Our Strength is in Our Foundation
One of the most diverse Conferences in the United Church of Christ, the Southern Conference formed after the national union of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches in Cleveland OH, on June 25, 1957 — the union that gave birth to the United Church of Christ. Eight years after the United Church of Christ was formed, three church bodies — the Southern Synod of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, the Convention of the South of the Congregational Christian Churches (a denomination of African-American Congregational Christian Churches), and the Southern Convention of the Congregational Christian Churches — formed a covenant on September 30, 1965. Each group reflected both the unique polity of their national bodies and their ethnic forebears — African, British and German. All, however, shared a cultural Southernness and unity in their belief that Jesus’ prayer, “that they may all be one,” was to be taken seriously. The new entity comprised 414 congregations reporting 66,000 members.
This was the era of the Civil Rights Movement, which endeavored to desegregate public facilities, including schools. The leaders of these three uniting denominations provided courageous guidance as they forged a strong, united Conference in the midst of much fear, prejudice, doubt, and division. Some churches opted not to become part of the new effort, but the vast majority accepted the challenge of forming a unique testimony to the unity that Christ brings.
Since 1965, the Southern Conference has enjoyed the leadership of four talented and dedicated Conference Ministers — James Lightbourne, Rollin O. Russell, Steven Camp and Edward Davis —along with skilled Associate Conference Ministers, Program Associates, and office support personnel. In addition, the Conference has been guided by lay and ordained leaders serving as officers and members of various Conference and Association boards, commissions and committees. Many have served faithfully and effectively in General Synod responsibilities, and the Conference has hosted one General Synod meeting in addition to gatherings of the former World Board and the national women’s meeting.
The Southern Conference also boasts two denominationally-affiliated colleges in Elon University and Catawba College, two children’s ministries in Elon Homes for Children and Nazareth Children’s Home, three senior living communities managed under the United Church Retirement Homes umbrella, and four Conference centers and camps: Black Lake Retreat Center, Blowing Rock Conference Center, Franklinton Center at Bricks, and Johns River Valley Camp.
Today, the Southern Conference is a uniquely blessed place to do ministry. Of her nearly 200 member churches, just under 100 are African American. More than 30,000 United Church of Christ members in North Carolina and the Tidewater area of Virginia practice their faith across a range of theological orientations. The Southern Conference gathers annually in June, rotating its meeting among its three Associations: Western North Carolina based in Salisbury, Eastern North Carolina based in the Conference office in Burlington, and Eastern Virginia in Suffolk.