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Response to the pastors’ letter to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Many of you have read and are discussing the letter from the 45 pastors of mostly larger churches of a more conservative inclination. In the letter they claim that “to say the PCUSA is deathly ill is not editorializing,” and then proceed to propose a remedy for the church’s ills.

   1. a concise clear theological core,
   2. a nurtured leadership,
   3. a passion to share in the larger mission of the people of God,
   4. Missional communities and
   5. a new pattern of fellowship.
(See letter here)

Structurally they propose

   1. a minimalist structure,
   2. property under the control of the congregation ( I think this is what that means since already the church’s real property is under the stewardship of the Session of a church who are the trustees for the PCUSA),
   3. joint ventures (rather than institutions) with specialized ministries,
   4. and an atmosphere of support.

I’ll address these points one by one.

   1.

      1. “a concise clear theological core:” We do have a theological core in our Confessions which is clearer than the “core” of non-confessional independent churches. The “Apostles’ Creed” and “The Brief Statement of Faith” are pretty concise. Perhaps it isn’t as clear with eleven Confessions and Belhar under consideration, but would we go back to a single Confession? Would we dust off the Westminster Confession? Is that the proposal? While nice in theory, I expect we will disagree about what goes in at the core. The complexity that comes with an educated clergy and a pretty well educated bunch of folks in the pew doesn’t tend toward “concise.” As Cindy Bolbach noted in her Moderator campaign Q and A, the place is filled with verbose preachers. So good luck with that. In fact the research in Vanishing Boundaries done by Dean Hoge and others noted a pattern of migration to the PCUSA from the more concise, clear, theologically moralistic churches. Seems these disciples were looking for a place the deep questions of life could be engaged with integrity rather than simplicity. That search brought them to the PCUSA.
   2. “Nurture leadership:” I could not agree more whole heartedly. Nine times out of ten within a troubled congregation we also find lay and clergy leaders who avoid the hard work of leadership or have not been trained, raised up or empowered. What happens in your church related to the initial and ongoing training and continuing education with elders serving on Sessions? May I recommend the services of the Reformed Institute in our own Presbytery as an excellent resource in this regard? Leadership grounded in the values flowing from the theology found in our Confessions is critical.

   5. “Passion for mission:” I would encourage a rephrasing of this sentence – a friendly amendment of sorts. We are called to participate in God’s Mission in the world, not “the larger mission of the people of God.” There is a subtle but important difference here. On this point I see remarkable vitality in mission in our churches (some of them coming from an identity that could be described as “missional,” others from a more Constantinian sentiment). I see reduced resources available for direct application by the PCUSA as an institution. But I also see the direct engagement of congregations in mission and ministry which is much greater than it was when everything was centralized. Far from “dying” the exercise and direction of mission and ministry has shifted already from a more-or-less monopolistic centralized ministry institution to a much more diverse range of ministry institutions. This isn’t “death” but a transformation we best celebrate. Yes Thomas Friedman’s flat world has come to the church as well. Mission isn’t dead, its just flat.
   6. “Multiplying, healthy, missional Communities:” In National Capital Presbytery, 40 of our 108 churches saw numerical growth in their membership in 2010. For the last twenty years this Presbytery has sponsored a remarkable and effective transformation initiative, begun under Ann Philbrick’s watch and continued by Carla Gorrell and a strong Church Development Committee and Transformation Team. Could it be better? Sure. But it has been participating with God in the strengthening and transforming of our congregations. Yes, some congregations will pass away. The average lifespan of a congregation is 75 years. Unless a congregation rediscovers a renewed passion and makes the changes needed to reach unreached groups of people, it will not live beyond the generation that started it. Looking at the whole PCUSA, our former success explains some of the numerical decline we are experiencing. The Presbyterian goal in the 1920s was to place a Presbyterian Church in every county in the United States. Many of those counties now have Presbyterian Churches but fewer people. People have moved into the cities. Many choose to do something else on Sunday. It’s not that they sought a concise, clear theology in some independent church. They preferred an early Tee-time at the golf course. The numerical decline of the whole PCUSA is more complex and many of the sociological trends are beyond our capability to change.
   7. The “pattern of fellowship” aspired to by the writers is already a reality. We have seemingly competing mission and program alternatives. Already we can choose the PCUSA Montreat Youth Conference, or the Presbyterians for Renewal one. Already you can give your money directly to International Mission in the “Hunter Farrell” envelop that arrives regularly, or designate it through the Presbytery (rather than around it) or you can give to the new Global Mission Fellowship Institution. Once there was one Coke product and now there are twenty. Once we did our own Presbytery-based community Mission, now congregations connect across denominations and even faith groups to bring us AIM, VOICE, WIN, and other regional advocacy and missionary endeavors. The PCUSA has a wonderful international mission system which is worth continuing. But some churches prefer to support another international mission system. The PCUSA Disaster Assistance system is remarkable and worthy of our support. Some churches prefer to support disaster assistance other ways. The Washington Office on Maryland Ave advocates for the positions approved by the General Assembly on our behalf. I love it, others don’t, so they tend to swing their support elsewhere. We are no longer are and never again will be the sort of Mission monopoly the Roman Catholics are.

