Presentation to the United Christian Missionary Society Board of Trustees

Presentation to the United Christian Missionary Society Board of Trustees

T. J. Liggett, November 2006

I think I need to express real appreciation for this invitation to be here because periodically I just have a longing to get back into this. And, that longing has been cured.

When the ecumenical movement began to flourish in the early 1940’s in South India, they brought into being the united church; but, in North India they didn’t.  After the war, they began to talk about a united church for North India.  Our secretary was Telfer Mook, who was a UCC Executive.  This was the first time we had a joint venture with the UCC and he was very much in support of the united church in North India.  But, the Disciples in North India didn’t trust him.  They said, “You’re not a Disciple.  How do you know the Disciples really feel this way:  that this is a good thing?”  So, Telfer called me up and I agreed to meet him in Calcutta and go out and visit with the leadership of the Disciples church and assure them we were solidly behind them and we would not withdraw support from the work because of the creation of the church of North India.  They wouldn’t take his word for it; so, the ecumenical administration and mission had its handicap.

Seriously, I appreciate very much the invitation to come to this meeting today and the visiting with people before and after this meeting.

I’m assuming, having read Arnold’s summary of history at your previous meeting, that you’re familiar with the background.  I would like to talk about The UCMS in its context both for the church itself in the 20th century and as a denomination.  I think it helps to see what happened when the specifics take on meaning in the context in which they are seen.  It’s difficult for us to imagine the degree of optimism which existed at the beginning of the 20th century among church leaders; not just in the United States, but worldwide.  There was the feeling they were standing on the threshold of a new era in the history of Christianity.

When they met in 1912 for the World Conference on World Mission, they divided the world into categories:  the category of Christendom, which was Europe, Western Asia, North and South America, New Zealand and Australia; and the Mission Fields were Africa and Asia.  The former had already been evangelized and the latter was yet to be evangelized.  They said the general mission was to send missionaries from Christendom to non-Christendom; it wasn’t valid to send missionaries from one part of Christendom to another part of Christendom (i.e. to send German Lutherans to the Catholics of South America or send North American protestant missionaries to Latin America).  They believed this new century would be the century of Christianization of the world. The magazine, The Christian Century, reflects that optimism. The dreaming of The United Society started in the early 20th Century…1902, 1903, 1904…and built up but was interrupted by the first World War. 

As soon as World War I was over in 1920, they created The United Christian Missionary Society.  I think it’s very difficult for Christians today in the 21st Century to vaguely imagine the optimism and confidence which permeated the church, because here is what happened:  Roman Catholic Italy turned Fascist; Protestant Germany turned Nazi; Orthodox Russia turned Communist.  In our country, with the vanguard of technology and everything, it invented and used the atomic bomb in ways beyond anybody’s imagination.  So, when the leaders of the church met in 1952, they said:  throw away the maps!  There is no such thing as Christendom; it doesn’t exist!  Every country is a mission field; every Christian is a missionary.  He or she lives daily in contact with non believers and the church has to re conceive its mission and its work in the light of this reality.  And, I’ve struggled trying to imagine what it was like in the beginning of the Century; to imagine they were on the threshold of the Christianization of the world, very optimistic and The UCMS was dreamed of in that context.  I just think that if we want to understand what The UCMS was, that was the world in which it existed.  We haven’t yet imbedded in consciousness that every Christian is a missionary in the contemporary culture. I don’t know if foreign missions and home missions would have any meaning in the modern world in which we live except for practical and administrative.  That’s the first thing.

The second thing, context again, is that religions, according to the specialists and authorities in history, move through stages.  Stage one in a religion is what they call the movement stage, in which the religion is innovative, creative, flexible, usually unorganized, and primarily centered in personalities…charismatic personalities.  So that to this day we still talk about religion in India and Asia as Buddhism because of the impact of Buddha and we have Christianity because of the personality of Jesus and in detail, we have Lutheranism and Calvinism, etc. In that movement stage, it’s a stage of ferment and excitement and novelty and the center of the movement is the charismatic leader and everything sort of rotates around that person.  And, then, in the process of evolution, as these charismatic leaders disappear, the religion slowly goes through what I call an institutional stage, where it begins to organize and a few things appear which in the movement stage didn’t exist.  In our church, the conservative independent churches say that this is a restoration New Testament church. 

