Some mid councils in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), sensitive to the unhappiness of evangelical congregations that are struggling to determine whether they can stay in the denomination, have begun to create alternative structures and alignments in hopes of giving those congregations more breathing room.
These reconfigurations are beginning to emerge even before the 2012 General Assembly acts regarding the recommendations of the General Assembly Mid Councils Commission, which is proposing a series of changes, including eliminating synods as ecclesiastical bodies and permitting non-geographic “provisional presbyteries” as part of a “designated season of reflective experimentation” in the PC(USA).
Already, presbyteries from Pennsylvania to California are considering changes including the possibility of aligning with the Fellowship of Presbyterians and creating dual committee structures within a presbytery. These changes are intended to give evangelicals who object to the PC(USA)’s decision last year to permit the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians options other than simply leaving the denomination. Here’s a taste of what’s in the works.
Santa Barbara Presbytery. Throughout the spring, Santa Barbara Presbytery has been discussing a proposal bit.ly/sbpres to become a union presbytery, jointly affiliated with the PC(USA) and with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which is the new denomination the Fellowship created earlier this year.
While the presbytery may vote on the proposal in June — or may choose to wait a bit — “it’s too soon to tell” if the proposal will pass, said executive presbyter Jan Armstrong.
The presbytery is solidly conservative. In the aftermath of the PC(USA)’s decision in 2011 to allow the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians, congregations have been reconsidering their connection to the denomination.
“This past year has seen a change in our beloved denomination,” Armstrong wrote in a letter the presbytery council sent to members of the presbytery in March.
“What has held us together for work and mission in the past seems to some as insufficient to hold us together into the future. We are faced with the reality that at least six congregations of the Presbytery of Santa Barbara have initiated internal discussions about leaving the PC(USA). Aware that such an event would threaten the very mission and vitality of the presbytery which we all hold dear, and in discussion with the leadership of those churches, a Union Presbytery with the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians has emerged as a reasonable and realistic way to keep us together for the mission we care about, while doing the least harm to congregations.”
If the union presbytery were approved by the presbytery and the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, congregations that wanted to leave the PC(USA) for ECO could do so while remaining in partnership with the presbytery in ministry and mission. There also would be a relief-of-conscience provision for congregations that did not want to be part of a union presbytery.
Part of the discussion these past few months has been “is the presbytery worth saving — is there value?” Armstrong said in an interview. Many said yes, and for some the prospect of establishing a union presbytery could mean “we don’t need to leave” the presbytery behind.
But there have also been many questions, according to a “Frequently Asked Questions” document, including “Why bother?” and “Is it Legal?” and “Why Now?”
Armstrong said his presbytery has asked the question “can mission hold us together?” — and mission alone no longer seems to be enough.
“It’s a very difficult time,” he said. “I’ve never seen it this dire. We need to pray more and be smarter.”
Greater Atlanta Presbytery. This presbytery voted in February to initiate what’s being described as “flexible governance” — a three-year experiment intended to provide space for exercise of conscience for congregations with differing views on whether to ordain gays and lesbians who are not celibate.
In approving the new configuration, the presbytery approved the recommendation of a task force convened in the summer of 2011. The new configuration allows for the creation of a cluster of congregations within the presbytery — an entity known as PGA2 or Presbytery of Greater Atlanta 2 — which would have a separate Committee on Ministry and a separate Committee on Preparation for Ministry, and the power to examine and ordain teaching elders.
In order for the cluster to be created, the sessions of at least 10 congregations would have to vote by Sept. 1 to participate in it. There would continue to be connections between the new cluster and the presbytery — gathering together at least twice a year, sharing costs, and more.
The new cluster is being created with the hope of mutual forbearance and taking advantage of the flexibility provided by the denomination’s new Form of Government (nFOG), said Tom Evans, executive presbyter of Greater Atlanta Presbytery. “It was a close vote” to approve the new alignment, he said. “People voted for or against it for the same reason. People wanted to keep the presbytery unified … This is a space we’re trying to create. We’re all one body but are giving different parts of the body space to operate in conscience without debating our differences every time.”
