LOUISVILLE, Ky. – While Presbyterians are in a season of loss – loss of members, influence, congregations leaving for other denominations – they may also be in a time of reformation.
“The church is not the kingdom,” J. Herbert Nelson, director of the Office of Public Witness for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), said during opening worship of the 2012 Moderator’s Conference.
The theme of the conference, being held Nov. 9-11 in Louisville for moderators of presbyteries and synods, is “Leading with Vision Through Loss.” And the speakers were unstinting – both in their acknowledgment of the tangible losses and in the sometimes more intangible reasons for hope.
Nelson preached from the Old Testament – from the not-so-often quoted Book of Habakkuk, where the prophet laments, “How long, Lord?”
Presbyterians too fear they are losing their comfortable home, feel tension inside the camp and stress from outside, he said. The divisions of the political world often seep into the church.
But Nelson harkened back to a lesson taught by his high school science teacher, who gave the students balloons and encouraged them to use their hands to pop them. “He taught us about the power of elasticity,” and about resilience of spirit – how “not to allow the pressure points of life to break us,” Nelson said.
In their travails, Presbyterians need to do their work “in the name of one greater than us . . . in the power of a God who makes a way somehow,” he said. And while lament can be therapeutic, being visionary is prophetic, requiring the foresight “to see far enough down the road to know there is hope.”
Presbyterians need to adopt a kingdom vision, one based not on policy or pension plans but a recognition that “the church doesn’t belong to any of us,” Nelson said. “It is a witness on behalf of Jesus Christ.”
Neal Presa, moderator of the 2012 General Assembly, was not present at the beginning of the conference – he would be arriving later, following a faculty meeting at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, where he teaches, along with serving as pastor of a congregation in New Jersey.
Tom Trinidad, a pastor from Colorado who is the assembly’s vice moderator, said the conference theme was built around leadership in a time of loss – and he zipped through some of the statistics. In 2011 the PC(USA) dipped to 1.9 million members, down from 2.49 million a decade ago.
“We are losing our youth and young adults in worship,” Trinidad said. “They come when their parents bring them, and when they turn 18 they drop out,” sometimes permanently.
The median size of a PC(USA) church in 2012 is 93 members.
Some of the losses are felt across Christendom, and some are particular to the PC(USA)
“Our denomination has more specific reasons to grieve,” Trinidad said. “We have splits. We have churches that are straddling the fence,” deciding whether to stay in the PC(USA) or go.
Last summer, seven of the 26 churches in Pueblo Presbytery, where Trinidad serves, left the PC(USA). Those congregations accounted for more than half of the presbytery’s financial base, he said, and their departure was painful.
The PC(USA) is in a time of reformation and renewal, Trinidad said. “The church and our future are in God’s hands.”
During an afternoon session, Ken McFayden, professor of ministry and leadership at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia, spoke about ideas of “Leading through Loss” and “Leading with Vision.”
Among McFayden’s points and those from the discussion he led:
Churches both yearn for and resist transformational leadership. Some feel “we kind of like things just the way they are,” McFayden said.
Too often a congregation’s desire to grow centers around sustaining building, staff and programs. “We want to grow, but we don’t want to change,” he said. We want more people like us – numbers, not diversity.
Churches should ask themselves why they want to grow – and consider whether the answers would appeal to anyone outside the church. One participant put it this way: “Our church wants to grow to survive. We are an aging congregation that’s dying out, not getting many young people . . . We want people in the doors, and there is no chance for growth with that as the sole reason.”
Many congregations have experienced loss – of numbers and of relationships with those who left; of the congregation’s central place in the life of members and the community; of confidence, energy and identity. With loss comes grief.
“Too often, churches overemphasize finding a vision with the goal of increasing resources – hoping to attract dues-paying, program-supporting, worshipping members,” McFayden said. “We must have a new economic model” for congregations, seminaries and the connectional church.
Vision matters. Think about what a congregation wants to do – and why. Congregations need to ask: Why are we here?