It’s the melody wafting through so many conversations in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) these days – and is virtually certain to be one of the refrains of the 2016 General Assembly. Overtures are pending about potentially merging the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Church folks are talking about possibly reducing the number of synods, about what recent endeavors to sample opinions across the church will reveal about “Presbyterian identity” and about the impact denominational budget-cutting will have on programs and mission.
Why so much talk about restructuring now? And for Presbyterians, why does it matter – what’s at stake?
Ask those foundational questions first (rather than getting snagged in the specifics of the proposals), and Presbyterians have a lot to say – some of it looking back to history, some looking forward.
Two committees – both part of the regular review cycle of PC(USA) agencies, one reviewing the work of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and another the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) – are expected to release reports in early January. It’s likely those committees will recommend that the 2016 General Assembly consider setting up a task force with specific representation to discuss the idea of a possible merger of OGA and PMA – not necessarily recommending merger, but creating a process to investigate that possibility. Presbyteries have submitted at least two overtures (see here and here) regarding the possibility of merger.
Restructuring conversations seem to be bubbling up in many places. “It’s just across the church, isn’t it?” said Cliff Lyda, a pastor from Illinois who chairs the OGA review committee.
“There is this sense of change, upheaval and everyone’s talking about it,” said Eliana Maxim, who is associate executive director of Seattle Presbytery and chair of the PMA review committee.
Why is that? Over the years, the PC(USA) and its predecessor denominations have gone through a series of restructurings, and both OGA and PMA have endured downsizings because of declining budgets. The Presbyterian Mission Agency board is expected to implement another significant budget cut in April.
While both the OGA and PMA reviews are part of the regular cycle of reviewing the PC(USA)’s six agencies, those involved also see both the opportunity and the need to look at deeper issues for a number of reasons – including controversies in recent years involving an ethics investigation within the 1001 New Worshipping Communities program and an advertising campaign for the PC(USA)’s Special Offerings which some criticized as involving racist stereotypes.
With the PMA “having gone through the crises they have, financial shortfalls, the situation with 1001, then Special Offerings, these were all crises that really caused not just the agency but all the surrounding structure to start looking within, to say what’s going on here?” and to do a deeper analysis of “system and structure and personality and culture,” Maxim said.
In doing its work, her committee spoke to more than 70 people either in person or by phone – including PMA staff, denominational leaders and those who benefit from or work in partnership with PMA programs.
In some ways, Maxim said, that’s the same conversation that many mid councils and congregations are having – about how to effectively be the church in a vastly changed environment. Congregations ask: How has the neighborhood changed? Who are you serving? What can this church do for the community better than anyone else?
For the national church, the questions include questions about structures, partnerships, leadership and “how are we going to fund it?” These are conversations congregations have been having for the last 20 years, Maxim said.
“Now, the national church needs to catch up. … We have been hanging on desperately. There’s this sense of sacrificial letting go that we have to do. If we truly believe we are people of the resurrection, we should actually be engaged and committed to letting go, letting ourselves die to something that was in order to give birth to something new.”
Why discuss restructuring now? John Wilkinson, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, is also a church historian – he did his doctoral work focusing on 20th century American church history. Looking at the PC(USA)’s restructuring conversations now, Wilkinson sees a changing context feeding in from both the cultural and the ecclesiastical landscape. Among the factors he cites:
- For the past 25 to 30 years, Presbyterians have been consumed with denominational fights – particularly over same-sex marriage and ordaining gays and lesbians. Now watershed decisions have been made in the PC(USA), and the changes “accelerated so quickly in the culture that it left some of us breathless,” Wilkinson said. That now leaves room in denominational life for other issues to take on new urgency.
- Presbyterians are on the hunt for a sense of identity. While the denomination’s membership has been declining since the 1960s, the nation is seeing shifts in religious practice as well, with increasing numbers of people declaring no religious affiliation. “Our job is to witness to the gospel,” to live out gospel values, “ and not be driven by a sense of failure something we can’t do anything about.”
