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Executive presbyters question the future of the PC(USA)

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is abuzz with talk about congregations leaving the denomination, about both unrest and hope for a new direction at the grassroots.

To learn more about what’s happening in the denomination at the local level, and to gather a sense of what to expect in the months ahead, The Presbyterian Outlook developed and distributed a questionnaire to presbytery executives.

To be clear: this initiative is not a scientifically constructed poll but an informal effort to gather information from those involved with ministry at the regional level as the church goes through a difficult time.

With 97 of 173 presbytery executives responding, however, the survey gives a sense of what’s reverberating through the PC(USA) as the General Assembly approaches.

Here’s some of what the presbytery executives had to say.

Departing congregations. Most executives are seeing congregations heading for the exits. Overall, those who responded said more than 7 percent of the congregations under their care either had left the PC(USA) since January 2011 or had entered into discussions to determine whether the congregation wanted to depart. If that percentage holds, it represents a possible loss of about 800 churches.

That departure rate would be consistent with what happened to the 4 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) after it approved the ordination of non-celibate lesbian and gay ministers in August 2009. The ELCA has since suffered the loss of 621 churches — 7 percent of congregations and 7 percent of baptized members — according to Melissa Ramirez Cooper, spokesperson for the ELCA.

Also, more than 200 new congregations have been formed out of members who left ELCA churches that had not separated from the denomination. Most of the churches that either left the ELCA or were newly organized by departing ELCA members have joined one of two newly formed denominations, the North American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ.

In the PC(USA), membership losses are still an evolving picture. It was less than a year ago that — by a vote of a majority of presbyteries — the denomination dropped its prohibition on ordaining sexually active gays and lesbians.

The PC(USA) losses are concentrated in several regions, with several executives saying few or no congregations have left or initiated conversations, and others citing figures of 10 or 20 or 35 percent or more.

Overall, the executives who responded reported an average loss of members (leaving either individually or as part of a departing congregation) of just under 5 percent so far. But they anticipate losing more — on average, an additional 11 percent — over the next two years as the denomination contemplates approving same-gender marriage. That would amount to a total loss of as many as 320,000 members in two to three years.

In other words, the losses the PC(USA) is experiencing now may continue in the months to come, as more congregations work through the process of discerning whether to stay in the PC(USA) or leave for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), for ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (a new denomination just forming), or for some other destination.

Changes in synods. The executives were asked what they think will happen if the 2012 General Assembly adopts a recommendation from the Mid Councils Commission to eliminate synods as ecclesiastical bodies and replace them with five regional administrative commissions. That constitutional amendment would require approval from a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries as well.

The executives saw positive possibilities from such a change but also cited some concerns. More than half said the reconfiguration would help cut bureaucracy and financial waste, and just under half agreed it would provide greater freedom and flexibility for regional mission and relationships.

Roughly equal numbers, however, saw a downside. Just over half thought the change would produce diminished connectionalism between presbyteries, and slightly less than half thought it would diminish racial ethnic awareness and advocacy. That’s a concern because some racial ethnic initiatives have been lodged in the synods.

Nongeographic presbyteries. The commission also is recommending that the Assembly approve the creation of nongeographic “provisional presbyteries” as part of a “designated season of reflective experimentation” in the denomination. If the Assembly did vote in favor, that constitutional change also would require approval from a majority of the presbyteries.

The strongest response from the executives was that such a change would lead to fragmentation. More than four in five respondents said it would contribute to fragmentation and less connectionalism, and about half said it could lead to rivalries among presbyteries.

Fewer executives saw possibilities for more positive outcomes — with about a third seeing the potential for an increase in missional experimentation and innovation, and just under 30 percent saying it would bring greater relational harmony and a lessening of anger and anxiety.

Same-gender marriage. The executives also were asked to describe the specific impact it would have on their presbyteries should the 2012 General Assembly approve an authoritative interpretation allowing Presbyterian ministers to perform same-gender marriages in states where such marriages are legal.

Most predicted a negative reaction — with eight in 10 foreseeing division and more congregations leaving the PC(USA), and three in four expecting anger and a sense the denomination was capitulating to the secular culture.

Two-thirds predicted complaints of betrayal if the Assembly changes the meaning and practice of marriage without referring such a change to the presbyteries for ratification. One-third predicted the opposite — a sense of relief that pastors could follow their consciences, and appreciation that with an authoritative interpretation, the presbyteries would not have to vote on such a divisive issue.

Responses were similar for the possibility that the Assembly might vote to send to the presbyteries a proposal to amend the Book of Worship to define marriage as being between “two persons” rather than between a man and a woman, with more than four in five executives expecting a reaction of anger and division — with more congregations leaving the PC(USA).

Separation policy. The executives were asked to characterize the practice their presbyteries follow when congregations request a transfer to another Reformed denomination.

Fewer than half (about 45 percent) have a “gracious separation” policy allowing a congregation that decides to leave to go with a blessing and minimal or no financial obligations. Just under a third follow a process of negotiation, allowing congregations to leave with a negotiated price for property.

A little less than one in five said their presbytery had not faced that situation or developed a policy.

Hopes and fears. The executives also were asked to summarize some hopes and fears for the 2012 General Assembly. Among their answers:

»   Let us live with the recent changes and don’t make any new controversial changes.

»   Despite my own feelings on the subject, I fear than any movement toward approval of same sex marriage will be the final nail in the coffin for our presbytery.

»   That folks who wish to remain with the PC(USA) will do so, and folks who wish to leave will do so.

»   Hope that the 220th General Assembly moves forward with strong missional innovations.

»   Fears: that a scorched earth, winner-take-all, my-side-is-holier-than-yours attitude will prevail.

»   Hope that the 220th ‘take a breather’ on controversial issues and let presbyteries/congregations get accustomed to the new Form of Government.

»   Hope that we can become more focused on ministry in the local churches and mission around the world.

»   My greatest hope is that we will be able to embrace the Spirit moving in the 21st century.