DECATUR, Ga. (Outlook) – The Way Forward Commission has approved what it’s calling an “Affirmation of Approach” – a document that explains to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) how the commission views its work, and asks for Presbyterians’ support and prayers in the endeavor.
The commission’s members describe themselves as “12 servants of the church” trying to discern the way forward for the PC(USA) in the 21st century. The commission states that “we are not starting from scratch in this task” – citing work such as the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly’s report “When We Gather at the Table,” conversations convened by NEXT Church and former General Assembly moderator Heath Rada’s listening efforts around the church.
In the document, the commission presents an invitation for collaboration, and provides a list of values undergirding its work.
The affirmation states that the commission “intends to act swiftly, creatively and boldly in the desire to take advantage of this unique God-given opportunity to help the church once again return its full focus to the work of Christian church in the world. The time is now.”
It also asks for Presbyterians to pray for the commission.
“God calls the PC(USA) to a faithful and exciting future,” the affirmation states. “In the bold confident hope of God’s grace, we journey together toward that future. We solicit your prayers for this movement of the Spirit.”
Here is the text of the commission’s affirmation.
The commission also received greetings on the last day of its March 6-7 meeting at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, from Leanne Van Dyk, Columbia’s president, and from Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta.
The night before, commission members met for dinner with Carlton Johnson, chief operating officer of Johnson C. Smith seminary, and Lindsay Armstrong, executive director of the New Church Development Commission of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta.
Van Dyk spoke of some of the challenges facing theological education – saying that seminaries are sometimes viewed as “agitators rather than supporters,” but “we are committed to serving the church” and to training pastors to serve a changing environment. About half of Columbia’s students come from the PC(USA) and the other half “is this lovely mix of traditions,” she said. “The conversation is richer” for that.
Commission member Eileen Lindner, a teaching elder from New Jersey, asked Van Dyk, “What is the church in which you are preparing students to serve?”
Van Dyk responded that the PC(USA) includes a mix of both tall steeple churches with larger staffs, and small congregations – some yoked, some with very limited finances. “We want to be alert to how pastoral training has to take into account both of those.”
Columbia is paying increasing attention to both church planting initiatives and to bivocational ministry as a way of helping address the pastoral needs of small congregations, Van Dyk said.
But at a recent strategic planning meeting, “we put a little bit of a caution flag” up about the bivocational emphasis, she said. Columbia’s leadership wants to learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of that approach, Van Dyk said, by talking, for example, to African-American denominations “that have been doing bivocational ministry forever,” and considering how pastoral overload and exhaustion often already is a problem, and how adding a second job to the mix might exacerbate that.
Roberts described for the commission the transition Johnson C. Smith has made over the past three years – dropping its master of divinity program and shifting to an emphasis on training leaders to work for justice, inclusion and diversity.
“We believe God is doing a new thing in our world, and the Holy Spirit is stirring creation with real vigor,” Roberts said. The commission’s work is “to figure out how our denomination can adapt.”
One question is: “How do we make adjustments in the way we are church together to meet the needs of the people in the pews, and the people who lead the people in the pews?”
Roberts said he left the 2016 General Assembly “feeling great” – energized in part by visuals he hadn’t seen previously. That included: small groups acting across generations; two women serving as co-moderators, one black and one white; and the election of the PC(USA)’s first African-American stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson.
He also said he’s excited about the commission’s work, although for some, change produces anxiety. “I’m a change agent,” Roberts said. “So I like it.”
The commission also added three new meetings to its upcoming schedule. Its upcoming meetings are:
- April 18 – Conference call, 5-8 p.m. Eastern Time.
- May 15-17 – Chicago (McCormick Seminary).
- August 9 – Conference call, 5-8 p.m. Eastern Time.
- September 17-19 – Louisville (Louisville Presbyterian Seminary).
- October 24 – Conference call, 5-8 p.m. Eastern Time.
- November 29 – Conference call, 5-8 p.m. Eastern Time.
- January 17-19, 2018 – Seattle (First Presbyterian Church).