Freshly off their annual meeting in New Orleans, LA (March 3-6), the members of the Committee on the Uniform Lessons Series (CUS) returned home as strongly persuaded as ever that their development of a guide for the systematic study of Scripture plays a vital role in today’s Christian education and spiritual nurture. Once a year, representatives of the 26 denominational and publishing partners of the CUS meet face-to-face for work, worship, continuing education, and fellowship—but mostly work! The delegates who represent each of the CUS publishing partners come from all over the US and Puerto Rico, and for the past several years, have included partners from the Nigerian Baptist Convention. This year CUS welcomed The Reverend Adelokoji Ijaola and The Reverend Foluke Ola whose presence helps the Committee truly live up to its product name, “The International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching.”
Throughout the year, various sub-committees use electronic platforms to support collaborative writing and editing of shared documents, but the annual face-to-face allows for engagement on some of the more complex tasks of project development that need real-time conversation and strategizing. In working side-by-side, there is mutual support and innovation for adaptions of the Lesson Outlines and Home Daily Bible Readings in order to address the sweeping changes they are seeing in congregational approaches to faith formation in the 21st century. As loyal contributors to the CUS, those gathered in New Orleans can proudly trace the earliest versions of this work to 1872.
The project of the Uniform Lessons was the first-born study plan of the International Sunday School Association, organized in 1872. Its first appearance and use began with 1873. It was adopted as the one set of lessons for all the members of the Sunday-school (The Story of the Uniform Lessons, David C. Cook: Elgin, IL, 1930).
It is of utmost significance, exceeding any disagreements we may have. I love the work itself because it challenges me and helps me to grow in grace and faith.”Rev. Dr. Mozella Mitchell
The Rev. Dr. Tammy Wiens, Director of Christian Education and Faith Formation for the National Council of Churches (NCC), directs the day-to-day operations of the CUS. “Nowhere in my twenty years of Christian education experience have I been part of a more robust ecumenical project than what I enjoy with this Committee,” Wiens observed, speaking of the wide diversity of the CUS membership. “I have some twenty-year-long friendships with people from denominational backgrounds with whom I might never have crossed paths, except that we met during a CUS annual meeting. There is a visible and organic unity of different Christian denominations coming together in CUS over many decades that is really quite astounding. We are more than just a work-group who develops a curriculum product, we are an embodiment of what it means to be joined together in Christ.”
Though there are some seriously long hours of group writing and editing, the annual meeting has a larger agenda than simply getting a job done or working to beat a deadline. There is also time for community worship and rich fellowship. Among several opportunities for worship, perhaps the most poignant was the Service of Commissioning of our newly elected officers, held in The Church of the Immaculate Conception, a historic Jesuit church near the conference hotel. Taking a walk outdoors and getting away from the hotel for an hour gave participants an opportunity to experience some of the sights, sounds, and smells of New Orleans’ French Quarter. More significant, however, was the wonderful surprise that awaited us in the worship space. The parish priest who greeted the group opened our eyes to the marvelous art and history infused into the sacredness of the church. It was stunning, even without explanation, but the eager host related fascinating details about the layers of meaning at every level of the sanctuary’s construction. Especially notable was the solid marble sculpture of Mary, originally hand-carved for the last queen of France, Marie Amelie. When the French monarchy was abolished, the statue remained homeless until she was purchased by a wealthy Catholic parishioner from New York. When this church in New Orleans took the name “Immaculate Conception,” in the 1850s, the benevolent New Yorker took note and contacted the New Orleans church to give them this statue of Mary (to read more about the church, visit: https://jesuitchurch.net/the-church).
