Seeking firm footing amid shifting sands

Louisville, KY.

Doing ministry in a time of “shifting sands” has become the reality of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).

Among the changes:

A new Form of Government. Revised ordination standards. The possibility that a significant number of congregations will leave the PC(USA) to join a new governing body, birthed by the Fellowship of Presbyterians. Excruciating economic times.

Despite the uncertainty and anxiety, however, some find hope.

Nothing in all creation will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus,” Cynthia Campbell, the former president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and now interim pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, preached during the opening worship service of the annual Moderators’ Conference, a gathering of presbytery and synod moderators, held in Louisville Nov. 18-20.

Cindy Bolbach, moderator of the 219th General Assembly, said she would not want to go back to the 1950s — the numerical heyday of Presbyterianism, when the PC(USA) had clout in Congress and the pews were full. Church leaders then were nearly all white men; legal segregation still reigned.

We are no longer that church, and thank God for that,” Bolbach said. The challenge for Presbyterians today, she said, is to proclaim God’s word to a diverse, skeptical, multi-cultural world.

Bolbach will not attend the Fellowship of Presbyterians meeting in Orlando Jan. 18-20, where the plan is to create a new Reformed body with which PC(USA) congregations could affiliate — or to which they could be dismissed.

I will not be at a place where they are talking about schism,” Bolbach said.

She also said: “I don’t want to be part of a denomination of like-minded people … of people who think like me and look like me.”


Be risky for the gospel.

The conference theme was “Shifting Sands: A Changing Church in a Changing Time.” Speakers included Tod Bolsinger, moderator of the General Assembly Middle Governing Bodies Commission (now known as the Mid-Councils Commission) and Carol Howard Merritt, moderator of the Special Committee on the Nature of the Church for the 21st Century.

We’ve got this long history of the way we do things,” said Landon Whitsitt, vice-moderator of the 219th General Assembly and the executive and stated clerk of the Synod of Mid-America. That includes both all the strengths of the Presbyterian tradition and the habit of saying, “We don’t do it that way here.” Whitsitt told of one congregation with a diagram showing exactly how the tables were to be set up in the fellowship hall, with the (perhaps) tongue-in-cheek warning: “Violators Will Be Beaten.”

When she was in college, Merritt, now a teaching elder at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, routinely showed up late for worship. “I would go five minutes late, because I would be yelled at for sitting in somebody’s seat if I didn’t,” she said. “I knew whose church it was, and it wasn’t mine.”

All the changes the PC(USA) is facing lead some to call Presbyterians to take new risks in ministry.

Do something … Be bold,” Whitsitt said. “Be risky for the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Peggi Boyce, moderator-elect of the Presbytery of Northern New England, expressed her hope “that God might be doing something really fabulous.” Her presbytery has started several new church developments “because people came knocking on our doors and said, ‘Let us in’” — Sudanese, Kenyans, Filipinos, Indonesians, Brazilians and more.

Too often, “we are resistant to creativity, to new ideas, to strong articulate people who want to step out,” said Bolsinger, a teaching elder at San Clemente Presbyterian Church.