Well, the New Testament church was only the beginning of an organization.  They say there was no mission board in the New Testament church; of course there wasn’t.  But in the second half of the 19th century, it began to move into the institutional stage and it changed the character of the church.  These institutional stages emerged, as far as I’ve been able to know, from writings (I’m almost old enough to be a witness to it!). When the religious movement identified a need to do a certain task, they often discovered they didn’t have the handle to get hold of it.  They needed someway to organize, to do it.  That organizational, or institutional, phase usually reflects the culture where it takes place.  So, the Italian Christian movement became hierarchical, which was typical of that society.  Our church became democratical, because that was the atmosphere where it happened. Usually, these organizations were created by the people who believed that particular enterprise.  So, the people who believed in foreign missions got together and organized their activity.  They didn’t believe it was the whole church or anything; but, that’s what people who believed in foreign missions did.  We had it in our church and you can see it in all the denominations in America, the appearance of Boards or Societies to do a specific task.  The American Bible Society was to bring and distribute Bibles and people who believed in praying and distributing Bibles became members of that Society so that the Society or Board usually belonged to the advocates of that particular activity.  Nobody planned it that way; that’s just the way it happened.

One of the most fascinating things in Protestantism in the 19th century in America, (taking education as an example) for most of history, education was something that happened to a very small entity of people at the height of society.  The vast majority of people were illiterate, wouldn’t have the foggiest idea of how to write or read; but, once the invention of the press came in and the envision of movable type and they could print books instead of having somebody painstakingly copy the manuscript by hand, which had gone on for centuries, suddenly the idea broke, particularly in America, that everybody ought to be educated.  There was great enthusiasm in the 19th century for public schools.  They said it was the duty of society to educate the children.  Once the educational system got going, then church leaders began to say, boy, what does that mean to us? Instead of an illiterate congregation, we’re going to have people who are educated; not scholars, but educated.

For the first time, they began to think that education in the church ought to be more than just a catechism which is learned from memory, which had been going on for centuries.  But, if you have people who know how to read, then you have to have the Sunday school after day school five days a week.  Then, if you have Sunday school, you have to have teachers.  They didn’t have anybody in the church who knew how to teach.  Pedagogy was a new invention.  They had to have persons and they had to have a Sunday school lesson and they had to have a plan and curriculum developed.  All these things in the general society were happening.  Suddenly, the church had to take on a whole new set of activities…not nationally, but locally.  It had to do things it had never done before, and there were no tools.

I could go on all afternoon; but, what does a church do with an old preacher who can’t work any more? Usually what happens in American churches is that the congregation where he was last serving gets stuck with the old pastor.  They don’t know what to do with him.  There were cases where the church gave the parsonage to the pastor and his wife.  They didn’t know what else to do with him.  They were having trouble helping him with his monthly bill/food thing.  They looked to see where he served before and wrote to that church and asked for support.  They looked at other churches and said everybody has a certain responsibility.  So, they created the Ministerial Relief Fund, which was the formal name and a way to get some money together to help take care of these old preachers they couldn’t take care of.  There was no one pattern that emerged.  But, there was recognized foreign missions, home missions, and what we call a pension system now.  Homes for widows and orphans.  Most of the men died young so we didn’t have to worry about widowers.  These things began to appear, and all during the 19th century there was what I call the institutional phase in the church.  Various parts of the country did it different ways.  But, by the end of the century, they had these institutions which required support from the church; and, they set into this business of having special offerings in the local churches for every one of these worthy causes.

In Kentucky, they had a fifth Sunday offering for the widows and orphans.  That began to produce the kind of attention in the church of how you do you do this adequately and in order and in appropriate ways to meet the needs of persons.  The local congregation had no way of knowing if activity A is more needful than activity B or activity C.  So, they decided, slowly, at the beginning of the 20th century, that we need to bring all the institutions together in one organization which would be the work of the whole church and would seek support regularly for all these activities.  And, then, what brought The UCMS into being, not part of phase one of institutionalism; it was stage two of institutionalism…bringing institutions together so that there was efficient management.  It acted on behalf of the whole church.  There would be a sense of ownership of the whole church for the whole program. 

