Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – the denomination’s top ecclesiastical officer – has announced that he won’t seek election to a third four-year term. That means the 2016 General Assembly will be asked to name a new stated clerk. It also means that the PC(USA) is facing a clean sweep of leadership at the top, as Linda Valentine, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, left that post as of July 10.
The Stated Clerk Nomination Committee, led by retired synod executive Carol McDonald, is expected to post application materials online in October. All applications must be submitted by Dec. 21, and the committee will announce its nominee no later than April 19.
Parsons, a teaching elder first elected stated clerk in 2008, sat down for a conversation with The Outlook about the challenges facing the PC(USA) and his hopes for the denomination in the years to come.
Parsons, 63, said he struggled with the decision not seek another term, as he still enjoys both the work and his colleagues. He and his wife, Kathy, plan to move to Kodak, Tennessee (near Gatlinburg), to help care for their aging mothers and to be closer to the families of their two adult children. Parsons said he might do some consulting, “a little preaching, a little teaching. Nothing that requires a daily alarm clock.”
Parsons said he hopes the PC(USA) can live into the choices it has made to be a church where differing views may be held but all are welcome – an approach reflected by the recent decisions to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians who are sexually active, and to allow Presbyterian ministers to perform same-sex marriages.
The 92 percent white PC(USA) needs “to have some really serious conversations about our own white Presbyterian privilege and how that contributes to the mess we’re in,” he said.
In the years to come, both budgetary and leadership issues will be of concern. “Presbyterians are used to having a full-time minister and that’s just not going to be the case for lots of places,” Parsons said. “Nor will presbyteries have full-time leadership. So there’s a whole redistribution of how you lead and how we connect as a church that is going to have to be revisited.”
Parsons said he also hopes Presbyterians “can find some language that helps us identify who we are. Not a confession, but . . . something that people feel comfortable with, that if you ask them if they are Presbyterian they can tell you in two sentences what they think that means.”
Asked to list his accomplishments, Parsons responded that “I’m Presbyterian so I’m not supposed to be prideful” – but he is grateful for work that got done.
“We got Belhar [the Belhar Confession from South Africa, proposed to be added to the PC(USA) Book of Confessions] coming in just at a time when the church needs to have engagement around confessions about race. The two inclusion decisions – the ordination one and the (same-sex) marriage one – we made a church decision that we want to be a church where people could have different views but be in the same church. I think the assembly did that well. It was not popular with everybody, but I think they did that well. I was part of the restructuring of the National Council of Churches and got it on at least healthy financial footing, which it was not (previously). I think we’ve continued to try to bring some different voices to the assembly – we’ve had Brian McLaren, we’ve had Phyllis Tickle” to talk about the emerging church.
What didn’t get done?
“I’ve wanted to repurpose the General Assembly,” to give commissioners a bigger role in setting the PC(USA) agenda. “The way it should work is the General Assembly should determine what the priorities are for the church, and then basically give all of us, all the agencies, our marching orders. And right now there’s really not space for them to do that. We give them all this stuff to do and there’s no chance for them to do big picture stuff themselves.”
If there were time at the beginning of each assembly for commissioners to set their own broad agenda, “the rest of it would actually go quicker,” Parsons said. “Because there’s a lens” through which commissioners can consider everything else.
With declining financial resources, there is an attempt to reduce the number of synods – a report on that will come to the 2016 General Assembly. “I think it’s fair to ask: Do we need the same structure for a church of a million seven (members) that we had for a church of three million?” Parsons said.
“In the Church of Scotland, they don’t have any presbytery staff leadership. So they came to see me and they said in our presbyteries a third of the churches are doing well, a third of the churches don’t have ministers, and a third are in trouble. And the first third are taking care of the other two thirds. That’s going to be our reality. It’s going to be the churches that do have some resources that are going to have to help out. So when you have a system that’s run by volunteers, it’s a different system. We existed in this country for 170 years without presbytery staff leadership, so we have done it before.”
With the pope’s September visit to the U.S. drawing tremendous worldwide attention, what lessons does Parsons see for Presbyterians in this pope’s popularity and teachings?
Pope Francis has challenged the Catholic leadership by saying “you’re more concerned with the folks that are in the church than the ones that aren’t,” Parsons said. “I think that’s a call for all of us who are people of faith. Worrying about what’s going to bother the people who are inside the church as opposed to doing something that’s going to help those who are outside of the church … he’s put a kinder, gentler face on Catholicism and religion in general.”
What kind of Presbyterian Church does he foresee when his grandson Dylan grows up? “I hope it’s still a church where there’s good preaching. I know it will still be a church that cares about people and about justice and cares about understanding the Bible. I hope it’s a church that’s a little more porous, has permeable boundaries so people do feel more welcome,” regardless of ethnicity or age or education or economic level.
What Parsons describes as “our socioeconomic bubble” – the well-educated affluence in many Presbyterian congregations – is “probably our biggest speed bump in relating to other folks. I’ve seen it in Presbyterian churches in lots of places. People come, they’re white themselves, but they’re not the right kind of white. They’re not told ‘Don’t come here,’ but every other subtle message in the world” says so.
Traditions worth keeping
“It’s important for us to hold on to our public confessions … centrality of the Word, preaching, we need to hold on to that.”
Traditions worth reconsidering
“Kathy, my wife, was a teacher for 33 years. She did very little standing in the front of the room rote teaching – it’s all interactive. We need to ask ourselves where else in life do you sit in rows of seats focused on one person listening to them for an hour every week? We need to rethink that. I think Presbyterians sometimes – I’m probably going to get in trouble, but it doesn’t matter any more – I think in some ways we are almost proud that we think it’s hard to get into our church. And we need to get over that too.”
What would Parsons say to Presbyterians in congregations of only 50 people – or only a handful in the pews?
“I’d say don’t give up. The story I’ve told about the Spring City Church in Spring City, Tennessee, which was down to seven, and now they’re back up to practically 50 because they just didn’t give up. They found a purpose beyond themselves. They didn’t sit in the church and wait for people to show up. They went out into the world and did good, and that paid off. … I would encourage them to get involved in ministry in their community. To trust their own leadership, themselves as leaders. And to hang in there and be faithful.”
Telling good news
Faced with difficult tasks, “you can do it out of fear or you can do it out of hope,” Parsons said. “I think we need to double down on our respect for faithfulness, and to realize that most Presbyterians out there are good, strong, faithful people who last year gave $1.8 billion in envelopes and a plate – how retro is that? – because they love the Lord and they love their church. … Hopefully if you do the hard stuff well, that itself becomes a good story.”