What’s the identity and purpose of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?
All around the country, Presbyterians have been discussing this question – invited into that conversation by Heath Rada, moderator of the 2014 General Assembly, who plans to present what he learns to the 2016 General Assembly in Portland in June.
Rada convened a series of regional gatherings in March for discussion – in Atlanta; New York; San Diego; Ames, Iowa; and at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. And, he is encouraging Presbyterians to organize local conversations as well.
All this – and other initiatives afoot to listen to Presbyterians at the grassroots level, including a survey initiated by the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly – are part of a broader effort to discern what’s next, how the PC(USA) can be smaller and less influential, and also how to be open to the possibilities for creative ministry that new realities may present.
Rada’s conversations are being organized in anticipation of the discussion the 2016 General Assembly will have in Portland about possibly restructuring the PC(USA) – with measures coming asking the assembly to consider a potential merger of the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and with discussion expected about whether the denomination should have fewer than 16 synods.
“Folks, be bold,” Rada told a listening group gathered March 7 at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. “Don’t be restricted by our structure. We can dream great dreams today.”
Rada’s not alone in wanting Presbyterians to think creatively and to share their hopes and visions for what could be with one another – those discussions are taking place in organized and informal ways all around the church.
“I began to believe that conversations can be transformative,” Tom Hay, the director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly, said in leading a workshop at the NEXT Church national gathering in Atlanta. “They can transform us, and they can transform the church.”
At NEXT, for example, a group of ruling elders talked about their hopes – including ways of “experimenting doing church other than in a beautiful sanctuary on Sunday morning,” as a woman from Baltimore put it. “It’s about growing church,” not membership, a participant from Spokane said.
Said a woman from Seattle: “God is evolving the church.”
And a woman from Texas: “Personally, I find it refreshing that we can’t quite say who we are or what we do. We are being called into something that we don’t know yet.”
Looking in a mirror
Hay described the effort the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) is making to listen to the church – collecting opinions from more than 3,000 Presbyterians online, described as the largest study of its kind ever conducted by a mainline church – as a way of looking carefully at a changing church.
“We are like a church that has had reconstructive surgery,” Hay said at NEXT. “We have changed profoundly. … We are looking in a mirror to see what we look like.”
Results from the COGA study are expected soon. Hay said participants were asked questions such as these:
- What does it mean to be a Presbyterian? What’s important about being Presbyterian?
- What is the role of the national church?
- Imagine the church in its ideal form – what does the church already do to fit that ideal, and how does the church need to change in order to reach that?
- What could be a guiding mantra for the PC(USA) – a phrase that people instantly associate with the PC(USA) and which “keeps you focused on what’s important”?
A sociologist from Skidmore College – John Brueggemann, the son of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann – is working with the survey results, Hay said, and will use those findings to formulate additional questions that General Assembly commissioners will discuss in small groups “about what it means to be the church, and who we are called to be.”
Similar question also are being raised by a series of overtures that Foothills Presbytery in South Carolina has sent to the 2016 assembly – overtures which, if approved, could change the way in which the assembly would be allowed to consider business, propose constitutional changes and address social witness policy.
And for the first time in 30 years, “we are not talking about sex” at the General Assembly, Hay said.
What’s on people’s minds?
Rada started the Auburn gathering by asking those present to give one-minute summations of areas to which they’d like to see the PC(USA) give attention. Among their responses:
- Presbyterians are struggling with how a predominantly white denomination can be part of a multiracial future.
- How can the church respond quickly to social issues such as police brutality and gun violence – issues that sometimes dominate cultural conversations, but about which “it appears the church might be somewhat silent.”
- What does it mean to provide an evangelistic witness to people of other faiths, while remaining in relationship with them?
- Presbyterians need to make a commitment to creation justice by saying not just that “Presbyterians will recycle more and use green light bulbs,” but by addressing the role that racism, poverty and colonialism play in environmental issues. “I want my grandchildren to live in a world where they can breathe,” one woman said.
- How does the PC(USA) effectively tell its story? And to what extent does that involve “some truth-telling,” not just “the stories that make us look pretty?” one woman asked. As a denomination, “I don’t necessarily think we’ve lost our way – I do think we’ve lost our voice,” another person said.
- How can the denomination empower local congregations, who sometimes feel ignored unless someone’s asking them to give money? How can the PC(USA) “support them so they want to be part of this connectional church,” a woman asked. “Right now, most of them are happy to be really isolated.”
- “Congregations really, really matter,” and the denomination will rise and fall on the health of the congregations, another participant said.
What about structure?
These discussions about Presbyterian identity are linked to some extent to discussions about the organizational structure – including how many synods to have and how the denomination’s national offices should be structured – as well as about how the General Assembly should operate.
On another level, however, they’re about how to do ministry in a changing environment. One woman in the NEXT conversation put it this way: It’s about “who we are and what we are about as the Presbyterian Church on the ground and in our communities – and what do we need from our governing bodies to help us do the work of the church.”
Another woman asked: “How can we be a church that makes a difference” in the world?
That conversation is taking place in an environment in which many mid councils are experiencing dramatic changes in staffing, with fewer able to afford full time paid leadership. The same is true for many congregations.
The Presbyterian Mission Agency is on the cusp of a significant budget cut – and 26 employees of at least 60 years of age have accepted voluntary separation packages, meaning a significant loss of experience and expertise for the denomination’s national staff.
“We see financial stress at the top” of the denomination, one participant at the Auburn gathering said. “We see financial stress at the bottom.”
Another participant at that session spoke of the idea of the denomination being on a journey in the wilderness. Presbyterians perhaps need to “move away from a sense that we are Jerusalem, and our welcome is about opening our doors and having people come in.”
Maybe “our welcome is witness, and walking along side” those in need and those working for justice, she said.
Another participant spoke of “opening ourselves to being led,” and said part of evangelism is “showing up” among people who are not in the church, building relationships and seeing what happens from that, “as opposed to saying, ‘we’re going to create a program.’ ”
One question it’s likely the 2016 assembly will consider is what a new structure might look like, how long it would take to create it – and what the PC(USA) should do in the meantime.
Rada said his personal opinion is that it would be “putting a Band-Aid on a broken bone” to wait to figure out where the church is to go until a new structure gets designed. He acknowledged others disagree – seeing reorganization as the necessary first step.
Rada contends that Presbyterians need to “give ourselves permission to make mistakes,” and that any idea for change the 2016 General Assembly adopts “can be redone or totally thrown out if it doesn’t work.”
If Presbyterians sense the Holy Spirit moving, “let’s try it,” the moderator said. “Let’s risk it. … People are crying for change. The time for action is now.”