So where does the church go from here?
The recent $9.1 million downsizing of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)’s national staff and the reorganization of what’s left leaves people asking questions.
Among them: In a shrinking denomination with fewer members and less money, but with significant enthusiasm for mission work at the grassroots, what’s the role of the national church structure?
And specifically, where do Presbyterians want to focus their energies in evangelism and international mission work?
Those are big questions. But some of the outlines on the map are as follows:
- The downsizing includes the loss of 75 staff members and 40 missionary positions. Those cuts are provoking unhappiness — but also conversation about how money for international mission work can be raised in different ways, including through a newly-created Presbyterian Global Fellowship www.presbyterianglobalfellowship.org , a networking group established in May. Increasingly, some Presbyterians are pursuing international mission endeavors with minimal involvement of the PC(USA).
- The PC(USA) has ambitious goals for becoming more racially diverse and multicultural. But it’s far from clear how, or if, that goal of becoming at least 20 percent non-white by 2010 will be reached. In 2004, the most recent year for which statistics were available, just over 92 percent of the denomination’s members were white.
- The General Assembly Council does not seem satisfied with the denomination’s current efforts at evangelism. It has instructed the staff leadership team to come to the council’s meeting in September with a plan for “alternative programs that will directly speak to communicating the gospel in clear ways.”
All this has some folks talking about how the PC(USA) has been doing things now — and what needs to change. There’s discussion of a lack of trust and relevancy, of the need for the denominational staff to be more connected to the grassroots, and to share more effectively information about “best practices” of congregations.
The bottom-line problem, according to Boyd Stockdale, the retired executive of Seattle presbytery, is this. The PC(USA) has a reorganization plan, but, “there is no vision.”
It’s probably too soon to say exactly how things will shake out with the staff changes. Originally, the PC(USA) cut 55 missionary positions, with 40 expected to come through attrition. But an unexpected bequest was used to restore funding for the other 15 missionaries — basically a last-minute reprieve.
That’s not a long-term fix, however, to the underlying problem: Presbyterians are giving less money to the national church, and more of what does come in is restricted in how it can be spent. The days of top-down management — the national church setting the direction and congregations and individual Presbyterians following — are long gone.
The PC(USA) restructuring “is part of a larger trend of downsizing the upper end of church hierarchies,” Michael Walker, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, said in an interview. “That is a painful but necessary process through which a lot of different churches are going. The day of massive church hierarchies in American Protestantism is over.”
And Walker said some folks need “to stop thinking that the headquarters is the church.”
In light of that, conversations are taking place about future realities — about how more money can be raised for international mission by Presbyterians outside the denominational structure, and how those efforts can best mesh with the expertise and experience the national staff has to offer.
That question — what role the national staff should play in helping shape international mission efforts — still is being worked out, particularly since under the restructuring plan there no longer will be a separate Worldwide Ministries Division, and some Worldwide staff members lost their jobs.
Rob Weingartner, executive director of the Outreach Foundation, a Presbyterian mission organization, said he’s concerned that when Worldwide dissolves as a distinct entity, the international ministries of the PC(USA) might lose prominence too.
Weingartner said the Worldwide staff in recent years “has shown a tremendous amount of creativity” in dealing with limited resources and in exploring new ways to work in partnership with the broader church — for example, by facilitating networks of Presbyterians interested in mission work in particular countries or groups of people, such as the Kurds.
He’s seen a move away from the “command-and-control” type of leadership and growing excitement “about congregations supporting each other.”
But with the restructuring — in which the PC(USA)’s Worldwide, National and Congregational ministries division are being folded into one unit, organized around mission goals — Weingartner is concerned that some of that changing identity may be lost.
“One of my big questions, and I think it’s a question for the church, is where the clear point of leadership and coordination for international mission work will be,” Weingartner said. “I believe that global mission is of unique significance … I’m greatly concerned that what in my opinion has been the healthiest parts of the church structure” will, with the reorganization, be “deeply enmeshed in a whole that hasn’t been particularly effective.”
There also are questions about the relationship between the national staff and the grassroots.
While congregations and individual Presbyterians are getting involved all over the world — making mission trips, forging relationships with congregations in other countries, helping out with everything from orphanages to medical missions — the in-depth knowledge the PC(USA)’s national staff offers about how things work, about the PC(USA)’s international church partners, and where help is needed can be invaluable, some Presbyterians say.
