LOUISVILLE — “We are in a time of great change in our church.”
That’s how General Assembly Council member Steve Benz presented the challenge — shorthand for everything from infighting in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to financial distress to the reality that nearly half of the denomination’s congregations have fewer than 100 members.
And Tom Gillespie, a council member and retired president of Princeton Theological Seminary, preached on that reality during worship.
Some say “Christendom is no more,” Gillespie said. Some say, “I think it’s over for us, I think it’s really over.”
They point, he said, to the PC(USA)’s quarter-of-a-century of membership decline, “feuding and fighting over the cultural issues that divide us,” congregations threatening to pull out of the denomination and go to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
But long ago God formed a covenant, “God called a Bedouin couple and said `Follow me,’ “ promising Abraham and Sarah that if they were faithful, all the nations of the world would be blessed, Gillespie said.
“We need to hear that word of God today in our church, in our cultural exile,” he said. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn . . . Look to Abraham, look to Sarah. Remember your tradition.”
In other words, do not give up hope.
The council is in the midst of a major reconfiguration — becoming smaller, reorganizing its committee structure, trying to move the focus from managing the denomination’s day-to-day operations to an emphasis on the big picture.
Past evaluations showed that members thought the council was too big and unwieldy, that it lacked vision, that its work felt disconnected from the concerns of congregations and presbyteries.
“This is not a budget-driven change or change for the sake of change or rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Benz, a council member who’s executive presbyter of East Tennessee presbytery.
In the past, “our agendas have been so heavy, that our discussion has been reduced to sound-bite kinds of things,” said council member Manley Olson of Minnesota. Instead of discussion that goes “two inches into 20 topics,” wouldn’t it be better, he suggested, to go “20 inches into two topics” that really matter.
The old way, in short, wasn’t working. So now the council is getting smaller, dissolving old committees and creating new ones, focusing on outcomes and vision. During one committee meeting, Sara Lisherness, director of the PC(USA)’s Peace and Justice program area, encouraged “creative, kind of out-of-the-box future thinking.” Earlier Benz used the phrases adaptive or generative thinking.
It will take time to see how that plays out.
In the new Justice and Compassion committee, for example, committee members talked about the “pain of the world” — about children orphaned by AIDS and poverty, about the degradation of women and children around the world, about the stigma attached to people with disabilities, for example. The hope is that with less time spent trying to oversee details of the PC(USA)’s work, more time can be spent on deeper concerns such as these.
In the Spirituality and Discipleship committee, Zane Buxton — a council member and executive of the Synod of the Rocky Mountains — said the council needs to ask, at a time of scarce resources, what’s most important to do.
In the past, even with staff downsizing the workload wasn’t reduced. “The General Assembly Council kept doing the same things, but with fewer people running harder to do the same things,” Buxton said.
Some council members also discussed the value of the council having a “prophetic voice,” the ability to speak out on significant issues between meetings of the General Assembly..
“I would hope we would claim our voice” in the Christian dialogue, said council member Gordon Edwards of Oklahoma. If an issue emerges from the world, “we need to be able to say something. And I think we’ve been hesitant in the past.”
The council also held elections for its own leadership, re-electing Allison Seed, a pastor from Missouri, as its chair for the next year, and Charles Easley Sr., an elder from Atlanta, as its vice-chair.