Click here for General Assembly coverage

Big Question about Young Pastors is ‘Which Ones Will Stay with the PC(USA)?’

What will the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) be like in the next 10 or 20 years? Only God knows with certainty. But if young pastors, those age 40 or younger, are any indication, the denomination may very well continue to retreat from causes associated with the Great Society and its heirs, while returning to its theological roots.

The deciding factor may very well be whether or not those young pastors committed to evangelical and conservative issues are willing to remain long enough to have a lasting impact.

The growing shortage of pastors in the PC(USA) is well-known. According to latest statistics, one in three of our congregations is without a pastor. Seminary attendance is down, and many of those preparing for the pastorate are second-career people with families, unable or unwilling to serve small rural churches at presbytery minimum salaries. About half of those who go to seminary have no intention of serving a congregation; these students see the Master of Divinity degree as one more step on the way to a Ph.D. and a professorship, or one more degree to round out their résumés.

The single man or woman coming straight out of college and going to a PC(USA) seminary with the intention of serving Christ within the denomination for a lifetime — while once the overwhelming rule — is today the great exception.

Information about young pastors is difficult to find, and often conflicting. The Presbyterian Panel challenges the widely reported figure that pastors age 40 and younger make up only 7 percent of the total pastors now serving the denomination, claiming that 17 percent is closer to reality. Yet even the panel’s information is sparse; in a recent survey of about 350 pastors, only 30 respondents fell into the young pastor group. Last year the PC(USA) provided a list of approximately 2,700 names and addresses for a conference aimed at young pastors, but many names were omitted, including my own.

I wanted to know, what might the future hold? With help from Beau Weston, a Presbyterian sociologist at Centre College in Kentucky, I prepared my own survey and sent it out. Responses were overwhelming and amazing.

For this survey 103 names were randomly selected from the “Louisville list,” from the top of the page, then the bottom, and somewhere in the middle to finish it out. Weston warned that ordinarily only 25-30 percent of those surveyed respond; an explanation of the necessity for a larger sample (poor preacher, can’t afford more postage!) resulted in a huge response when 80 of the mailed surveys were completed and returned!

Weston also suggested that an e-mail survey be sent to diverse presbyteries nationwide to supplement the mailings. They went to the presbyteries of Central Washington (northwest), Carlisle (northeast), Coastal Carolina and Charleston-Atlantic (southeast) and Grace (“Texas is another country.”). Ordinarily conservative San Joaquin Presbytery (southwest) was included; however, when the ordinarily liberal presbyteries of Chicago, National Capital and Baltimore were contacted, each refused to release its e-mail list, citing recently adopted internal policies. Because of this missing input I have not figured e-mail responses into denominational breakdown percentages, finding them through the sufficiently random mailing replies. Some e-mail comments are included with this article. Sixty-five pastors replied to the e-mail survey with useful information: age 40 or younger, 15; age 41-50, 26; age 51-77, 24.

Balanced across the spectrum

What does the rising generation of Presbyterian pastors look like? At first glance it seems to be as diverse as the secular culture. Within the sample, 37.5 percent saw themselves as conservative or evangelical, while 35 percent were moderates. The remaining 27.5 percent claimed to be liberal or progressive. Last summer in its coverage of General Assembly, The Outlook reported that if G.A.’s Youth Advisory Delegates (YADs) were an indication of what the future holds, then the denomination’s coming pastors will be much more liberal on issues such as homosexual ordination. But few YADs actually go into the ministry; merely 10 percent of the sample group had been YADs. At the same time, some have claimed that more and more young pastors are conservative or evangelical; while this group was the largest, slightly, it still was far from being a majority.

What is a liberal? What is a conservative? These things mean different things to different people. In fact, according to Weston, “liberal” is a term shunned by many young people today; they prefer instead the term “progressive.” Several respondents from each group struggled with what to call themselves.

A female graduate of Columbia Seminary wrote, “Don’t much like labels, but hold such ‘traditional’ liberal views as pro-choice, advocacy for the poor, same-sex relationships and feminism.” Beyond politics, the young progressives place a high value on the experience of human relationships. “God is in all people — all people thus should be loved and honored and respected as we honor and respect and love God,” wrote a male graduate of Eden and Columbia. And in a view shared with moderates, these pastors value “openness,” with certain exceptions. A female graduate of Princeton and McCormick described herself as “open-minded, welcoming, tolerant of diverse points of view. (Less tolerant of those who are intolerant!)” Intolerance, as defined by many progressives, is theological certainty; theological questioning and uncertainty is valued. For example, after spending considerable time explaining what he did and did not believe, a graduate of Columbia concluded, “I should also state, though, that just because I consider myself a ‘liberal’ doesn’t mean that I’m in the right. I could be wrong about much of what I believe.” A male San Francisco graduate wrote, “I don’t read Scripture literally. I prefer to wrestle with good questions and doubts.”