As I said earlier, most of these institutions individually were sparked by enthusiasts for this particular thing.  The women had CWBM; others were interested in Sunday school education.  They said this must involve everybody.  So, they created The UCMS, brought all these organizations under one umbrella, and provided that membership in The UCMS would involve everybody in the church.  So that everybody who registered and went to an international convention in 1920 was a member of The United Christian Missionary Society.  They didn’t have delegates like we have today.  At a certain time in the convention, they would adjourn the convention and call into existence a meeting of The United Christian Missionary Society.  Everybody there was a member!  I think it’s very difficult for us today to imagine the degree of ownership which existed in the church for The United Christian Missionary Society.  This is ours. 

I had to preside over a meeting in the 1960s of The United Christian Missionary Society.  Everybody in the convention was a part of it.  They didn’t feel like the women owned the foreign mission board and somebody else owned another thing.  It was everything.  There were no multiple competing appeals.  The appeal was for the total support of the total program of the church.  The United Society shouldn’t be seen as one of a number of individual organizations with specific tasks; it was the instrument created for the whole church to do the whole work of the church.  That mentality was fomented enthusiastically in its creation as a whole new chapter in the history of the Disciples church.

The President of The UCMS was the central figure in the denomination.  Within a few years, they began to sense problems with that kind of a total organization.  One was how the knowledgeable constituencies could have a voice on the board.  The United Society had a board of managers of 120.  You think you have trouble getting a majority for this size of Board!  The board of managers selected a smaller board of about 23 or 24; half of which had to be women and half men.  The CWBM said they wouldn’t go into anything that didn’t protect the place of women.  So they picked a board of 12 men and 12 women who were knowledgeable about some aspect or other of the total church.   

The dream had complications which the dreamers didn’t know until actually they got started.  Furthermore, the distinct character of the operation of these divisions within The United Society posed problems.  Having one board to determine all those things was very difficult.  Simultaneously with what was happening in our church, American society was moving to a pension system; so, beginning at the beginning, a minister and the church would contribute to a pension fund which would take care of him when he retired.

That required a whole different kind of investment and money management.  Here was a group talking about getting money they wouldn’t spend for 39 years, and the state and federal government were saying that accumulation of money is very serious business and you have to meet certain standards about how you invest it, etc.

By 1927, what now is the Pension Fund moved away from The UCMS (the old Minister’s Relief Fund) in order to function appropriately as a pension system.  Into the 1930s it matured.  This kind of specialized management was not dreamed of in the 1900s when they dreamed of this umbrella organization.  There was no ill will about the moving and creation of this pension system out of The UCMS.

Other kinds of differences appeared, too.  One is, how can one person be a chief executive of an organization that has all these different kinds of activities?  What does the president of The UCMS have to know and do to take care of all these things we think of today as the organization of the church?  This created personnel problems.  The president very often found he was calling shots of a team of people…one playing football and the other playing basketball…there were different characters of activities.  Those first presidents of The UCMS really had a difficult job, plus that all these special interests would fight with each other to get people on that board of 23 or 24 people.  You wanted someone who knows about women, someone who knows about orphanages, somebody else who knows about publishing, etc.  The cup of complexity grew slowly over the years.  It wasn’t animosity; it was recognition that managing everything with one set of criteria and one type of administration is not a very good thing to do.

It was complicated further by the depression.  In the 1930s, the shortage of money impacted everybody and everything.  The offerings went way down.  Decisions had to be made of terminating staff people.  There were no jobs available for them in other places.  It happened overseas.  I had the privilege of knowing and having the funeral of one of those people.  Her name was Zona Smith.  Her legal name was Arizona Smith.  She didn’t like that Arizona business.  She was from Iowa.  She went to Drake University, graduated summa cum laude, went to the CWBM, applied for missionary work, and went overseas in 1910.  In 1932, letters went all over the world saying we had to cut back on missionaries.  She resigned as a missionary.  She said God had called her to be a missionary to Argentina, so she got herself a little apartment.  She had a little savings.  You talk about a woman pioneering!  She helped found a thing called the Institute for Women Christian Workers.  Since women weren’t admitted to seminaries, they started training women Methodists and Disciples.  They didn’t ordain them; they commissioned them.  Even in my life, they got into arguments in Argentina about what an ordained woman could do that a commissioned woman could not do.  They finally decided that the commissioned woman couldn’t pronounce the benediction!  In 1917 she founded a magazine for women.  As far as I know, there was no other magazine, secular or religious, not in Argentina or in all of South America.  This magazine, called Guia de Hogar, circulated widely all over the continent.  She resigned and stayed on her own, continuing to publish the magazine.  She finally died in 1952.  I had to settle up her estate.  She had four large trunks full of envelopes from people she had corresponded with in Peru and Panama with things about the women’s magazine.  It took me forever to go through envelope by envelope.  Sometimes she would get a check from somebody in foreign currency.  She would convert it into pesos and it produced two more pesos than the subscription was, so she would put the pesos back in the envelope with the intent of returning the money some day, but never did.  I found hundreds of bills of money which I carefully assembled and threw the envelopes away.  The problem is, the money had decreased in value but the stamps on the envelopes were a real asset!  So, I burned all the envelopes and kept the pesos.  This is an illustration of the vision work of the church and the place of women in the church.  I don’t think many women in the USA understand what this woman did as a pioneer.  She started another thing called the Argentine League of Protestant Women… kind of like Church Women United.  At her funeral, there were scads of people I had never seen before. 