So

   1. We already have a minimal structure that admittedly requires more from the large steeples with some assets in order to adequately serve the medium and small steeples who need a Presbytery. Many tall steeples do not need a Presbytery nearly as much as the medium and smaller churches in a Presbytery. They are more likely to think less is “minimal” than a small or medium sized congregation. Yes it could be more minimal. We could not have a call system and let every church fend for itself in that regard. We could not have support for congregations in conflict, between pastors or who need loans. We could not have professional standards for clergy. But most of us believe those things are important and are ready to support those functions.
   2. Property: Our Presbytery guarantees over $24,000,000 of loans assumed by our congregations providing capital to churches who otherwise would not have that capital or would have it at a greater expense. The Presbytery is charged with being the party that provides a coordinated plan for ministry in a particular geography. The property permissions in place also reinforce the covenant a congregation has with those who preceded them and those who will follow in providing for one of the many “Presbyterian flavored” Christian presences there are now. In the book Steeplejacking the author notes how certain congregations without a trust clause have been intentionally overwhelmed by a set of “new members” which then, when in power, removed the congregation from their denominational moorings. The ELCA is having a conversation now about instituting a trust clause like ours in their denomination. My UCC and Disciples counterparts point to the problems they encounter with regularity by not having a trust clause. Better to maintain the property permissions these writers would dismantle. There is wisdom in this clause the authors of the letter disregard out of hand. Also it’s easier to depart a denomination with them removed, but the authors deny this to be the motivation for the proposed changes. It costs a Presbytery about $2,000,000 to start a church that can walk away? How much New Church Development do you think we could do with that?
   3. Joint Venture: We are already there as noted above in #5.
   4. Atmosphere of support. Absolutely. Maybe the writers have something more specific in mind about a Presbytery’s possibilities in this regard. I’d love more detail.

Then the writers want explore a different structure. Here I will confess my deepest concern. I applaud the associational aspects for churches to combine their assets for ministries and missions they define outside any centralized point of control like a Presbytery or a General Assembly. The Presbytery and General Assembly already know they are and should be held accountable to provide the best ministry for the dollar. Yet when the authors of this letter begin to discuss structurally dividing Presbyteries, and allowing churches to affiliate by choice into new ones and then into a new Synod, I see the destruction of the very institutions we have built that are fundamental to the very things the letter signers want to do! Then we truly would be a denomination held together by a Pension plan, the very alternative the authors claim they want to avoid! If you want running water, you need pipes, infrastructure. I see the dismantling of the very infrastructure which provide an atmosphere of support for many congregations across their pastoral vacancies, across conflicted landscapes, seeking consultation for staff design, nurture of clergy, systems for nurturing and raising-up leaders, networks for ministry and mission, and the list goes on. In short, they advocate the destruction of the institution of the Presbytery then they will build a new one of sorts. We need to repair the airplane, yes; but we need to keep flying it while we do.

Also the notion that we must restructure to foster these associations is false. It would just replace a former (now done) monopolistic frame with another run by temporarily like-minded people. The service received, after ten years of chaos, would pretty much be the same. So why invite ten years of chaos for so little (if any) benefit? I would recommend that the Presbyterian Church move toward a different sense of its “brand;” to a mental frame that appreciates the PCUSA as a collection of “brands” that has an appropriate range of control, (property permissions, examinations, accountability, etc.) but also an appropriate range of autonomy and self-definition (designation to mission beyond the congregation, program, advocacy, culture, worship style, etc.). I shutter somewhat at the corporate metaphor I am using here, but we need to become more like “Yum!” that houses the more familiar brands of Taco Bell, Pepsi, Kentucky Fried Chicken and others. To reach back in Church history, these would be the equivalent of different “orders” here in the Presbyterian Circle. We are developing our own version of the Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans. I would encourage the signers of this letter to stay with the Presbyterian ship, and serve the welfare of the Presbytery in which they find themselves but then to adopt a descriptor (perhaps “Conservative Biblical Standards” or something like that) by which they distinguish themselves as a congregation that does not endorse gay ordination or marriage. Likewise a more liberal congregation would pick its own “brand” designation.

Please by all means associate, advocate, engage in common connectional ministry, but please don’t think a radical reconfiguration of Presbytery structures (and its trailing chaos) is the best way to do this. It isn’t.

Grace and Peace,

Wilson

G. Wilson Gunn, Jr. is General Presbytery of the National Capital Presbytery.

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