I believe this to be so by personal observation and by noting that both in numbers and financial commitment, our congregational witness and ministry far exceed the combined efforts of our presbyteries, synods and the General Assembly. In most instances, it is the leadership of our local pastors that makes this so.
Furthermore, I believe that the impact our church has had on this country, from its beginnings through two World Wars, has for the most part been through the efforts and ministry of our local pastors. It has been from our churches, led by educated, seminary-trained and ordained ministers who have become signers of the Declaration of Independence, presidents, senators and congressmen, governors of several states. Our pastors have inspired leaders of industry, leaders of medical research and practice, organizations of compassion, missionaries to the world and leaders to our own communities.
These preachers and teachers of the Word have encouraged the building of schools, colleges and universities as well as hospitals across our land. In times past, our church was identified with our ministers and their ministry. The esteem we once knew as a denomination came not only from their leadership, but also from our commitment to call, to prepare and to send out ministers equipped to respond to the demands of parish ministry.
Are you aware of the number of our Presbyterian churches now without the leadership of traditional, seminary-trained ministers? According to the 1999 statistical report, our 11,195 churches were being served by 6,656 pastors and co-pastors.
Simple math shows that 4,539 of our churches were trying to make-do without the full-time leadership of perhaps our strongest contributions to their viability. Among our smaller churches — 100 members or less — 56 percent are without pastors!
For those of us who have looked on with disbelief and then frustration as our once healthy and growing Presbyterian Church has continued to decline in both influence and numbers, I raise the following question:
Within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), here and now, can there be any more pressing need before us than to make available to ALL our churches the service and leadership of traditional, seminary-trained Presbyterian ministry?
Even if we should choose to do so, are we able to answer this need? Can these empty pulpits be properly filled? If you have served on a presbytery committee on the ministry, then you know that this is a long-standing problem with no obvious solution. In many of our presbyteries, after searching and struggle and prayer, too often the answer has been merger, lay ministry or, finally, closing the church doors. How many church doors have been closed in your presbytery in just the last decade?
Again, can we meet this need? There are obvious and sufficient reasons why this need cannot be met by particular churches or by their presbyteries. Our synods are not organized to deal with our churches nor is the General Assembly. Leadership to address and support this need at all levels across the General Assembly is nowhere to be seen. Nonetheless, I believe that if we choose to do it together, as the church, it can be done.
Together, as the church, with needed funding and long-term commitment from the General Assembly, with seminaries focused on the pastoral ministry, with presbyteries determined to make available seminary-trained ministers to all their churches, and with our churches seeking out and encouraging their finest young people to consider a call to ministry, we can be on the road to the renewal of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ministry.
But where is the leadership needed to undergird and support this effort across the church? It would appear that meeting this need would be a slam-dunk for the very able leaders of the evangelical/renewal groups in our church. How better could they support a faithful witness to the gospel than to encourage and support traditional Presbyterian leadership in the pulpits of all our churches? Unfortunately, they are caught up in the defense and protection of our church from further secularization.
Our liberal/progressive leaders of yesteryear would have met this need with a smile on their lips and a song in their hearts. Small churches, minority churches, churches no longer heard in their communities, written off by the establishment and denied a future, what a heaven-sent issue to be resolved. Unfortunately, their present followers are trapped in a situation which they can neither resolve nor turn loose.
As our divided church slowly spirals in its downward passage, it seems a pity that so much of our able and effective leadership stays at odds on lesser issues. They are needed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and meet this challenge. Together, as the church, and during the coming decade, we could re-minister our church. Together, as the church, we could re-light the fires of faithful witness in every Presbyterian church community, but only
Together, as the church.
William H. Wilson is an elder, First church, Kerrville, Texas, and a former General Assembly moderator.