In this financially-stressed denomination, what is the future of presbyteries and synods?
With some regional governing bodies already being pricked by fiscal pain, that is a question being asked with some fervor and urgency in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) these days.
Last September, the Synod of the Southwest and the presbyteries of Santa Fe and Sierra Blanca sent letters asking the General Assembly Council to “convene a consultation at an early opportunity in order to address the viability and stability of the synods and presbyteries of this denomination.”
The council has created a Task Force on the Viability of Presbyteries and Synods.
And each of the 173 presbyteries and 16 synods is being asked to send a representative to a meeting Feb. 14-16 in Albuquerque to discuss the issue.
“It is no secret in the church that many of our presbyteries and synods are experiencing a ‘crunch’ that seems to becoming more critical each year,” states a letter announcing the consultation. Life is becoming more complex for middle governing bodies, and “the resources to do mission and ministry are becoming more and more scarce,” the letter states.
Gary Torrens, the PC(USA)’s coordinator of middle governing body relations, put it this way recently. “The churnings are happening everywhere,” Torrens said. “And the conversations are quite different in different parts of the church.”
In response to these concerns, the denomination has been doing some research — trying to find out what things look like on the ground. Among the findings:
“¢ Nearly 42 percent of PC(USA) presbyteries have fewer than 10,000 members — a result that parallels the understanding that close to half of PC(USA) congregations have fewer than 100 members. The smallest is Dakota presbytery, which has fewer than 1,000 members in its 21 congregations. The entire Synod of Puerto Rico has only 8,550 members in its congregations.
“¢ Some presbyteries are significantly larger. The five largest — Greater Atlanta, Grace, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and Philadelphia — have more than 40,000 members each.
“¢ Many presbyteries are suffering a crunch in both money and in leadership. Presbytery staffs are getting smaller, and some presbyteries are intentionally rethinking what they do and how they do it.
“¢ Many presbyteries are focusing on trying to strengthen existing congregations and starting up new churches and fellowships, often with immigrants and racial-ethnic groups.
For many presbyteries, the basic paradigm is finding a way to do good ministry with fewer resources.
“The most pressing issue is a shortage of money,” Torrens wrote in a paper summarizing the issue.
More and more, Presbyterians who give money are designating exactly how it should be spent — they’re not giving simply to support whatever the presbytery or General Assembly needs. And many are dividing their charitable donations up — with some going to the church, and some to other causes.
In the Synod of Mid-America, for example, unified mission giving between 1990 and 2005 dropped by more than 40 percent for the General Assembly, nearly 60 percent for the synod and more than 29 percent for the six presbyteries combined. Only one presbytery in the synod, Northern Kansas, saw an increase in giving over those 15 years.
“Less money being sent to the higher governing bodies is creating a domino effect,” Torrens wrote in the paper. “For presbyteries, the effect is that mission dollars are increasingly scarce for mission programs. Presbyteries, therefore, increase per capita rates to the point that, in many places, they feel they cannot increase them further.”
And the way presbyteries do their work has changed too.
Many are less involved directly in mission — in some cases, they can’t afford to do the work. Presbytery-supported ministries — particularly camps and conference centers — “are in trouble nearly everywhere,” Torrens reported. Some have closed or been sold.
And “except for the larger presbyteries in the denomination, the leadership crunch has been nearly as severe as the financial crunch,” and in many ways the two are related, Torrens wrote.
Some Presbyterian congregations, with declining membership and fewer dollars, can’t afford to hire full-time pastors. More congregations are operating in unified or “yoked” arrangements with another church or two, some are being served by commissioned lay pastors, and some have closed their doors. Some presbyteries are wondering as well whether they can continue to pay a full-time executive presbyter.
All of this leaves fewer people available for leadership. And the lack of financial resources also often impedes creativity.
One executive presbyter from a financially-strapped area told Torrens that the presbytery could start seven new churches in the next year — the need is there — but there is no money available to do it.
In the Synod of Rocky Mountains, the landscape is vast but Presbyterian churches are relatively scarce. Some presbyteries have a few large congregations that can provide leadership and funding for the presbytery — but that alignment makes a presbytery vulnerable, Torrens said, because “when that one congregation gets irked about something, the presbytery is in trouble.”
And some presbyteries are re-evaluating what they do and why — with some taking a breather from business involving the political controversies of the church. Many have gone through some kind of internal re-design.
“The stories differ from place to place and context to context,” Torrens wrote. But both congregations and presbyteries are changing and “in place after place, congregations are focusing on their survival. As the stress of these dynamics intensifies, congregational conflicts rage. In some places, the denomination-wide conflict over sexuality and ordination has added fuel to these local struggles. Many executive presbyters see congregations paralyzed by the stress and conflict . . . The prevailing emotion through all of this is grief.”
In response, some presbyteries are stepping back from the controversies and are intentionally spending time trying to build trust and a sense of community, in part through retreats and discussion groups. Many are spending more time in prayer, spiritual discernment and worship — with those elements taking on increasing importance, compared to the business parts of presbytery meetings.
Some presbyteries are also trying to emphasize the value of creative approaches and “thinking outside of the box,” Torrens wrote.
And there’s a lot of conversation about partnerships — among congregations, between presbyteries, and sometimes with partners from other denominations as well.
For example, the presbyteries of Greater Atlanta, Cherokee and Northeast Georgia have a common church development committee that’s working with new church developments, including more than 40 racial-ethnic fellowships. Five presbyteries in central New York state call themselves the “Fab Five” and speak of having “permeable presbytery boundaries,” Torrens has written.
Four presbyteries in Iowa are sharing some staff members. In the Synod of Living Waters, presbyteries are working to provide clean drinking water in developing countries and are partnering with presbyteries along the Gulf Coast in the Hurricane Katrina cleanup.
“One size does not fit all,” Torrens told a group of presbytery and synod moderators in November.
The Synod of Mid-Atlantic, for example, is unusual in that it has five presbyteries that are in the top 10 percent of membership among PC(USA) presbyteries. In the Synod of the Northeast, by contrast, 10 of the 22 presbyteries have fewer than 10,000 members.
The Synod of Alaska-Northwest has both Seattle presbytery — a growing urban area — and Alaska and Yukon presbyteries, where nearly all the congregations are small, many located in remote villages and often unable to afford to call a pastor.
The Synod of the Sun has diversity within its own boundaries. Grace and New Covenant presbyteries are big, in terms of membership, but other presbyteries in the synod are much smaller.
In Pacific presbytery, presbytery events are translated into three languages.
In the Synod of the Southwest, Santa Fe and Sierra Blanca presbyteries have discussed possibly merging into a New Mexico presbytery.
The new task force on the viability of presbyteries and synods has met once, and plans to continue the conversation at the meeting in Albuquerque in February.
Some presbyteries and synods are “experiencing such severe stress that an early meeting to start this conversation is essential,” Torrens and Allison Seed, chairperson of the General Assembly Council wrote in a letter inviting presbyteries and synods to send representatives to the gathering — traveling at their own expense.