After a week of indoctrination, I decided to make a survey to appraise the status of the church and its activities. The first week, I examined the physical structure — the roof leaked; the floor buckled; all walls and floors needed painting; many windows were cracked and many needed caulking. The next week I spent studying the program of the church — there were only a few small Sunday school classes; the Men’s Club and Women’s Club had been abandoned years ago; there were no after-school or social activities for boys or girls; there was no provision for child care, preschool, nursery, etc. The third week, I analyzed the statistical records I could find — the membership had declined steadily for 20 years; the new members and baptisms had slowed to a trickle; church attendance and contributions were at an all time low.
It didn’t take me long to reach two very definite and specific conclusions. One, what was being done was not working. Two, the church needed to change drastically and to do something different. I decided on a strategy to attract the people in the neighborhood into the church, and then to communicate the story of Jesus Christ, the church and the gospel as a way of life.
My first step was to visit every member of the church and ask them one question — what do you and your family need? After completing the visitations, I totaled the results and learned the most critical need of most members was for a day care center. For the first year, we made that a priority and organized and put into operation a preschool day care center. In the following year, I repeated the same process, and we organized a job training and employment program. In the next eight years, our program included:
1) a Sunday school program for all ages;
2) an active women’s program;
3) an active men’s program;
4) a program for the elderly;
5) a parent training program;
6) a health program
7) an after-school program; and
8) a housing program.
After 10 years, I left a church with a steady stream of members going in and out of the church each day. Many of our members were attracted to the church by our extended hand to help them help themselves. Most of them experienced joy and satisfaction from the experience of helping others. A high percentage participated in one or more of our church programs — worship services, Bible study, service programs, Sunday school, etc. All of them viewed the church as a source of spiritual nourishment and support and were encouraged, and asked regularly, to make a special effort to live the gospel.
In the 20 years since I heard this story, I have often thought about the experience of the Australian Methodist bishop and the renewal and restoration of that struggling church in his first ministry. As I have read the annual reports from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I cannot help but compare the condition of our national church to that of the struggling congregation in Sydney, Australia. Physically, we have fewer church buildings than 10 years ago because we have fewer congregations to put them in; and the number of new churches being built each year is declining. Programwise, I read reports of: curtailments of international mission activities; less representation of the Presbyterian Church on college campuses; and less available funds for benevolent programs.
An analysis of statistical records indicates fewer members, fewer new members, fewer baptisms and a declining budget. It is not unreasonable to conclude that, judging by most standards of performance, what we are doing is not satisfactory, and that our influence is declining dramatically. Our Methodist bishop would say that what we are doing is not working; our present status is not acceptable; we have got to do something different. If we truly believe the gospel provides the only answer, how can we as church officers accept the status quo and watch the church continue to decline in influence? Every congregation, every community, our country and the world needs a strong, vibrant Presbyterian Church. At every opportunity, I urge ministers and lay leaders to adopt a sense of urgency and to resolve to do something different and better next year.
In a recent visit with the president of a major Presbyterian seminary, he described to me his annual visits to dozens of congregations throughout the United States — rich and poor; urban and suburban; liberal and conservative. He estimated that about one-half were doing well and growing and that the other half were struggling and limping along. He emphasized that the major factor in all — without exception — was the quality of leadership.
For 20 years I lived in Davidson, N.C. — my office was right across the street from Davidson College, a church-related college (a college that has graduated during my lifetime a multitude of strong leaders in the Presbyterian Church). In February and March each year, every large organization in the Southeast — business, legal, medical, academic — comes to Davidson to recruit their future leaders. They know the qualities they want — intelligence, character, charisma, achievement. If the church was recruiting there, it was not very evident.
Certainly we know that Davidson graduates over the years have attended seminaries in smaller numbers. Twelve years ago, our Church in Vocation Group — 40 Presbyterian church officers in Charlotte, N.C. — initiated a seminary recruiting program for juniors and seniors at Davidson College. We are looking for candidates with special talents needed by the church — individuals who have demonstrated leadership abilities and who are not considering the ministry as a vocation. A selection committee on campus identifies prospective candidates; communicates with them regularly; on a selective basis, challenges them to consider the ministry as a vocation and during the middle of the senior year, extends a scholarship offer for the coming year. We offer a $15,000 one-year scholarship to a Presbyterian seminary, preferably Union-PSCE or Columbia Seminary. We give $7,500 and ask the seminary to match it.
