Crosby is one of seven large-church pastors who recently wrote a letter proclaiming the denomination to be “deathly ill” and inviting Presbyterians to attend a meeting in Minneapolis Aug. 25-27 to seek a new approach, which could include forming an evangelical fellowship outside the PC(USA). That “white paper” (http://www.pres-outlook.com/component/content/article/44-breaking-news/10946-pastors-call-for-denomination-to-be-radically-transformed.html) has drawn a tremendous response online — Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere lit up — including theological critiques, and criticism that those who signed it (45 in all) were nearly all white male ministers, not representative of the breadth of the PC(USA).
Some of those who sent the letter acknowledge it wasn’t spectacularly well-handled. In Crosby’s words, “It got leaked and we got outed a little faster than we would have liked.”
What happened is this: In January, about 50 pastors of large congregations met in Scottsdale, Arizona. A core group of these large-church pastors has been meeting about once a year for the last decade, and has formed tight connections.
They proposed convening a meeting in August of like-minded Presbyterians, and initially wrote the letter with that group in mind. It was a sort of “save the date” invitation to evangelicals, not an open letter to the whole church, Crosby said.
But when the letter started circulating more broadly, the pastors decided to release it publicly, to get their proposals into wide circulation. Now, they hope that Presbyterians will focus on the ideas they presented – on the questions, for example, of where the PC(USA) is failing and what needs to change.
The long decline
The PC(USA) has been losing members for nearly 50 years, and not even the evangelical side of the denomination is growing, said Jim Singleton, pastor of First Presbyterian church in Colorado Springs and also one of the seven-member steering committee of the pastors’ group.
Over the last decade, even among evangelicals, “most of our churches plateaued or declined,” Singleton said. “That was not the case in the `90s. These churches did really well reaching the Baby Boomers . . . We have not done well with the next two generations, nor has the Presbyterian Church. Our major concern is we are just in this downward slide, and it doesn’t seem like we have a plan or an idea to address that downward slump . . . I think we have comforted ourselves saying, ‘It happens to all mainline churches, it’s a cultural shift.’ There’s been a lot of almost acquiescing in the problem.”
Paul Detterman, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, attended the January gathering as an invited guest familiar with the evangelical wing of the church – and as an individual, not representing the views of Presbyterians for Renewal. The mood, he said, was hopeful, not angry, and not one of mass exodus.
“I didn’t hear the weeping and gnashing of teeth a lot of times you hear at evangelical gatherings,” Detterman said. “People were optimistic about the fact that things are changing, and the landscape is shifting — let’s deal with it . . . We’re not mad and we’re not threatened. We’re just not going to do this anymore.”
These pastors feel a sense of urgency. They say something has to change.
Among the factors in their thinking:
» An acknowledgment that the PC(USA)’s ordination standards will likely change to permit the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians. That leaves some evangelical congregations wanting a place to still be part of a fellowship, but to stand by their convictions. One idea being discussed: a non-geographical presbytery or a new 17th synod, which might allow dissenting congregations to stay in the denomination while still holding true to their theological beliefs.
» A sense that the polity and middle governing body structure of the PC(USA) is cumbersome and outdated — that it stands in the way of entrepreneurial ministry.
» An understanding that the Christian landscape outside the denomination is changing — and that all kinds of possibilities exist for fellowship and creative mission that do not involve belonging to a traditional mainline denomination.
» A desire to share a covenanted relationship with like-minded evangelicals. The letter expresses a desire for “a concise, clear theological core.” Crosby spoke of “a return to voluntary subscriptionism,” and Singleton suggested an approach resembling religious orders within the Roman Catholic church.
» A sense of loss that so many evangelical Presbyterians already have left, most to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Some who have gone were close friends and colleagues of the pastors who signed the letter.
The exodus continues
Already, large Presbyterian congregations, including Signal Mountain in Tennessee, Colonial Presbyterian in Kansas City and Kirk of the Hills in Tulsa, have departed, weakening the evangelical presence in the PC(USA).
“We’ve watched our group diminish by 20 percent over the last five or six years,” Singleton said. “Rather than watching our friends leave one by one, and more are in the queue to do that, we felt we needed to do something collectively before it all just dribbles away … . It’s like we don’t really pay attention when one slips away. There are lots of folks slipping away.”
When they go, “it’s the last time we’re in the room together,” said Jerry Andrews, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in San Diego;, a former co-moderator of the Presbyterian Coalition and one of those who signed the letter. “Why let it work that way? Why can’t someone be connected to another denomination, be a congregation of that denomination, but we’re still in an association, a fellowship together?”
While many possibilities are being discussed, there is not, the organizers say, one firm plan about what should happen, or necessarily even agreement among those who signed the letter. “This is intended to be wet cement,” as Crosby put it.
There is, however, a leaning by at least some of these pastors against leaving the PC(USA) to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).
“This group would probably rather be in a new Reformed body where the ordination of women was affirmed rather than was somewhat ambiguous,” Singleton said. “And to some degree, the style of the EPC is not highly innovative either.”
Crosby said: “I’ll go there if I have to. I don’t want to fight the women’s thing again. I don’t want to get into another 1960s denomination. If we’re going to go to all this effort, I’d like to do something different, and I hope inspiring.”
If a new fellowship or association were created outside the PC(USA), it likely would have a minimalist governance structure — kind of like a “mild denomination,” Singleton said. There’s talk of a community connected by covenant and a theological core, rather than by geographical boundaries. With Skype and conference calls and teleconferencing, “you don’t have to be in the same room to have a fellowship that is even global in its context,” Singleton said.
