Presbytery and synod executives told national leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that they wanted time to talk together about some of the big issues facing the denomination – everything from funding strategies to the prospect that more congregations will leave or create alternate structures in the fallout over the PC(USA)’s changing ordination standards.
So those mid-council executives stayed around another day after Big Tent was finished, to do exactly that.
These leaders are well aware more than 1,100 people – including some of them – plan to attend the Fellowship PC(USA) meeting in Minneapolis Aug. 25-26, and that Presbyterian communities these days are swirling with talk of possible departures or reconfigurations. These leaders also deal day-to-day with concerns about congregations in financial distress; with creative ideas for ministry; with questions about the new Form of Government; and much more.
A bit of the leaders’ meeting July 2-3 was given over to discussing the response to the denomination’s changed ordination standards, which now would permit the ordination of sexually-active gays and lesbians, if a local presbytery or session determines that a particular candidate meets the qualifications for leadership.
Gradye Parsons, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, said many presbyteries and synods are discussing how they want to proceed – revealing possible options available to those distressed by the changed ordination standards beyond simply staying in the PC(USA) or leaving.
Linda Valentine, executive director of the General Assembly Mission Council, said Big Tent demonstrated many points of connection among Presbyterians beyond thinking the same way on ordination standards.
Much of the post-Big Tent event in Indianapolis was spent in small-group discussions of what leaders see happening at the grassroots – and at the top levels of the denomination. Here’s a taste of some of those discussions.
Young adults. Many congregations know the challenge of keeping young adults involved in church after they leave high school. Freda Dye, a business administrator at Donelson Presbyterian church in Nashville, said her congregation has a very strong high school program, but once students go off to college they are more likely to hang around the coffee shop on Sunday mornings than to go to Sunday school.
Some young adults find themselves one of few among their friends with any connection to church. Some have a hard time finding a congregation that feels as much like home as the church in which they grew up. Yet more than 1,000 college students attend the college conference at Montreat Conference Center each year – a sign that many young adults do value an authentic spiritual connection.
For 25 years, the PC(USA) has not had a significant presence in college ministry, beyond what individual congregations and campus ministry programs have initiated, said Martha Miller, the denomination’s associate for certification and Christian vocation. “We talk about the black hole they fall into after high school, and we have to find a way to fill that,” said Gina Yeager-Buckley, the PC(USA)’s associate for ministries with youth.
Some of what that involves, she and others said: building relationships with teenagers and young adults, to better understand their gifts, their passions, and how they process information and see the world; creating a solid Christian community for young adults; and providing opportunities for training in effective leadership
Future of the church. Some folks are now, under the denomination’s new Form of Government, calling presbyteries and sessions “mid-councils” instead of “middle governing bodies. And many mid-councils are changing how they work – trying, as much as possible, to emphasize relationship-building, worship, learning and missional creativity more than simply the nuts-and-bolts of business.
“Our business takes place in about 15 minutes, unless we have candidates to examine,” said Deborah Rundlett, general presbyter of Muskingum Valley Presbytery in Ohio.
In Peace River Presbytery in Florida, the mornings of meetings are spent in worship, celebration, and learning, said general presbyter Graham Hart. Business is conducted in a relatively short afternoon session – and there’s been an enthusiastic response to the changed format.
When Jan DeVries was serving the Synod of the Southwest (she is now general presbyter of Grace Presbytery in Texas), “we stopped talking about synods,” she said, “and spoke instead about regional ministry.”
Even with institutional changes, however, challenges are everywhere. Some groups spoke of mistrust, and the connections some congregations have established with mission groups outside the PC(USA). Sandy Brown, interim general presbyter and stated clerk of the Presbytery of San Joaquin in California, said his presbytery has young adults doing volunteer mission work around the world, “and not one of them” in the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer program.
Mike Kruse, a ruling elder from Kansas City and chair of the General Assembly Mission Council, said he’s heard of people who pay little attention to denominational or congregational boundaries – attending Bible study in one church, going on a mission trip with another, worshipping somewhere else. In that environment, “what is the role of a denomination,” Kruse asked. “What is the role of a local church?”
Some raised questions about whether the PC(USA)’s national staff still is making decisions that feel “top-down” at the grassroots – such as a proposal, much discussed at Big Tent, for the denomination to start 1,001 new communities of faith.
“The 1,001 is an idea,” responded Valentine, the council’s executive director. “That’s all it is for now . . . It is not a program,” but “an idea that’s floating to see if it takes root.”
Some questioned how much the PC(USA) really has changed, or whether, as one woman put it, “we’re just trying to do the same old thing wrapped in a different color.”
Another participant said: “As long as we still hanker to hold onto an institutional format, we will continue to decline.”