The reality that presbytery, synod and General Assembly budgets are declining at increasingly rapid rates poses a conundrum: Should they have collapsed on their own infrastructures long ago or shall the PC(USA) become an even closer reflection of current American culture and politics? History will tell the story, and since history repeats its failures and sins at an alarming rate, the PC(USA) will likely become one more story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ trumped by the idols of the church’s own making.
In an anxious, divided and highly conflicted church and culture, the PC(USA) appears to affirm the status quo, the impossibility of adaptive change, the sexual fears of older generations and younger evangelicals, and the inappropriateness of social progressives wanting to hold corporations accountable. The PC(USA) also seems to read its own demographics and nod asleep as though the numbers don’t seem to spell words that begin with d: decline and death. The other d word, diversity, shines with glorious years of good intentions, policy statements, multi- cultural conferences, racial ethnic caucuses, General Assembly offices, and verbal General Assembly proclamations as plentiful as conservative talk radio, all simply not with much impact.
So as a modern-day Jeremiah looking over the PC(USA) and wondering where there is any property, vineyard or not, where the Gospel has any possibilities for buying, building or growing, a few need to be named by category. Food, water and housing are Gospel justice issues, and local congregations as well as mid councils have had ambitious and effective programs, especially in Latin America, around these matters. Schools are another PC(USA) mainstay around which congregations and mid councils have shown sustaining support, especially in Africa. The abandonment of campus ministry by budget declines within mid councils is deplorable; however, non-domestic schools and educational efforts have somewhat escaped the collapsing landscape on which mid councils are fundamentally divesting everything they ever did in deference to local congregational hegemony: admittedly, there are some foundations and merits on which to build, and that is a strong positive.
So, let’s name five big prices the PC(USA) pays with the rapid decline of mid councils:
1) Racism, sexism, multi-cultural experiences, domestic violence, gender orientation issues, corporate social justice, disaster relief coordination, Self Development of People options, international justice, local and state-wide interfaith and ecumenical matters, public education: these vital Gospel matters plus others that have been in the Mid council bailiwick forever are basically gone. When individuals or particular congregations wanted to be involved in these Gospel ventures, there was a venue in many mid councils for organization and action. Most of these accesses to Gospel justice that are going away are not excitedly being taken up by local congregations.
2) The small and middle size congregation may have already passed the capacity for viability. Mid councils sought to support and sustain faithful mission and ministry in areas of depopulation and urban challenge. Relationships of encouragement and hope, mostly with staff and key committee members now fade as staff goes away and committee members go untrained and often unaware or unchallenged by deteriorating circumstances and situations.
3) PC(USA) demographics indicate that we are old and mostly gathered in a small percentage of larger congregations. There are a handful of Fourth Presbyterian Chicago Churches that proclaim and enact a progressive and vital social Gospel mission and ministry. Yet, let’s face reality. Most of PC(USA)’s larger congregations are populated by affluent and politically conservative people. Old wealth is still willing to finance buildings, even if they are not really needed, and these same people will send safe money, sometimes pocket change of 10 percent of local self-serving interests, to Africa or anywhere there is a known, trusted leader. The number of large church pastors who challenge their members to do anything beyond safe, responsible, hands on, give- your- hours- kind- of -community service: few and very far between. High profile pastors in my area seldom show up in the local newspaper with any kind of community wide challenge. Most pastors in my area have long since abandoned ecumenical and interfaith involvement. Almost all pastors in my area want their parishioners to be content and happy with their local congregation, and don’t want to stir the waters, certainly not for Gospel justice issues. Yes, the finances and infrastructures of churches demand numbers and money, and while souls are saved and lives are supported, the big Gospel picture of the losers being the winners, and the last being the first, goes unattended. Mid councils used to at least point to and remind local pastors and congregations of a larger Gospel world. Rarely anymore.
4) PC(USA) remains wedded to Roberts Rules of Order, and conventional wisdom concludes that any significant changes in the PC(USA) are so overwhelming that years and years of catch up are required. In truth, the PC(USA) has lost the capacity to adapt and change in ways that could permit it to be a relevant and viable institution. While there has been progress in being less Roberts Rules bound in some presbyteries, regionally and nationally, the Rules still control. Our Christian brothers and sisters in Australia and Canada have long since abandoned rule-based systems that inevitably make one group a winner and the other a loser. The most recent General Assembly dramatically demonstrated how parliamentary procedure can be used to hold off and standoff meaningful discussion or action. Grady Parsons is among the most caring, informed, and gracious persons in the PC(USA) and his reelection represents a bright spot in our denomination. It is, however, ironic that a denomination being disassembled by an almost rogue disregard for authority, polity, and tradition would so generously affirm and embrace the person who daily deals with how disrespectfully, self-righteously, and arrogantly we treat one another.
5) Last, but not least, PC(USA) congregations have determined that their money, property, mission, and ministry belong to them alone. Any sense of connectionalism is either graciously bestowed and/or traditionally obligatory. As if flash-frozen in 2012, pastors and congregations are willingly and intentionally throwing under the bus all those generations that they have already deposited in their graveyards, believing that they have every right in this time and place to do whatever they deem best for their congregation. History, tradition, theology, commitment, loyalty: all gladly abandoned. The self-centeredness and arrogance of such positions are Gospel despicable. The very conservative pastors, usually leading their falsely fired up congregations, are running off to hide in safe religious territory and by doing do, have already doomed their future and that of their congregation to an even more limited connection with reality. They must love the old hymn: This world is not my home, I’m just passing through….because passing through is all the Gospel work they are doing.
So what is the big picture? Christianity lost its credibility in Europe almost 80 years ago as the Lutheran and Catholic Churches failed, as a whole, to oppose Nazism and stand up with Jesus for the rights of all people. Casting stones against Republicans or Democrats is not the point; however, whether history tells the story of the rich winning out over the poor or by the poor creating chaos and change in defiance of oppression, the PC(USA) has already played itself out of being a meaningful and significant player in the future of USA culture and politics. We are the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Church in Germany. Whatever may happen in our country, we will not be players. We’ve continually committed to paralysis, and fighting over the idols of our own creation, checked out with younger generations and abdicated any authority we might have had in culture and country.
Sam Roberson has recently completed service as a long-term mid council staff leader.