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Younger leaders not rushing to the exits


Most of the young evangelical church leaders attending a recent Fellowship of Presbyterians event came from congregations that either plan to stay in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or are still deciding whether to leave.

That assessment comes from how these young church leaders (about 270 of them, attending a conference Jan. 17-18 for those under age 45) voted with their feet. When the time came to join small discussion groups at tables divided into three categories — staying in the PC(USA), leaving to join a new Reformed body or “we haven’t decided yet” — most picked either the “stay” or “too many options, not sure yet” groups.

The conversations around those tables, however, revealed how complex and influenced by local context those decisions can be. Participants at one table in the “not sure” category said their congregations continue to sort through what constitutes a faithful response to the PC(USA)’s decision last year to allow sexually active gays and lesbians to be ordained.

The fact that they’re not ready to leave yet does not mean they may not ultimately choose to go. Many are still working through the implications of the possible courses of action.

Among them is Neil Trainer, pastor of Calvin Church in Shoreline, Wash. “For the most part, the reality is we function like congregationalists,” Trainer said. His congregation is an evangelical church in a mostly evangelical presbytery, and not much concerned with national church issues. On this issue, however, he has tried to keep his congregation informed, “to be engaged with this without fanning the flames.”

Trainer said he hoped to leave the Fellowship meeting with a more thoughtful theological response to those who ask whether leaving the PC(USA) for another denomination would amount to schism.

He also wanted to explore the idea of “staying put with intentionality,” because “if we’re going to stay put, let’s do it intentionally, not just because we don’t want to deal with the issue.”

One pastor from a large congregation said her church — also an evangelical church in an evangelical presbytery — is worried about the impact on small congregations if her big church leaves the presbytery and withdraws its financial support.

If they stay in the PC(USA), some parishioners will leave that congregation, she said. If they go to the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, which is the new denomination the Fellowship has created, another group will leave. And what the leadership considers to be “careful and deliberate” decision-making about what the congregation should do is by some “being viewed as dawdling.”

A pastor from the Midwest said his congregation endured a split about 20 years ago, the impact of which still reverberates today. When the possi- bility is discussed of another split in the PC(USA), he said, “some have tears in their eyes, some roll their eyes” and ask, “Why are we still talking about that?”

Several pastors said some parishioners have already left their congregations because of a sense their church is taking too much time deciding whether to stay or go. “We feel good about moving slowly,” a Florida pastor said. But “there have been people who have left . . . because we’re not moving fast enough.”

Other pastors said their congregations, while distinctly evangelical, are not necessarily all of one mind — and those pastors want to be better prepared to help their churches discern what to do next.

Our church is more divided than we thought,” one pastor said. “It’s not as solidly conservative as we thought.”

Some in her congregation want to leave the PC(USA), some want to stay put. Financial giving has declined, she said, so “we may internally bleed to death.”

A pastor from New Jersey said his congregation has shifted in a more conservative direction in recent years, “but we have people on both sides of the issue hunkered down together. We still do church. We still do mission.” But, he added, “This issue is dividing us.”