A Brief History of the Kentucky Council of Churches
When delegates from six Protestant denominations met on December 11, 1947, to organize the Kentucky Council of Churches, they stood on the shoulders of many previous efforts of faithful Kentuckians claiming the gift of unity.*
Above all, they stood on the shoulders of the Kentucky State Sabbath-School Association (KSSA) founded in October of 1865. Over many decades, the KSSA and its successor organizations helped the churches be a force for educational outreach and service to youth. Another important precursor organization was the United Church Women of Kentucky.
Membership growth and diversity
The Protestant delegates who met in 1947 created an autonomous organization that has grown in a distinctive way. The number and variety of member churches grew steadily. During the decade 1954-1964, the membership became racially integrated and came to include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Beginning in 1982, all of the Catholic dioceses of Kentucky also became full members after some time of less formal participation. Today, there are 12 major Christian traditions represented among the members. The most recent new member tradition (2010) is the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship.
Some major themes have been constant in the focus of the Council’s activities and impact, even when the specific ways of addressing those themes have evolved. A sampling of those major themes would have to include:
Fellowship, Prayer, and Support to Pastors
This theme has included initiatives such as the World Day of Prayer, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, conferences for pastors, support for prison chaplains, and opportunities for church leaders to spend time together in fellowship. In keeping with this history is today’s initiative, “Health and Hospitality Opportunities for Peer Ecumenism (HHOPE)”, a program supporting small peer learning groups for church leaders.
Improving Rural Life
From the early days’ “Church and Farm Family” conferences, to migrant worker outreach work in the 60s, on up to today’s Care For Creation program unit, the Council has kept the needs of rural residents as a key theme.
Justice and Help for People Who are Struggling Economically
A Task Force on Hunger had a large impact for good in Kentucky, spawning food banks, encouraging church. Rev. Ellen Frost, first woman president involvements with the challenge of homelessness, and advocating improvements in public welfare programs. Other more recent manifestations of this theme include efforts to prevent the expansion of gambling casinos and support for a cap on interest rates on payday lending.
Christian Unity Dialogue and Agreements
Intentional dialogues among the member traditions have led to some important agreements about how we will speak, work and worship together. These agreements undergird all our work so that the spheres in which we can be unanimous will grow. The Council's paper on how we approach our disagreements is seen as exemplary in Kentucky and beyond, and you are encouraged to download and study it here.
The Council has been an important partner with others in Kentucky in defining and widening the sphere in which religion and education can find common interest. An important chapter in that work was the Public Education and Religion in Kentucky (PERK) committee that in 1999 produced “Education about the Role of Religion in America’s History and Culture.”
The health needs of Kentuckians are dire when we are compared to other states, and in recent years the Council has grown its commitments in this area. In advocacy work, we pursue a day when everyone will have access to affordable, quality health care. In addition, we encourage every congregation and parish to sponsor health ministries, and are helping pastors to improve their own health.
Disaster Coordination and Recovery
Beginning in 1974, the Council played a seminal role in the development of volunteer agency coordination around natural disasters in Kentucky. Denominational disaster assistance agencies gradually grew in strength and the Council has moved increasingly into a training and coordination role. Executive Director John Bush pioneered this role.
Anti-racism and Migration Issues
Creating an environment of respect and welcome for all of God’s children is a constant in the life of the Council. Recent initiatives include a statement against racism that includes educational components, advocacy for comprehensive federal reforms affecting migrants, and gatherings to equip church members for effective outreach to new residents.
The history of the Council is still being written by those who join hearts and hands to write it with prayer and action. You are invited to be one of its authors!
* Much of this essay’s content is indebted to a brief history of the Council entitled “We Are A Household Of Faith”, available upon request.