The policy that the presbytery passed explains the rationale for the new arrangement this way:
“By creating a group of churches within the Presbytery (PGA2) that has the power to ordain, we lessen the need for further debate about qualifications of ordination that relate to sexual orientation,” it states. “In this way, we honor the will of the majority and pave the way for openly gay Presbyterians to be ordained, while, at the same time, preserving the freedom of conscience of those who would disagree. With this contentious debate removed from the center of our relationship, we are freed to utilize the new flexibility and creativity given by nFOG to discern the will of God for the mission of the church.”
Mike Garrett is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Snellville, Ga., which on April 22 voted to become part of the PGA2 cluster.
Some evangelicals “really are not anxious to go running for the exits,” and would welcome other alternatives, said Garrett, who served on the task force which recommended the new configuration.
“I have a church like so many in our denomination that I would say is majority conservative, but not exclusively conservative. One of the problems for me is, simply put, how am I going to hang on to my members? While the denomination is concerned about losing churches, many pastors are concerned about losing members. Leaving the denomination for a church is a fairly agonizing process. Leaving a church for a member is a fairly easy process. You just walk out the door and don’t come back.”
Garrett said the proposal Greater Atlanta has created may provide an acceptable option for congregations whose own membership is divided over whether to leave the PC(USA).
Caroline Kelly, another member of the task force, is associate pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, a more progressive congregation where many members support the change in the PC(USA)’s ordination standards. She too voted in favor of the cluster arrangement, although not without some misgivings.
“Emotionally, it’s been hard for people who have devoted a lot of energy to changing the system,” Kelly said in an interview. The debate over ordination standards “is not a theoretical one in our congregation. It affects people we know and dearly love … It’s been difficult for me to work on the task force. I wanted to work for the unity of the church and do it for the right reasons. I also felt I was compromising my own witness at times.”
While she came to understand why some evangelicals felt the need for space within the presbytery to exercise their consciences, “it was hard to explain why it was fair,” Kelly said. “Why was it just? I felt like I was turning my back on some of my colleagues in ministry who are gay or are allies” supporting policies that allow the PC(USA) to ordain gays and lesbians.
Kelly also felt “there are good theological reasons to remain one body,” and she listened to evangelical colleagues who explained why the flexibility the new arrangement would create was important to their congregations.
After the February presbytery meeting, where the idea of creating the cluster was approved by a 151-141 vote, one participant told Kelly that “perhaps it’s a sign of true compromise when everybody leaves feeling like nobody won.”
And now, she said, the presbytery must figure out together how to make the new alignment work — including the parts of presbytery life the two clusters will share together, if enough congregations vote to join the new cluster. “That’s where our challenge is,” Kelly said. “I don’t think we’ve finished this. We’re just starting our real work.”
Presbytery of Shenango. Shenango, in western Pennsylvania, is exploring the possibility of formally affiliating with the Fellowship. And executive presbyter David Dawson is encouraging congregations that are determined to leave the PC(USA) to go to the ECO rather than to another denomination. “I’ve been explicit about that,” Dawson said, arguing that such an affiliation would allow those congregations to remain active in the presbytery, if Shenango affiliates with the Fellowship. “I’m saying to churches that your presbytery of the future is far more important than your denomination of the future.”
If Shenango affiliates with the Fellowship, it could continue to provide support for congregations in ECO that experience difficulties or a pastoral transition.
“We’ve had pastors go on disability for physical problems, for depression. Who helps a church through that?” Dawson asked. “Where do they go to look for a new pastor? …. What do they do if they can’t afford a full-time pastor?”
Already, two congregations from Shenango have left to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and about a dozen more are considering leaving the PC(USA), Dawson said.
If Shenango formally affiliates with the Fellowship, some congregations might feel they don’t need to leave the PC(USA), Dawson said. “If we did not take a proactive stance relative to the Fellowship and the ECO … I’d say there’s a pretty good chance we would have 10 or more churches that would leave the PC(USA). They can’t in conscience continue.”
Dawson wants congregations to have alternatives to departure — because he recognizes how painful leaving can be, if there’s not unanimity among the members.
“None of our churches can afford to alienate 10 or 20 percent of the people,” he said. Among the congregations in his presbytery, “I think anxiety and anxiousness is probably the dominant emotion I would describe.”
Dawson said many in the church also are watching carefully to see what the General Assembly might do this summer — particularly regarding overtures on Presbyterian ministers performing same-gender marriages.
“Everybody is holding their breath,” Dawson said. “If marriage gets redefined, everything is up for grabs.”