Finally, progressives see themselves more and more as an endangered species within the PC(USA). The publication of A Moment to Decide: The Crisis in Mainstream Presbyterianism last year made this clear, regardless of the person’s age. But nothing written there was more poignant than what a female graduate of Union-PSCE penned on the survey. “I do not tend to buck openly the current theological stance of the PC(USA). However, I do all I can to educate about Jesus’ love. I strongly disagree with all of The [Presbyterian] Layman. I am close to being a feminist, however, am also practical. I need my job!”

By contrast, evangelicals and conservatives are a confident lot, sure they are on the side of the angels and eager to express their beliefs. If “openness” is a favorite word of the left and center, “authority of Scripture” is a favorite phrase of the right. A male graduate of Fuller Seminary wrote, “I believe in the authority of Scripture. I believe in the saving work of Jesus on the cross to redeem us from sin — which every person needs. I believe in the primacy of God’s grace in acting to save us.” Young evangelicals and conservatives believe many of the same things, though the former resist the label “conservative,” not wishing to be associated with all things socially conservative, and the latter resist the label “evangelical” because of its modern connection with non-Reformed Christian groups. A completely new term is preferred by some who have experienced the gift of speaking in tongues: “third wave.” A male graduate of Gordon-Conwell explained, “I consider myself an evangelical Christian who embraces the full range of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including prophecy, discernment of spirits, gift of tongues, etc. (The first wave includes classic Pentecostals, the second wave, charismatics. The third wave are evangelicals who embrace all the gifts, but don’t hold to a doctrine of tongues as the initial evidence of the Holy Spirit.)”

A 43-year-old graduate of Austin Seminary, a self-described liberal, wrote, “LIBERAL means whatever people say it means these days and is very hard to pin down. I certainly think it means I am always open to change, that I emphasize people over ideology at every point, and the love of God over my theological mutterings about God.” This re-occurring theme of love before theology was common among progressive respondents, regardless of age, and stood in stark contrast to the evangelical/conservative view.

“I believe Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life,” wrote an evangelical male graduate of Gordon-Conwell, “that the Bible is God’s Word — authoritative in matters of faith and practice. [I believe] that Jesus literally rose from the dead, and that good news must be communicated to the world.”

A conservative male Columbia graduate wrote, “For me, I would say I hold fast to the orthodox Christian doctrines of the church. I believe strongly in the reality and promises of Jesus Christ. The Bible is the revealed Word of God and is authoritative in all matters. The birth, life, atoning death, resurrection and promised return are central to my faith.”

Finally, contrary to a widely held myth within the denomination, evangelicals and conservatives are not all men. Many of these women face the double jeopardy of exclusion from serving like-minded congregations because of their gender, and exclusion within higher governing bodies because of their beliefs. When asked if she felt her input was welcome at the presbytery level, a Union-PSCE graduate wrote, “Yes because I’m a woman, no because I’m conservative.” A 46-year-old Union-PSCE graduate wrote that she has felt excluded “many, many, many times because of being female, due to general male paternalism or male ‘chauvinism,’ traditionalism to the extreme or a misinterpretation of Scripture to the exclusion of women.”

In the middle; the moderates

Between these two groups stands the second largest group of young Presbyterian ministers, those who claim to be moderate. They value “openness”; a female graduate of Princeton wrote, “I have an open mind and seek to hear both (all) sides of an issue and vote my conscience with prayer.” Another Princeton woman wrote, “My personal theology is conservative; however, I am open to hearing the ideas of others. I accept that others will have a different understanding from myself and that we need to promote communication.”

Moderates seem to care neither for the theological dogmatism of the right, nor the social agendas of the left. A male with degrees from Union-PSCE and Columbia wrote, “Building up the body of Christ, meeting people where they are spiritually (as Jesus did) is my primary call — not other causes.” Assuming the role of peacemaker amid warring factions, another Columbia man wrote, “I tend to find (or search for) common ground or points of agreement between liberal and conservative entrenchments. I am usually not close-minded, but I stand firm to my convictions.”

A Union-PSCE man echoed this sentiment, defining himself as a “traditional Presbyterian who does not align self with particular wings of the theological spectrum, but who is open to the leading of the Spirit.” A Louisville man wrote, “I have an eclectic theology, but usually find myself somewhere in between the extremes of both left and right.”

More than any other group, the moderates do not like being categorized, even when given an opportunity to qualify or explain what they mean. A male graduate of Union (N.Y.) said, “I am uncomfortable with labeling myself theologically because I find that all too often labels are used to dismiss and stereotype people and the positions they hold.”

A Princeton/Pittsburgh man stated that “[these] labels are not very helpful in accurately defining folks today.” And in true postmodernist form, a male graduate of the University of Chicago School of Theology wrote, “Everyone has their own definitions of these terms. Since mine are so idiosyncratic, I choose not to respond.”

Will there be a schism?

Significant numbers in all three groups do believe that schism is coming for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) within their lifetimes, though for different reasons. Progressives were the most closely divided, with 50 percent predicting schism, 45 percent denying it and 5 percent unsure. Moderates were, well, moderate, with 39 percent predicting schism, 36 percent saying no and 25 percent unsure. But young evangelical and conservative pastors spoke almost in one voice — schism is coming, declared a whopping 80 percent. Thirteen percent disagreed and the remaining 7 percent either didn’t know or didn’t answer.