That is not the organizational history of The United Society, but it’s an element of which I am sure there are dozens and dozens of types of work that were brought together under The United Society and spun off indirectly by circumstances.  This internal tension between administrative methods and validity, over the years counseled a different approach.  Even before restructure, the program of The UCMS was not just DHM and DOM; it had all kinds of ramifications all over the country.  The educational program of the church had regional directors of Christian education, working out of what is now DHM.  The summer conference program was run by those directors; not by the regions.  And, that was a sophisticated thing done by Christian educators.  They directed a formal curriculum, printed materials, a four-year course in the summer time, and a commencement program that handed out a diploma.  It was designed to train the leaders of the local church.  That was done not by the regions all over the country, but by the Department of Christian Education.  The educational promotional work of the mission work followed the lines of the old CWBM.  There were area executives all over the nation, working out of the Indianapolis office.  The United Society had a director of education in Kentucky on their staff when I went to college during the depression years.  The women’s department had a full time executive in Kentucky.  By circumstance, this educational process began to be merged with the states and gave the regions a kind of mission it never had before.

In 1936, I was assigned to the State Office in Kentucky, as a servership from college.  The executive there was Ben Bobbitt.  Maybe you’ve heard that name.  He was called the Secretary Director.  As the Secretary, he worked with the churches in Kentucky.  As the Director, he worked for The UCMS.  About four blocks away, there was a full time woman working.  She worked for the mission board, not for the state office.  Over the years, by economic pressures in some cases and sometimes by program, there was a shift of national personnel to regional personnel.

If I could say just a word more about the impact of restructure.  The process of restructure started with a panel of scholars to make a theological study of the nature and mission of the church. Out of that grew the commission to restructure.  The denomination was not structured in keeping with this mission of the church.  The big question in restructure was what would The UCMS do because it received 40 per cent of unified promotion money and still had deployed staff all over the nation and the executive of The United Society was still the principal operating officer of the denomination.  It was further complicated by the fact that A. Dale Fiers, who had been the president of The UCMS, became the Executive Secretary of the International Convention and the Chief Overseer of the restructure process.  They didn’t know what to do for a president.  So, they asked Virgil Sly to take it because they weren’t sure what the future of The UCMS would be.  Virgil served until 1968, when he reached retirement age.  They had to pick a new person. 

The Committee invited Virginia and me to dinner at the Columbia Club on the Circle.  They said right off the bat:  We need a new president of The United Society, but we don’t know what that means anymore.  They were six months away from the adoption of the restructure of the church.  They said, we can’t go out and ask somebody.  They can’t go to a president of a college and ask of they want to be president for less than six months; so, they had to look internally.  They asked me to take this job.  But, it wasn’t because they thought I was capable of the foreseeable future.  There was no foreseeable future.  Nobody knew what would happen after restructure.  We were fortunate to have as heads of DHM and DOM, Kenneth Kuntz and Robert Thomas, who were really convinced that the restructure process was the right structure.  So, after the restructure design was adopted, it was my responsibility to help The UCMS move into the new structure.

In a sense, it was chapter two of The UCMS.  Chapter one was in 1920, when The UCMS was the restructured programmatic life of the church.  It included everything.  But, by the time restructure took place in the 1960s, very strong separate institutions such as NBA, Pension Fund, etc., used the language of a division of the church.  We concluded that the DOM and DHM should become divisions of the church, which meant drafting a charter, developing a corporate description, and moving into the new structure. 