Several years ago, Seattle presbytery got involved with fast-growing congregations in Vietnam. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” Stockdale said. He remembers getting off a plane and standing on the street in Hanoi, wondering, “What have I gotten into?” And “the help that Worldwide Ministries Division gave was just crucial,” Stockdale said. “We would have made 55 mistakes in the first month if we hadn’t been talking to them.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that congregations and presbyteries are just writing checks and shipping them off to the denomination’s offices in Louisville. They’re more likely to do as they please — sending money and volunteers where they see the greatest need, and consulting with the denomination when and if they find a reason to do so.
Bill Young, executive director of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, sees the national staff “being in a sense a servant to congregations,” being a helpful consultant, rather than telling congregations what they must do.
And the national offices can provide advice that could keep congregations from “making the same mistakes over and over again,” such as “falling in love with a pastor [overseas] and deciding to subsidize his salary,” Weingartner said. “It happens all the time,” he said — but experience has taught Presbyterians involved with mission work that it can affect relationships in the area and often is not a good idea.
The relationships with international church partners and the politics of particular countries can be complicated. And things don’t always go smoothly if congregations try to move all on their own.
For example, when Presbyterians interested in mission work in Cuba formed a network for ministry in that country, two congregations discovered they had each paid to put a roof on the same building, Young said.
“You can’t just do things blindly,” he said. “The more you can learn from other people who are doing it, the better off you are. After all, we are a body of Christ.”
EVANGELISM IN THE U.S.
Some involved with the grassroots church see as plainly as anyone that the PC(USA) needs to become more flexible and more creative, both in international work and closer to home
“We know that the old way of building a new church” — get five acres and five years of funding — “won’t work anymore. We can’t do that,” said Jim Collie, executive director of Santa Fe presbytery.
“What we want is not a `one-size-fits-all,’ “ but flexibility in working with the realities on the ground, Collie said.
What do people at the grassroots want? More flexibility, more innovation, more risk-taking. And definitely more diversity.
Building a denomination that’s more racially diverse is a “pressing need,” Walker said. Except for a relatively few congregations, “we’re totally out of step with the racial and ethnic diversity in the surrounding culture, and our witness to Jesus Christ is weaker because of it.”
Stockdale has been involved for years with new church development along the West Coast — including the development of immigrant and multicultural fellowships. During his tenure Seattle presbytery established 15 ethnic congregations, Stockdale said, “and we never received any support from General Assembly” in doing so.
The national church needs to “stop trying to be the regulator of the world,” and to “start to connect with the differences,” recognizing that ministry in Seattle will look a lot differently than it does in West Virginia, Stockdale said.
He floated the idea of having the national staff responsible for evangelism being deployed in regions — spread across the country, so they’d be more familiar with the people, the demographics and the culture on the ground. “We keep dealing with people who think the church (on the West Coast) is like it is in Pennsylvania,” Stockdale said. But in Seattle, “there is no Presbyterian tradition — it doesn’t exist.”
So when national staff members say, ” `We do it this way,’ the West Coast just dismisses it. The West says, `I guess they’re not hearing us again.’ “
But that realization — that things can be different — for some Presbyterians brings freedom, excitement and energy. People are learning that ethnic ministries take the shape and form of their cultures — that new Hispanic churches don’t develop, for example, in exactly the same way that Anglo churches do. So more and more, people at the grassroots stop asking for permission from the denomination, and start innovating.
That can cause problems, Stockdale said, when the national church isn’t as flexible as Presbyterians at the local level want to be.
When he’d been in Seattle about a month, Stockdale closed down a dying Anglo congregation. And in its place, he said, the presbytery started a second-generation Asian church, paying little attention to new church development policies or procedures. Six years later, that congregation is thriving.
Stockdale said he’s told national staff members responsible for new church development that the PC(USA) has to become more flexible in order to incubate and launch immigrant fellowships. “Your form assumes it’s white middle-class America,” Stockdale told the denomination. “My problem is they keep speaking Farsi, and I just can’t get them to stop.”
A key role for the denomination could be encouraging “a much greater sharing of the best of ideas and practices that are emerging from congregations that are doing evangelism well,” Walker said. The role of the national church, he said, is “networking congregations that are doing it well with congregations that need help.”