Why will it happen? The progressives who commented believed it will be because of conservative jihads against those who support national women’s groups and acceptance of homosexual lifestyles, while moderates blame extremists on both ends. A moderate Columbia man wrote, “I believe the special interest groups of both liberals and conservatives no longer seek what is good for the church, nor what is true, [but] just what they want.”

A moderate Yale man saw in the denomination a diversity that nullifies unity; he wrote, “There are too many diverse camps who believe they cannot coexist.” While both moderates and conservatives believed that allowing the ordination of practicing homosexuals would certainly bring the split, the right saw the key issue as theological, not sociological. Many evangelicals and conservatives returned to the theme of biblical authority on this question.

While most from all groups fretted over the implications of schism, a few welcomed it. A conservative Princeton man wrote, “Schism would be a wonderful thing and end the bickering,” and a liberal Columbia man wrote, “People may indeed leave, but this will be an act of the Holy Spirit, not a schism.” Attempting to be objective, a liberal male graduate of San Francisco calmly wrote, “History seems to show that church division is common and is usually based on social issues.” Even a moderate belonged to the small group of those who looked forward to schism, too young to remember the pain of 1936 or even 1973. She wrote, “If there were a schism, we’d become a community. There are just so many [divisions] that the Presbyterian Church can take before it’s meaningless.”

Of course, an alternative to schism would be for unhappy Presbyterians simply to leave of their own accord. Last year’s Beaver-Butler Presbytery’s “irreconcilable impasse” overtures to General Assembly — attempting to allow disgruntled congregations to leave with their property — sought such an alternative, though the property overture was defeated at Assembly. (It should be noted that a young pastor, Jeff Arnold, 39, was the driving force behind those overtures.) When asked if they would ever leave on their own for another denomination, a little more than half of the sample, 52 percent, said yes. But within the sample, the one group with a majority willing to leave was the conservatives and evangelicals.

A small majority of liberals, 54 percent, and a larger majority of moderates, 61 percent, were unwilling to leave the PC(USA) on their own. Why not? A liberal graduate of Austin wrote, “I believe we are moving in the right direction socially. I am excited about our commitment to social justice.” Moderates had many reasons for staying, from denominational loyalty to worship style, Reformed theology to welcoming all as members and leaders. One wrote, “I am convinced that there is a mixture of truth and error in all denominations. Why would I leave the church which has given me spiritual nurture — even if it is imperfect — for another imperfect communion in which I have not received spiritual nurture?”

But only 30 percent of the conservatives and evangelicals share this “in for the long haul” commitment; why would the other 70 percent be willing to leave? A male Pittsburgh graduate wrote, “I’m not bound to the denomination, but to faithful obedience to Christ and the gospel. If the denomination fails to uphold sound biblical principles, it is no longer the church of Jesus Christ.” A Duke man wrote, “Denomination is not a motivation. I care much more about theology and practice. I would certainly remain Reformed.” While some spoke of leaving only as a last resort, the exception would be allowing the ordination of practicing homosexuals; when that happens, expect to see them leave in droves.

Conservatives committed to interest groups

But unless and until such a day arrives, expect young conservatives and evangelicals to be a force for change within the PC(USA), in a way which belies their non-majority status. Why? Because they are firmly connected with and committed to groups within the denomination which share their views, in a way their peers are not. As previously stated, moderates seem to find theological dogmatism and social agendas distasteful, so it should be no surprise to learn that only 4 percent of them supported any of the denomination’s special interest groups financially or by other means (time, talent, etc.).

But how surprising it was to learn that among young pastors who considered themselves liberal or progressive, only 36 percent, a little more than one third — only 10 percent of the entire sample group — gave financial or other support to groups committed to liberal causes within the denomination. The oldest of the liberal groups, the Witherspoon Society, was mentioned by only 23 percent of its constituent young pastors, while only 9 percent actually contributed to it. Most popular was The Covenant Network of Presbyterians, appreciated by 68 percent of progressives, supported by only 27 percent.

This is quite different from young evangelicals and conservatives, 73 percent of whom support their interest groups financially or otherwise. Put another way, for every young pastor who claimed to be progressive or liberal, there was a young evangelical or conservative who also was an activist, 27.5 percent of the entire sample.

The oldest of the conservative groups, The Presbyterian Lay Committee, was mentioned by only 13 percent of its constituent young pastors, with only 3 percent actually contributing. Most popular was Presbyterians for Renewal (PFR), appreciated by 50 percent of the group, supported by 33 percent.

It should be said that on the survey PFR was accidentally left off the list of groups from which the respondents could choose; even as a write-in candidate it still got the most votes, followed closely in appreciation and more distantly in support by Presbyterians Pro-Life.


C. Powell Sykes, 36, is pastor, Westminster church, Burlington, N.C.