Cynthia Bolbach, moderator of the 219th General Assembly, recently looked back on her two years of service to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in a conversation with Outlook national reporter Leslie Scanlon. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
Q: Is there a particular message you’d like to give this General Assembly?
A: The PC(USA), contrary to what I said as a candidate for moderator, is not paralyzed. We’re in a great state of flux. We’re in a great state of change. We don’t really know where exactly it is we’re going, but we’re doing something about it . . . We’re on this path that we don’t know the ending to, but we’re doing OK.
Q: What have been some of the greatest surprises you’ve encountered along the way – things that turned out to be different from what you expected?
A: The greatest surprise to me is how much autonomy the moderator has. I thought there would be more of a “Here’s where you’re going.” The fact that there wasn’t, was a surprise to me. My main goal in that first year was to try and talk up the new Form of Government, obviously. So my focus was going to a lot of presbytery meetings. If I’d known that the moderator had so much autonomy, I might have given more thought prior to becoming moderator to what I wanted to do, not just in the first year but the second year as well. The second year evolved into mostly trying to have a non-anxious presence as everybody dealt with the passage of nFOG (the new Form of Government) and 10-A (Amendment 10-A, which allows noncelibate gays and lesbians to be ordained). That was a surprise. I didn’t think both those things would pass.
Q: Which one didn’t you think would pass?
A: I was afraid that nFOG would not pass. Of course, it passed pretty narrowly. I just thought, given that we were also voting on Belhar (the Belhar Confession, which the denomination voted not to add to its Book of Confessions), I thought those three things in one year would be so much change, people just can’t take it in. I was surprised that two out of the three went through.
Q: How do you think it’s going as the church lives into that?
A: I think it’s going slowly . . . People are still getting their arms around it, trying to figure out how it’s different from what we had before. The mindset we had for so long was rules-based, you have to do it this way . . . People also are trying to live with 10-A. If something happens in Pittsburgh on same-sex marriage, I think all hell could break loose. But I think right now people are saying we have 10-A, we have to live with it. There is some anxiety among conservatives. But I think they’re trying to give it time, generally. Those who don’t want to have indicated their intent to go to the EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) or join the ECO (A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians). I think those who are staying are trying to figure out how to do this.
Q: The PC(USA) has dropped below 2 million members, partly from a decades-long membership slide, partly from churches leaving in dissatisfaction with 10-A and other issues. What does that say to you?
A: The membership decline – that’s a different issue, it seems to me, than congregations leaving. When congregations leave, they have a process in place with the presbytery. And both sides can follow the process faithfully. I hate to see anyone leave the PC(USA). But if they believe that is what God is calling then to do, then they have to follow that. What I don’t like to see is when people get angry and get put into corners and start hiring lawyers and doing all of that. That doesn’t help either the congregation or the denomination.
Regarding the membership decline, “ I’ve been saying this for two years tongue in cheek but I don’t know that I really mean it tongue in cheek. I think that we should cease doing the statistical report for a couple of years. I think we should instead ask sessions `What did you do to bring people to Christ during this past year?’ and stop worrying about numbers. Because we get so obsessed with it. And I think a lot of it is societal. It has nothing to do with whether or not we’re proclaiming the gospel effectively. It’s that people don’t want to join anything anymore. So I would continue to say let’s put the statistical report in abeyance.”
Q: How does the PC(USA) need to be different? What are some of the challenges for a mainline denomination in the 21st century?
A: I think the challenge is the people who will be making decisions to change the denomination have all been brought up in the denomination. It’s what we know, it’s what we’re used to, it’s what we’re comfortable with. How do we take off those filters and say we need to change? The structure that we built really precludes any sort of quick change. It can be a good thing. it also can mean that trying to change something like the PC(USA) is like trying to turn around an ocean liner. It’s just hard to do. I worry that we’ll lose energy. I think now we have some good energy from these committees that have been working so hard. … But because it takes a long time to accomplish change, that energy might dissipate.
Q: What impact does it have when you have so many young people who are not involved in church? What can we learn from the younger people who are not involved in church – what do they have to teach the institutional church?
A: We have the benefit – and it could be larger – of a cadre of younger people who are teaching us. That’s one of the things that has most impressed me in my two years, is to see some of these younger people who to be honest are getting a little frustrated and want to have more of a role in what the church is going to do. … I go to these churches and people say, “Well, how do we get more young people here?” And I say, “Well, if somebody came in your door on Sunday morning carrying a cup of coffee, would you make them put it down and throw it out before they go in the sanctuary?” For a lot of them, the first answer is yes. And I say, “Change that rule. Let them bring coffee in.” … There are a lot of people who are really trying to bring the church into the 21st century. … For many congregations, “they just have to take small steps, and say “Are we wedded to having worship only on Sunday at 11? Do we need a church building?” I’ve had experiences with several congregations who are thinking through what does a building mean? Is our church a building, or is our church what we do?
Q: What have been some the greatest joys of your tenure as moderator?
A: Every moderator says it, but it is just seeing the breadth of the church . . . I like worshipping in different styles and seeing Presbyterians all across the country engaged in mission and ministry. You have no idea of the breadth of it until you spend two years traveling around. I just had no idea. I went to Guatemala. I didn’t do any other international trip, so I didn’t really have a chance to see the church internationally that much. But just seeing the church within the U.S. was pretty profound.
Q: Is there anything you want to say about your health? (Bolbach has been in treatment for cancer.) I know people have been praying for you a lot.
A: I want to say “thank you” for those prayers. They have really uplifted me over these past few months and have made such a difference to me. It brought home to me that the denomination is a community of faith just as much as a congregation. I have felt that people from all across the denomination have been concerned about me and praying for me, and I’m so grateful for that. I’m in a round of chemo at the moment. We’ll see how that goes. If it’s not successful, there’s a thought that I might get into something at Memorial Sloan Kettering. … I regret having to miss five months or so of places where I was to have been. I’m sorry about that; it couldn’t be helped. But again I was blown away by the support I got from across the church. Some of it is for me personally, some of it is for the office of the moderator. It underscored to me how important the office of the moderator is to the denomination, how people really respect it and revere it almost. You want to ask me my greatest accomplishment as moderator?
Q: What has been your greatest accomplishment as moderator?
A: I haven’t lost the cross. Of course there’s still a couple of days left to go. … Literally I was worried about it almost every day. I know where it is. I know where it is.