On Thursday evening, following dinner, it is a CUS tradition to give thanks and recognition to outgoing officers and to honor the long-term service of those who will be retiring in the coming year. Special attention and gratitude were offered this year to the outgoing CUS Chair, The Rev. Dr. Mozella Mitchell. Most CUS Chairs, serve a 3-year term, but because of some staff transitions that were in process, the CUS Executive Committee voted to delay the election cycle. Dr. Mitchell graciously extended her service for an additional year. She brought the wisdom of her 30+ years of service to the Committee to her term as Chair, and provided a voice of calm and reassurance that was grounding to our work and to our spirits. Dr. Mitchell is loved and respected by her colleagues for her gracious spirit and persistent faith in all seasons and she models a length of commitment to CUS that speaks to the health and longevity of the project. By her own testimony, Dr. Mitchell gives praise to God for the opportunity to “study and examine the Holy Scriptures with fellow Christian writers, scholars, and editors of various Christian denominations and cultures. The fact that we are preparing lesson outlines for numerous church communions and contributing to the growth and development of thousands of Christian throughout this country and in other parts of the world makes us serious about the work we share as sisters and brothers in Christ,” said Dr. Mitchell. “It is of utmost significance, exceeding any disagreements we may have. I love the work itself because it challenges me and helps me to grow in grace and faith.”
On April 19, 2020 (pending COVID-19 restrictions), Dr. Mitchell will be honored by her member denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, for her 50 years of service as a pastor and a scholar. To further mark the occasion, Dr. Mitchell has written a memoir, “Yea, Lord! Moving with the Spirit,” that was recently published by Xlibris Press. The memoir recounts the challenges she faced as a Black woman and how she thrived in her vocation amid the social movements and changes that marked each decade of her life. She speaks candidly about some of the dangers she faced as a mentor to the Black Student Caucus on her university campus, her decision to attend seminary as a way of gaining theological moorings for the social issues she and her students were confronting, and how she met and studied with Howard Thurman in the course of writing a dissertation about his influence as a theologian, educator, and civil rights leader.
During the CUS election of new officers, The Reverend Garland F. Pierce was unanimously voted in as the next CUS Chair, though his term does not officially begin until after the NCC Governing Board meeting in April at which time the vote will be confirmed. The Rev. Pierce is a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and serves his denomination as the Executive Director of the Department of Christian Education. Prior to his election to the denominational offices, Pierce served the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland, as the Senior Assistant to the General Secretary. Earlier in his vocational career, he served on the NCC staff as the Associate General Secretary for Education and Leadership Ministries and later Associate General Secretary for Education and Leadership Ministries. The CUS is certain to receive the rich blessing of all he brings to this term of service. Pierce will be commissioned during a worship service at the opening of the 2021 annual meeting, tentatively slated for the first week of March in Memphis, TN (details are forthcoming).
Following the service awards, The Rev. Dr. Leslie Copeland-Tune, Chief Operating Officer for the NCC, stood up to bring official greetings from the Washington office. She began, almost reservedly, sharing her thoughts about the critical moment we are facing as a nation but what started as a formal greeting began to gather momentum and soon she was throwing down the gauntlet. She went from institutional emissary to all-out Baptist preacher! Her prophetic message found great resonance among the CUS listeners as she urged, “We have a story to tell.” The stories of the past do matter – the stories of Abraham and Sarah, the stories of Peter and of Mary, the stories of our grandparents and our parents, the stories of slavery and of freedom, the stories of “my church” and of “our Church.” It was a message of faith and of encouragement to join their stories to the stories of Scripture. Beyond merely teaching the Bible, CUS has a story to tell of God’s justice and how that justice must come to bear on the injustices of our time.
The CUS is alive and well a century and a half since its inception and indeed, “we have a story to tell!” The faith stories represented by those who share in developing these lesson outlines are experienced through many differences—theology, race, ethnicity, gender, geography, doctrine, worship styles, and traditions. As anyone who has come to an annual meeting will tell you, the love and respect participants hold for one another breaks down boundaries that model to the rest of the world an authentic unity in Christ. Serving on a committee that is diverse on so many levels can be both invigorating and challenging to the participants. The CUS embraces their diversity and exemplifies the conviction that Christ is “above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:5). In 2022 the Uniform Lessons Committee will celebrate its sesquicentennial anniversary. They aim to be a vital force in Christian education for another 150 years!