Congregational Church of La Jolla: Ever on the forefront of social change

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a bi-monthly La Jolla Light series examining the various faith communities in our town and the people within them. Reporter Linda Hutchison and photographer Milan Kovacevic take us into the familiar buildings for insight on what goes on inside … and why. Read previous installments online at

The Congregational Church of La Jolla is the Village’s oldest faith community, dating back to 1889. It is also located in one of La Jolla’s oldest public buildings and rooted in one of our country’s oldest religions – the Congregational Way as brought here by the Pilgrims in the early 1600s.

This rich history has not kept the church from looking forward, however. Throughout its history, both locally and nationally, it has been at the forefront of social change.

“We are unique in that we are traditional in our sense of worship, but progressive in thought,” explained Rev. Sam Greening, pastor.

“All people are welcome here, but this is not new for us. The church has stood up for hundreds of years, led society in the direction to change,” he continued. It was the first to ordain a black minister (in 1875), to ordain a woman (in 1853) and an openly gay pastor (in 1972), and among the first to endorse marriage equality.

Rev. Greening describes his church in an “Open & Affirming Statement,” part of which reads: “We open our church doors to the full diversity of humankind in God’s glorious creation, warmly embracing all differences in age, race, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, marital status, mental and physical ability, ethnic and cultural identity, religious background, educational level, and socioeconomic status.”

The church is part of the United Church of Christ (UCC), formed in 1957 when Congregational Christians joined with the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Today there are approximately 5,000 UCC churches in the United States.

“In keeping with our heritage, we have no required statement of faith, but we are bound by a covenant,” Rev, Greening said. “The UCC speaks to the congregation, but each church stands on its own.” The Congregational Church of La Jolla adopted its current covenant in 2010. It is repeated during the first Sunday service in February and at baptisms, and reads:

“We covenant with God and with one another, promising to join together in worship and the celebration of the sacraments, in the study of the scriptures, in sharing the good news with one another and the world around us, in joining in the struggle for justice for the whole human family, and in welcoming into our midst all who seek God and community, that the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit may be known and acknowledged in the life of our congregation.”

Early worship spaces

The first Congregationalists to worship in La Jolla gathered together with Episcopalians and Presbyterians above a store on Girard Avenue in 1889. A few years later, in 1897, they purchased a building at the corner of Herschel Avenue and Wall Street and officially incorporated as La Jolla Union Congregational Church (still the church’s legal name).

In 1915, the building burned down. By then, the Presbyterians and Episcopalians had moved on and the Congregationalists purchased their current property at Cave Street and Ivanhoe Avenue. They hired architect Carleton Winslow to design a new church, which opened its doors in 1916. Winslow designed many of the buildings for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park.

Since then, the Spanish Mission-style building has been renovated several times, including the addition of a pipe organ in 1926 and stained glass windows in the late 1950s. (On one side of the sanctuary, the windows depict scenes from the Old Testament and on the other, scenes from the life of Christ.)

In more recent years, the church has rebuilt its inner courtyard and Fellowship Hall and installed a commercial kitchen. In addition to hosting several social events throughout the year, the church rents its facilities out for such events as weddings, parties, 12-step meetings and yoga classes.

The church’s regular services include Sunday worship and school at 10:30 a.m., followed by a coffee hour, and on fifth Sundays, a potluck.

The church also belongs to the Community Christian Service Agency (CCSA), which includes 30 churches in La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Clairemont and University City. “The CCSA reaches out to the needy in our neighborhood and helped 25,000 people last year,” said Rev. Greening.

In addition to its work with the community through the CCSA, the Congregational Church is involved in more than a dozen programs that help people locally, nationally, and around the world.

Rev. Greening took over the Congregational Church in 2005. He was born in Ashland, Kentucky and earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Louisville, majoring in German and minoring in French. He spent his junior year studying in Germany and also working in a winery. He then earned a master’s of divinity degree at Drew University in New Jersey.

Since then, he has served in Ohio, Columbia, Puerto Rico and Germany, where he headed the Council of International Ministries. He speaks German, French and Spanish. In 2013, he took a two-month sabbatical to work with the Hungarian Reform Church in Romania.

He said he enjoys weaving historical information into his sermons and thinks that may be partly why he was chosen to lead the La Jolla church. “They like attention to history and tradition and I like research and footnotes,” he said.

For the church’s centennial celebration next year, there are plans to offer several musical concerts and other events open to the public. In the meantime, the church is open during the week with coffee and Wi-Fi for anyone who wants to stop by. “We like people to know the church is a welcoming place,” said Rev. Greening.

Congregational Church of La Jolla

Address: 1216 Cave Street, La Jolla, Ca 92037

Phone: (858) 459-5045


Facebook: Congregational Church of La Jolla

Twitter: @LaJollaUCC

Year gathered: 1889

Members: Approximately 130

Average Weekend Attendance: 60-70

Worship Services Provided: Worship and Sunday School on Sunday at 10:30 a.m.

Community Programs/Projects:

Frequent concerts and other non-religious events open to public (upcoming Valentine’s Soirée Feb. 14 at 7 p.m., “Wild & Precious” LGBT rights event Feb. 15 at 7 p.m.). Ongoing collections of food, toiletries and clothing for the local homeless and hungry. Founding (and still active) member of Christian Community Service Agency, including annual Walk for Hunger. Congregational Women’s Association. Bible study. 2014 collection of items for immigrant youth and children.

Annual events: Christmas gifts for the needy; One Great Hour of Sharing Offering (relief efforts worldwide); Strengthen the Church Offering (UCC ministries); Neighbors in Need Offering (Justice Ministries in the United States); Christmas Fund Offering (retired pastors/church workers).

Regular additional offerings received whenever disaster strikes anywhere in the world (100% of money collected goes to designated recipients, never for overhead). Help UCC/Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) missionaries with funds. Additional funds to help members.

Weekly Coffee Hour. Free daily Wi-Fi and coffee on patio. Meeting space for 12-step groups. Fifth Sunday Potluck – free meal after church. Annual Pie Sunday (coffee hour after church Sunday before Thanksgiving). Annual Oktoberfest.

Low-cost meeting space for non-Christian ministries. Reasonably priced space rental for non-member weddings, receptions, parties, events.

Leader(s) names: Rev. Sam Greening, pastor