After one year, the student agrees to make a definite decision about the seminary and, we hope, the ministry. There is no obligation for the student to continue at the seminary, nor to repay the scholarship — and no obligation by the seminary to extend it. The result has been spectacular.In the last 10 years, we have granted nine scholarships to Davidson College graduates. Five have graduated and now serve in important positions in the church: as a chaplain at Trinity University in Texas; as associate pastor, First church, Wilmington, N.C.; as associate pastor, Trinity church, Atlanta; as associate pastor, Covenant church, Charlotte; and as associate pastor, First church, Charlotte. Two are third-year seminary students — one at Union-PSCE and one at Columbia Seminary. And one is a first-year student at Columbia. One left the seminary after one year to join a family business. (Incidentally, I believe he will be an effective lay minister during his career in the business world.) We have a 10th student this year who was recruited on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus who is attending Union-PSCE.
Ten outstanding young people — identified and called to minister. None of them had previously considered the church as a vocation. Nine of them would not be in their present positions unless some individual had sought them out and asked them to consider the ministry as a vocation. And every one of them is capable of providing strong leadership in any role they are assigned in the church.
Surely, each of them will make a difference.
Our experience has demonstrated the effectiveness of the scholarship program at the college level. We believe it will be even more effective if done at the congregational level. There, our young people can be identified and recruited through the church school program. Our Church in Vocation Group is now extending our recruiting program to individual churches:
* We have made a formal presentation to three major Charlotte churches to initiate a model program to identify candidates, to encourage selected individuals to consider the ministry, to offer a one-year scholarship to attend a Presbyterian seminary, and to participate in a scholarship funding program. A unitrust endowment is being arranged for each of these churches.
* We have encouraged and assisted University church, Chapel Hill, N.C., to establish a recruiting program for the university campus, similar to the one in Davidson. Already a candidate there has been identified and recruited and is attending Union-PSCE.
* We have communicated with a group of ministers and lay people in Durham, N.C., urging them to consider a recruiting program for one or two churches there and perhaps to start a scholarship program at Duke University.
* We have contacted three smaller churches in Charlotte and presented a plan for them to consider.
* We have made contact with representatives of three churches in other North Carolina communities.
* We have made presentations to representatives of the Episcopal, Baptist and Methodist denominations.
* We are available upon request to make a presentation to any church in the Southeast region.
Recruiting strong candidates for the ministry these past 12 years has been a joyful and satisfying experience for me personally, but it has reinforced my concern about the declining influence of our Presbyterian Church throughout the United States. No person that I have contacted has questioned the extent or seriousness of this problem, but I have found that most individuals accept it with little or no sense of alarm and with no sense of urgency that something must be done now to change. I sense that those at the congregational level simply do not see these problems of the whole church as their responsibility.
It is my personal opinion that the declining direction of our church is not going to be reversed
1) until a significant number of church members, ministers and lay leaders recognize the problem and assume responsibility for doing something about it. This problem, and related issues, should be on the priority agenda for every organization in the church — congregations, seminaries, presbyteries, synods and the General Assembly;
2) until we accept as a given that we must change the way we do things. To do things differently is going to require a reorganization of our church structure;
3) until we recognize the critical importance of leadership, and we determine that the best and brightest students graduating from college should be identified and recruited for our seminaries. The seminaries cannot do this alone — an organized process for this should be developed and operated at the congregational level and by a reactivated campus ministry program;
4) until a number of individuals — in congregations, or in some of our governing bodies — decide that now is the time to do something. It is amazing what one individual can do by grabbing the ball and running with it; by identifying and focusing on one problem; working to do something about it; and persevering until something is done. I believe that 100 individuals, working through our church bodies, could significantly change the direction of our church in 10 years.
Over the years, I have been told by some in the church that only God can call an individual to ministry. I do not want to debate this position; I think I agree with it. I do believe, however, that God uses individuals to carry the message. I feel that I have a call — to encourage young men and women who have demonstrated leadership potential to consider the ministry as a lifetime vocation.
Our Presbyterian Church leadership, local and national, should be deeply concerned about the opportunities to improve. We can and should do better to influence the lives of our members and others in the communities where we live. All of us — at every level of the church — should adopt a sense of urgency that we will not accept the status quo and that we will do everything we can to revitalize the church.
I believe that God loves all of us, individually and collectively, but that God expects us to help ourselves, to help others and to help the church. May God bless all of us as we strive to live the gospel, and working through the church, to transform our time and place into the kingdom of God.
JOHN A. TATE JR., a retired banker, is an elder at First church, Charlotte, N.C.