ST. LOUIS – What are the challenges and realities for mid councils in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?
During the final plenary session of the Mid Council Leaders Gathering, held Oct. 15-17 in St. Louis, a panel of synod and presbytery leaders provided some answers in their own contexts – and provoked discussion among the 350 in attendance about what they’re seeing at the grassroots level of the PC(USA).
For many, a driving force in recent years has been the exodus of congregations to other more conservative denominations – most to ECO: A Covenant Network of Evangelical Presbyterians or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. In late September, PC(USA) leaders participated along with ECO representatives in a mediation led by the World Communion of Reformed Churches to try to bring that relationship to a better place.
Forrest Claassen serves in the Presbytery of Los Ranchos in southern California as presbytery co-executive for governance and congregational leadership, along with Tom Cramer, presbytery co-executive for vision and mission. The departures have cost a lot, he said – with nine churches and one new church development leaving, thousands of members gone and a net loss of $60 million in real estate. Those losses have also led Los Ranchos to new understandings, new connections, new ways of being church.
“Most painfully, we have lost our naiveté,” Claassen said. “We are figuring out who we are, and we are doing good work” – work that is more connectional. “When we were a large, wealthy presbytery, our staff did the work.” Now, they see themselves as servants, enabling the ministry work of others.
Of the torn relationships that came with the departures, Claassen said his hope is the presbytery can learn to live into the words from the 6th chapter of Luke’s Gospel: “bless those who curse you.” He said he hopes people will say of Los Ranchos in time that “they lost the land but they got the Bible, and I think they got the better deal.”
Mark Hong, synod executive and stated clerk of the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, said the departures have forced his synod’s seven presbyteries to deal with the loss of congregations, income and strength. Those changes require transitions, Hong said – but there are other forces at work as well. Churches are serving neighborhoods with changing demographics. Congregations and fellowships worship in many languages. “We need to find some way, somehow to recruit the next generation” – for example, the synod has found money to send a group of young people to Zephyr Point conference center, aware of the influence church camps and conferences can have on the faith development of teenagers and young adults.
Craig Howard is transitional presbytery leader for the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy, which will be the host presbytery for the 2018 General Assembly. Howard used a visual depiction involving water and sky to show the range of congregations – what he called “the crazy system of animal life we call presbytery.” Some congregations are eagles (wealthy, with big memberships, soaring high) and others swimmers (with 85 to 130 members, a decent income and a pastor, but “they’ve got to keep stroking if they’re going to make it,” Howard said).
He’s realized, however, that “everybody doesn’t want to be an eagle.” Some churches “have been underwater for decades. They’ve learned to live that way.”
One congregation, small and aging, holds a “Friends and Family” celebration once a year – and the collection they take that weekend sustains their ministry for the next year.
Some congregations won’t survive, and a presbytery needs to figure out how to minister in those situations, Howard said – to help them explore the question: “Is there a way to have a healthy death?”
Cindy Kohlmann serves as resource presbyter for two presbyteries: the Presbytery of Boston and the Presbytery of Northern New England. This is the land of small Presbyterian churches – where “big” means 100 members and mid-size is 50. So the presbyteries decided they needed a different kind of leadership – one that cuts across boundaries, to help congregations connect and find the resources they need to thrive and do ministry in new ways.
The leadership council meets electronically via an online platform, so people don’t have to drive hours both ways and burn a whole day for a meeting. The committee on ministry is starting to do that too, and “slowly, slowly,” small groups in Boston are also experimenting with it – with folks not wanting to get stuck for an hour in traffic to get across town for a meeting. “We’re trying to offer up the precious time and make it easier for people to participate,” while recognizing that a lack of access to technology may prove a barrier for some, Kohlmann said.
Because many small towns only have one Presbyterian congregation, that’s where immigrants who are Presbyterian come, Kohlmann said – which has increased diversity in many congregations. In Boston, “we don’t have a single all-white church anymore. … It’s not because we did anything. It’s because God’s at work.”
That increasing diversity has brought more involvement with advocacy for immigration reform. Kohlmann knows immigrants who fear deportation and “many of them are afraid to go to church, because the government knows that’s where they can be found.”
The Synod of the Mid-Atlantic has been exploring the question of what God is calling it to be, said Warren Lasane, synod executive and stated clerk. Aware of the unrest over racism and injustice in the region (Baltimore, Charlotte, Charlottesville); of the history of African-American Presbyterians in the synod; and of the scaling back of racial ethnic ministries, the synod has been intentionally “getting into the weeds” – exploring issues regarding race and reconciliation, Lasane said. One question under discussion: Might the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic be the body to recruit and identify the next generation of African-American leadership for the PC(USA)?
The Presbytery of Charlotte endured a painful staff downsizing in 2012 – dropping from 12 staff members to three, said stated clerk and administrative coordinator Tamara Williams.
That’s led to a shift from staff-driven ministry to new understandings – with a team leading 23 “world cafés” around the presbytery where “they listened and they listened and they listened,” Williams said. A task force is working on a new structure for the presbytery that’s “a lot lighter,” with more flexibility and with stronger congregational connections.
After small group discussions, the mid council leaders offered ideas – and more questions.
How can mid council leaders walk alongside congregations that are giving up their buildings – and “how can the freeing of that building even more enlighten their ministry?” asked Sharon Core, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Western Reserve.
Howard said his presbytery is selling a 33,000-square-foot building (with the staff reduced from 20 in 2011 to five now) and will have discussions soon about “where are we going now?”
In Los Ranchos Presbytery, a congregation is selling its property, worth $3 million, using some of the proceeds to fund operational costs and the rest for mission. “The real challenge for them is to stay on focus” – to remember that they are making the change “for the sake of becoming a real missional community,” Claassen said.
Sheldon Sorge, general minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery, said his small group honed in on the question of why so many PC(USA) congregations remain all white – the opposite of what Kohlmann described in Boston.
“Our churches do look like our zip codes,” Howard responded. And so often our neighborhoods are segregated.