- Unofficially, restructuring has been a topic of conversation for a long time – as evidenced, for example, by a series of reports coming to previous General Assemblies regarding the role and structure of mid councils. Now, with money increasingly scarce, the conversation involves what’s sustainable and reassessing “what connectionalism looks like,” Wilkinson said. “ I think it’s going to look much more local, much more informal, much more network-y and relational.”
The driving forces, Wilkinson said, are both fiscal realities and a vision for the kind of ministry needed for a changing world. How can the PC(USA) become more nimble, more based on relationships and networks than a formal institutional structure?
Other questions he asks: “How do we find our public voice again – on race especially, but also on gun violence, on climate change.” That’s important, Wilkinson said, “to give presbyteries and congregations tools to be responsive” in their local communities.
Second, how can the national church help mid councils– to give presbyteries and synods the support they need in their own time of transition.
Eileen Lindner is a pastor and member of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, who formerly served as editor of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. She also has a doctorate in American church history. When considering PC(USA) restructuring, Lindner said her instinct is to “step back and place this Presbyterian intramural discussion on the wider screen of what’s happening in American and institutional life.”
Some of her thoughts in doing that:
- The United States is in the midst of “a profound anti-institutional moment,” with polls showing a lack of confidence in institutions ranging from Congress to newspapers, the military, the criminal justice system and religious institutions.
- Technological changes and connectivity mean people have grown accustomed to a quick response and are impatient with slow, lumbering systems. Instead of relying on institutions to bring change, people go their own way – networking with like-minded people and finding their own meaning and solutions outside of bureaucracies and structures.
- A financial crisis – with less money limiting the ministry that denominations can afford to do – can also mask underlying questions about what a denomination’s work ought to be. “If you had all the money in the world, you’d still have some questions about whether what you’ve been doing for so long is appropriate,” Linder said. Look hard at what is being done. “Is that what the gospel requires?”
- Changes in structure can be seen as a problem or an opportunity. American Protestant denominations have lost about a third of their mid councils over the last 15 years. “Is that a sign of decline,” Lindner asked, “ or a sign of adaptation?”
- Declines in denominational membership reach across the theological spectrum and, for mainline denominations, now stretch back 50 years. That raises the question of “what is the place of faith and spiritual longing in a post-modern world?”
Congregations too are rethinking their roles, tradition and patterns. “Are we there at the moments of life to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice?” Lindner asked. “That is less apt to take place at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning, but in the inchoate hopes of people, the spiritual hunger has not changed. We’re in kind of an entrepreneurial time.”
The discussions about restructuring and merger are not being driven exclusively by tight budgets, observers say, but in part by the revisioning work many presbyteries and synods are doing. About 40 mid council representatives – most of them moderators – met in Dallas right after Thanksgiving to talk about synod restructuring and about both the challenges and opportunities ahead for synods.
The 2014 General Assembly voted to reduce the number of synods from 16 to “between 10 and 12” – intending that “a new configuration of synod boundaries be established based on an emerging sense of purpose, partnership, context and call through a collaborative process between the synods and presbyteries.” The assembly did not dictate a procedure for making that happen, but instructed the synods to report back to the 2016 General Assembly.
It’s not clear what will happen next – as some Presbyterians seem to favor synod restructuring and others do not.
One overture already in the works would ask the 2016 General Assembly to rescind that action of the 2014 assembly. An overture submitted by the Presbytery of Santa Fe, with concurrences from the Synod of the Covenant and from Eastern Oregon and Plains and Peaks presbyteries, describes ways in which synods and presbyteries are already working together in creative ministry; states that it’s not clear reducing the number of synods would actually save money; and contends that the instruction to reduce the number of synods “is an onerous burden upon the synods in the western half of the United States because of our vast geographic reality.”
The Presbytery of Scioto Valley, however, wants to move forward with synod reorganization – submitting an overture (which still needs a concurrence in order to be considered) asking that an administrative commission be named to recommend to the 2018 General Assembly the boundary changes needed to get to no more than 10 to 12 synods.