There are some complexities — which likely will be discussed as the large-church pastors consider creating this new fellowship as early as their August meeting. For example, if these congregations do want to leave the PC(USA), perhaps with their property, the Book of Order requires that they be dismissed to another Reformed body.
Some, including Andrews, say they do not intend to leave the PC(USA) at all, although others are open to it. “I’ve never imagined leaving,” Andrews said. “I don’t get it.”
Andrews said he signed the letter “more because of who than because of what” — meaning that he has met for a decade with these large-church pastors, respects and feels an affinity with them. He also says of the Presbyterian Church, “the place is a bit of a mess.”
He asks: Do these pastors want to say to the next generation, “‘We didn’t fix this — not nearly. Now it’s yours, tough luck.’ Is it possible we could have something better to offer them?”
Andrews also thinks that the discontent may be shared by some progressives and others who may not agree with everything the 45 pastors said — but who may be willing to join with them in brainstorming about what’s broken and how to fix it.
That push also is coming at a time when the PC(USA) is encouraging creative discussion about polity and new ways of organizing presbyteries and synods – both through the new Form of Government proposal now up for a vote by the presbyteries, and by the Middle Governing Bodies Commission.
Tod Bolsinger, pastor of the 1,375-member San Clemente Presbyterian Church and moderator of the Middle Governing Bodies Commission, was invited to attend the January meeting, where he gave a presentation on the commission’s work so far. The commission is investigating innovative ideas and approaches being cultivated to reconfigure the work of presbyteries and synods. “There’s lots of vibrancy out there,” Bolsinger said. “There’s also lots of restlessness.”
Bolsinger said he encouraged the large-church pastors to work with the broader church in exploring those questions, including the question of “theologically, how do we understand geography? How does geography relate to community and to covenant” in a virtual world?
Another question is “What is the role of a synod in a missional context?” — and what exactly does “missional” mean? “If the congregation, as a basic unit of mission, is insufficient in and of itself, as our constitution states, what does that mean?” Bolsinger asked: “What is the function of a presbytery?”
One clear sticking point amid these complex questions, however, is the conflict over ordination standards. Many of those involved in this discussion insist that the denomination’s in-progress vote on Amendment 10-A — which would remove from the PC(USA)’s ordination standards the requirement that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single — is not their primary motivator.
“I think it plays a significant role, but not the primary role,” Singleton said. “We do have a sense that one year, this thing will pass,” and the PC(USA) will allow the ordination of sexually-active gays and lesbians.
“If we just keep losing (evangelical) churches, that will tip the scale of voting at some point,” Singleton said. “We’re basically saying we’re not going to fight that anymore. The rest of the church can do what they want to do. We have to get out of the fight. That’s a different strategy … We’re saying if that’s what needs to happen over there, let us exist in a place where that doesn’t have to happen over here, kind of a local-option deal.”
So the pastors’ group is raising the idea of a non-geographic presbytery or separate synod — which Crosby described as two overlapping circles, perhaps with differing constitutions or ordination standards, but with shared initiatives in other areas. Some evangelicals feel they could not stay in a denomination that required them to acquiesce in ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians — so they are looking for another way to follow their consciences, but keep the PC(USA) together, Detterman said.
He acknowledged, however, that one difficulty of any such proposal is the understanding – which evangelicals have argued for years – that in the PC(USA) ordination is done on behalf of the whole church. “That’s one of the core questions as we begin to unpack this proposal,” Detterman said. “Huge parts of this are tied into ecclesiology.”
In recent years, the General Assembly committees have rejected several proposals for non-geographic presbyteries or an additional synod. But this time, the proposal is coming from a high-profile group, making it clear that, if something doesn’t change, they may be willing to take their thousands of members and their substantial dollars and go elsewhere. For some of their members, denominational loyalty is not an issue; in Crosby’s church, for example, only about 10 percent of the congregation has any previous Presbyterian background.
Scott Thumma, who is a professor of the sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary and has studied megachurches for the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, said there are some recent precedents for this kind of affiliation of like-minded churches that would just as soon shun a denominational label. For example, some progressive congregations left the Southern Baptist Convention to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship — which is not structured as an old-style, institutional denomination.
Already, some of the large churches represented at the January meeting are members of the Willow Creek Association, so they have some track record of working outside the PC(USA). Particularly for large congregations with independent resources, “there are many ways to get the resources and the connections and the value-added that a denomination provides,” Thumma said. “There’s no need for them to reproduce that old denominational model.”
Other Presbyterians, however, see things much differently — they want the conversation also to include questions of the value of those with different theological views staying together because of their unity in Christ.
“There’s no way to build a strong denomination by subdividing it – that’s not the answer to the problem,” said Barbara Wheeler, director of the Center for Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary and a member of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the PC(USA).
The task force discussed the idea of separate governing bodies within the PC(USA), Wheeler said. “And the reason that got no traction was the experience we had of how much richer our Christian lives had become through extensive exposure to people from the so-called other side of the aisle,” she said.
Progressives may need to listen more carefully to why evangelicals feel frustrated and distanced from denominational life, Wheeler said. As for evangelicals, “instead of withdrawing into a fellowship, they have to come out of their shells and their cul-de-sacs and meet us. Maybe together we can create something which really is a viable Presbyterian church.”