Looking back, 2015 hasn’t been an easy ride for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). Some of what’s grabbed the headlines this year involves ongoing stories — things not neatly wrapped up or necessarily concluded, so it’s hard to know, as 2016 unfurls, how things might shake out.
Remember also: While controversies make the news, a quieter heartbeat in the denomination is the work Presbyterians do in their local communities and around the world, week in and week out. It doesn’t always make the news, but it’s a powerful force.
Here’s a list of our 10 top Presbyterian new stories for 2015. Feel free to shake, stir, flip over and start from scratch.
1001 New Worshiping Communities investigation
This is one of those unfolding tales — starting with an ethics investigation in late 2014, involving $100,000 in denominational funds paid to an unauthorized corporation that was set up in California (all the money was repaid). Along the way, the Presbyterian Mission Agency board executive committee hired lawyers to do an independent investigation — the lawyers reported back in April, but the report hasn’t been publicly released. Four Presbyterian Mission Agency workers lost their jobs. Two of them — Roger Dermody and Eric Hoey — filed defamation lawsuits against the PC(USA). A judge dismissed Dermody’s suit in September and he has filed an appeal with the Kentucky Court of Appeals; Hoey’s is still pending. The PC(USA)’s lawyers’ bills related to the investigation have topped $1 million. Whew.
Starting June 21, 2015, PC(USA) ministers became free to perform same-gender marriages — although they are not required to do so. The 2014 General Assembly had recommended a change to the definition of Christian marriage in the denomination’s Book of Order — shifting from wording stating that Christian marriage involves “a man and a woman,” to saying that it involves “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” By a vote of 121-48 (with two of the 171 presbyteries taking no action), the presbyteries approved that constitutional amendment.
Among the ripple effects: Conservative Presbyterians and congregations continue to leave the denomination in significant numbers (101 congregations departed in 2014, many of them affiliating with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians). Two international partner churches — the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPIB) and the Evangelical and Reformed Church of Peru (IEPRP) — each voted in July to sever relations with the PC(USA) in protest of the same-gender marriage decision.
Here’s one more change: At the 2016 General Assembly in Portland, for the first time in years, neither same-gender marriage nor ordination of gays and lesbians are likely to top the list of contentious issues on the agenda.
Call to the Church
Heath Rada, moderator of the 2014 General Assembly, has issued a “Call to the Church” to act soon to reform the PC(USA) and address a lack of trust across the denomination. Conversations are taking place across the denomination about “whither the PC(USA)” — including an effort by the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to gather opinions from Presbyterians at the grassroots level. One possibility under discussion, with money scarce and membership dropping: a possible merger of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly.
Financially, things are not looking good for the PC(USA). The Presbyterian Mission Agency board is likely to make more budget cuts in 2016 and the denomination is expected to run out of unrestricted reserve funds by the end that year, if not sooner. One possibility board members have mentioned: going to the 2016 General Assembly to seek a revision of the rules governing how much the denomination needs to hold in reserve. Hunter Farrell, the denomination’s director of World Mission, has warned that projections show World Mission may face a $4.5 million shortfall by 2017 unless additional funds are raised, and that shortfall could force the denomination to call home about 40 of the 162 mission co-workers it has assigned internationally.
Both the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly are in line for new leadership. On Dec. 1, lawyer and ruling elder Tony De La Rosa began a stint as interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, succeeding Linda Valentine, who resigned as director in July after serving since 2006. Gradye Parsons, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, has announced that he won’t seek election to a third term, which means the 2016 assembly will name a new clerk to serve as the denomination’s top ecclesiastical officer.
In addition to the 1001 ethics investigation, the Presbyterian Mission Agency also took criticism when an audit revealed that expenses for the 2013 Presbyterian Youth Triennium ran nearly $600,000 over budget, and when Presbyterians denounced the 2015 Special Offerings marketing campaign, designed by an Indianapolis firm, as perpetuating racial stereotypes. The Special Offerings materials were withdrawn and revised at an additional cost of about $65,000.
Belhar Confession and racial reconciliation
The PC(USA) is one step closer to adding the Confession of Belhar from South Africa to its Book of Confessions. The 2014 assembly approved the addition; in 2015 the presbyteries voted 144-25 (with two others taking no action) to add Belhar to the Book of Confessions. All that’s needed now is a vote in favor from the 2016 General Assembly. Belhar addresses issues of unity, justice and reconciliation — matters that are of deep concern to many Presbyterians and was the focus of a gathering on “Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda” at Montreat Conference Center in August, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Montreat in 1965.
In a controversial move, the 2014 General Assembly voted narrowly (310-303) to divest from three companies (Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions), which it determined had been engaged in non-peaceful activities in Israel-Palestine. It also asked for a review to determine whether a two-state solution is viable in Israel-Palestine. Those issues have been simmering behind the scenes in 2015, as a study team of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy is working to draft a report on the two-state question. The PC(USA)’s relationship with Jewish leaders has been tense in recent years. Depending on what happens next, that could ramp up.
One issue sure to come up at the 2016 assembly is climate change — with the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris focusing international attention on global warming and Pope Francis framing the need for action as a moral imperative. Presbyterians are already hard at work on the issue of fossil fuel divestment, with both supporters and opponents of divestment intending to bring overtures to the next assembly. Supporting divestment is the Fossil Free PC(USA) group; opposing it is a group based on the Synod of the Sun called Faithful Alternatives to Fossil Fuel Divestment. The 2014 assembly instructed the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee, which oversees the PC(USA)’s socially-responsible investment efforts, to consider the issue. MRTI is likely to release its report early in 2016.
Beyond the PC(USA)
While internal denominational difficulties have consumed much time, money and energy for Presbyterians in 2015, they continue to carry the concerns of the world as well. Refugees search for shelter in Europe in heartbreaking numbers. Week by week, gun violence claims more lives. The disparities between the rich and the poor around the world grow greater. In response, Presbyterians dig in their pockets and open their hearts, giving their time, energy, compassion and prayer.
LESLIE SCANLON is the national reporter for the Presbyterian Outlook. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.