniversary. We went back and our historian in the church created skits for people for each decade, something out of each decade. We learned so much about what the church stood for in the past that we had forgotten or not known. It set the stage for us to look toward what’s important in this community going forward. I think you could do the same thing if your history had a number of negative things too. You could learn from it. For us, it fortunately happened to be positive.

Starting this year, the Wider Church Ministries is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the first mission society in America. It was our predecessor, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission. We’ve never changed the corporation’s structure, but we have a different name today.

We are celebrating for two years because in 1810 some students, after several years of trying, convinced their elders, the pastors and lay leaders in the Congregational Churches in New England and some other denominations to start this mission to people overseas. By 1812 they raised the money to send the first young people out to be missionaries from the United States. We’re looking back at that history and there is so much to celebrate.

In retrospect, knowing what we know today, there are also things that we wish had been done differently; but they did the best they could with what they knew then. There are also some things that we have to confess about the closeness of colonialism with the mission enterprise. We have to understand the history in order to move forward into the future.

Q: How have lessons from the past been applied to missions today?

For us in a global ministry it has been an evolution over the last 20 years or so to understanding our work as partnership, as real mutuality of mission and ministry with our global partners, some of whom are historic partners -- churches, colleges, hospitals, institutions, councils of churches around the world.

Some of them are newer organizations, working in partnership where our values coincide in church work around the world. We call it offering critical presence at the point of deepest need.

So presence, walking with, accompanying, journeying alongside of and not saying, “We’ve got the solution, we’ve got the resources, and here we are to solve your problems.” That’s putting it crassly, and not too many organizations or churches do it that way, but we want to be particularly sensitive to that so that’s one of our learnings for the future.

Q: Is there anything else you want to say on this subject?

I think all of the mainline denominations, certainly the United Church of Christ, are trying to figure out how to minister to the emerging generations of the church. To what it will be. I think there’s real excitement over technology and the things that we can do with it.

Also, the younger generation seems so much more interested in the world, in global service, in making the world a better place, making a difference. I have daughters who are in their 20s, early 30s, and I’m just very excited about that generation. There were a couple of decades in there when people thought those things were important, but it wasn’t what drove them. I’m excited about the church responding to that passion.