But, there were problems which didn’t get solved by that simple division.  There were investments that were not clearly designated for one or the other.  We made three investments:  DOM, DHM and The UCMS.  We put money there that couldn’t be finely defined.  There were properties, like the one you spent most of the afternoon on here (not only in the United States but abroad), that were in the name of UCMS.  Furthermore, there were estates that were in the process of being settled.  Where The UCMS was a beneficiary, we didn’t want to wipe out The UCMS under those circumstances.  There were certain functions of The UCMS that didn’t fit DOM and DHM.  We tend to think today that The UCMS is the mother of these two units; but, that’s not totally true.  I saw in your budget here that you have medical obligations for retirees, who were employees of The UCMS that shouldn’t be transferred to DOM or DHM.  There’s real estate and contractual relationships that had corporate responsibility.  So, we said, for at least the foreseeable future…not for eternity… we ought to keep the corporate life of The UCMS, take care of those items that cannot be separated or transferred to DOM and DHM or to some other entity of the church. 

We had an extensive, for example, health program in The United Society that functioned for years.  But, it didn’t benefit local churches.  The Pension Fund launched the health plan.  As soon as it got organized, we transferred all this package of participants.  There were aspects of communication that The UCMS had that were transferred to the General Minister and President’s office.  The definition of what the role of The UCMS president would be changed often.  Dale said to me that he wanted me to become an Associate General Minister and President.  Over four or five years, until I finished my term, I spent a lot of time working on the nuts and bolts…not the most exciting thing…trying to get some regions to merge, like Iowa and Minnesota to put together the Upper Midwest; South Carolina and Georgia we tried and failed.  To see that the role of The United Society was not only made for administration work but also to commit itself to the unity of the denomination.  There was a time, for example, when Dallas/Fort Worth wanted to be a separate region from Texas.  I spent my time for four years getting together the nuts and bolts to take care of the needs of these things and to help facilitate the downsizing of The UCMS to this holding corporation of things that couldn’t be easily transferred.

I can’t tell you whether we thought this would be necessary for two years or six years or for a hundred years.  We said to ourselves that The UCMS should exist as long as there is a problem, legal or financial or otherwise.  But, there will be a day when it won’t exist anymore, when these things are taken care of.  And, you’re still taking care of some of them.  I saw that this afternoon.

I think the bad news that The UCMS incorporated in 1920 and expressed in its participation in restructure were still the basic two:  one, it’s a unit of the church and it should do what it can do to unite the church in every feasible way; and, second, faithful administration or effective administration of the work that it does.  The scope of that thing over the years has changed.  Some changes were made from outside pressure; some changes were made from inside pressure.  One illustration:  the regional programs of the church developed substantially during these later years of The UCMS.  But, the women’s staff remained a staff of the Central office.  There was growing conversation about transferring those deployed staff members to the regions and transferring to the regions the allocation of the commission on finance for their salaries and benefits.  That was done, but it was not enthusiastically celebrated by everybody.  There were women leaders nationally who felt that their voice was weakened.  There were regional staff that were reluctant to accept a compromise agreement that meant appointing new women staff that would consult with the national office.  See how that threatened the autonomy of the regions?  But, we finally got a formal kind of a covenant between all the regions and The United Society that in staff selection they would make their decisions, but after consultation with the Department of Women of DHM.

Throughout, the policy of The United Society was to strengthen the administrative piece of the work and at the same time be a part of the unity of the church.  The individual decisions over a period of years were complicated, sometimes debated; but, in retrospect, I think most people felt that process and creating DHM and DOM and transferring the regions was the right way to go. 

That’s the background for what you’re doing, and it will be in your hands to decide what responsibilities The UCMS has will still remain, what can be transferred appropriately, and whether The UCMS can continue its endeavor.  And, it’s complicated by one other complication.  In some real estate, it is difficult to change the title.  The church I served in Buenos Aires, the title to this day I think is still in CWBM.  I don’t know whether it has been changed or not.  But, when I was there, we tried to change the title to the Argentine church and the federal government said, even though they don’t pay for it, we would have to have an appraisal of the value of the real estate and taxes would have to be paid on the capital gains, etc.  It was so horrendous a number of pesos (thousands of dollars).  It isn’t easy to do these things, but I want to finalize by saying that I appreciate the fact you folk are willing to serve on this UCMS Board that is in the final stage of what is a very fascinating history.