2021 General Synod Delegate Summary:
Rob Van Ess

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A Confession of Faith – A General Synod Thought and Experience by Rev. Rob Van Ess,

Pastor and Teacher at Holy Trinity Community Church, United Church of Christ in Memphis, TN.


My particular interest in the 33rd General Synod begins with my response to the Covid-19 shutdown. The pandemics have been really hard on me. I gained 20 lbs. I didn’t need. I became depressed and anxious. It became progressively more difficult for me to focus on any one thing for any length of time. In Nov. of 2020 I lost a dear friend to Covid which left me feeling hopeless and grief-stricken. After a year into the shutdown, I felt like I was at a breaking point. I believed I had to keep going, so, I did what needed to be done. As a local church pastor that meant dealing with the additional workload of trying to support a faith community worshipping online while providing pastoral care and emotional support for a congregation living through the dual pandemics of white supremacy and Covid-19.

When we returned to worship in-person I thought this was it. I desperately wanted to be free and return to “normal.” What I didn’t see coming is that the stress of implementing online worship was replaced with the pressure of successfully producing hybrid worship. The stress of waiting to return to worship in-person was replaced with the anxiety I found in our lower attendance numbers and wondering if and when many of our members who did not take to the online format would return. I saw our institutions, including the church, circling the wagons of white supremacy to fight old resentments and relive institutional trauma that excluded me as an out gay cis-gendered male who has been slowly identifying as non-binary.  I gradually realized that “normal” was never going to happen. I fell into a pit of despair. Everyone wanted a piece of me and there were no pieces left to give.

One day I had an uncharacteristic outburst that made me pause and I realized over the next couple of days that I was suffering from burnout. I had support. Trusted colleagues and mentors I turned to often. I started online counseling with a spiritual director. I took the time to rest and go on retreats. I was connected to all the resources the association, conference, and national setting have to offer and I used them. I was kind to myself. I prayed with my husband. I started to paint nonrepresentational art as an emotional release. I had the support of a loving congregation that gave me the freedom to take what I needed for my care. And it wasn’t enough. This led me in a roundabout way to contemplative prayer and meditation which I believe saved my life.

In the opening Plenary session on Sun. July 11th the voting delegates approved a resolution to Become a Church of Contemplatives in Action. (Go here to read the full resolution: https://www.generalsynod.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Contemplatives-in-Action.pdf.)

This resolution strives to encourage “local churches to become churches of ‘contemplatives in action,’ remembering the essential disciplines modeled by Jesus of silent prayer, meditation, and practices to commune with the Divine Mother-Father (128-130).” Contemplative prayer and meditation open the door to an experience with Divine grace and mercy that I was not able to afford myself. A way by which to stop, and simply be present, that allows me the ability to receive the gifts of God that sustain me. The uneasy peace I have found is not a cure-all, but a healing balm that soothes my physical and spiritual bodies long enough to allow me the time to heal. The constant assaults of the dual pandemics have been hard on all of us, individually and institutionally. My hope is that whatever we come with becoming a church of contemplatives in action will allow us to more fully rediscover an experience with Divine grace and mercy that we cannot afford ourselves. A time to heal and reflect. To embrace the beatitudes. To work tirelessly for the new heaven and the new Earth that our holy scripture keeps pointing us towards: the dream of God, peace and justice flowing like a river, as revealed through the very power of God, for the love of all the world.