Coming out of the 2014 GA, there’s an implication “that somehow if we reduce the number of synods, that would in effect solve all of the issues surrounding structure in the church, and nothing could be as far from the truth as that,” said Warren McNeill, the stated clerk of Newark Presbytery, who attended the Dallas meeting and is on a team of synod representatives working to prepare a response to the 2016 General Assembly.
“Reducing the number of synods will not fix, will not cure the issues that are before the church today. The reason you are hearing so much about structure is that everyone recognizes very clearly that the current structure of having both an OGA and a PMA no longer works. It hasn’t worked for a very long time. … This is not a question dealing with purely a financial implication. It’s more about what is the mission of the church” in a changing world.
All of the synods have been involved in discernment – discussing core values and how to best serve the presbyteries, McNeill said. At the Dallas meeting, each synod shared its story, and there was much conversation about partnership and networking for ministry. “Every single synod has said their geographical boundaries are pretty porous – they would welcome presbyteries or whole synods to come alongside and join in the work,” he said. The consensus in Dallas seemed to be that synods are needed – that what matters is not reducing the number of synods, McNeill said, but building organic networks and relationships for new challenges in ministry.
The grass roots
Another impetus for change comes from local congregations.
As the PC(USA)’s stated clerk Gradye Parsons is quick to point out, many who attend Presbyterian churches today didn’t grow up Presbyterian – so they may not have a strong allegiance to any particular structure or a sense of denominational loyalty. At Elmhurst Presbyterian Church in suburban Chicago, where Lyda is the pastor, “we’ve flipped over demographically to people who don’t even know how to spell the word Presbyterian,” he said. “I don’t sense there’s a large feeling of connection or even concern” about what happens at the regional or national level of the denomination.
The people who sit in the pew of most Presbyterian churches “probably would be equally at home at the Lutheran church down the street,” Lyda said.
That sense of disconnection with then national church can have an impact on giving patterns as well. Unrestricted revenues are an ever-shrinking piece of the PC(USA) financial pie – as church members split their charitable giving between church and other causes; as more donors give for specific purposes; with PC(USA) membership continuing to drop; and with the denomination enduring a series of controversies that may impact some Presbyterians’ willingness to give.
Another question is what kind of voice a national denomination can have in local communities in an increasingly secular age. Some say that restructuring could give the PC(USA) a clearer public identity – enabling the denomination to speak on public issues with one voice, rather than issuing statements signed by multiple people representing different parts of the church.
Others question how much attention people pay to churches when they do speak, particularly when social media gives virtually everyone a platform.
“People shop around for churches,” Maxim said. “In today’s society, what one particular denomination comes out and makes a statement about doesn’t carry the weight it did 25 years ago. We need to be realistic about the impact we can have as a denomination versus the impact we can have as a local presence.”
Presbyterians in their local communities are involved with a range of policy issues – on complicated and sometimes controversial issues such as gun violence, interfaith relations, racism, policing, hunger, poverty, homelessness, education and housing policy, reproductive freedom and refugee resettlement. “I’m seeing some great witness of the church in some really tricky areas,” Maxim said. In local communities, “it’s the day-to-day ministry of handing out sandwiches or providing shelter, visiting the infirm, where we’re seeing so much of the gospel work happening.”
The national church also has leadership changes in the works. The 2016 General Assembly is set to elect a new stated clerk for the PC(USA) – Parsons has announced he will not seek another term. The deadline for applications for his successor closed Dec. 21, and the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee will begin interviewing applicants in January. Tony De La Rosa started as the interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency in December, but in time, that interim role will end when a new director is chosen.
There’s clearly a sense that the time is right to ask foundational questions – that issues of leadership, structure and how to be the church in a changing world will move to center stage at the 2016 General Assembly.
“It’s an historic opportunity,” Lyda said. “Let’s do this right.”