Divine work: Some say it’s time for a new conversation about ordained leadership in the PC(USA)

Jorge Abdala with Igreja Presbiteriana Brasileira, an immigrant church in San Mateo, California. Photo submitted to Outlook in 2017.

Who gets counted and who does not in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?

Or maybe the better question is: Who counts and who does not?

Church leaders are quick to say that in the PC(USA) many of the greatest areas of growth and diversity come from new worshiping communities and immigrant fellowships. But some contend there’s an unfairness embedded in that dynamic — or at least polity complexities with significant implications for the future of the church.

Because many new worshiping communities are not formally chartered as congregations, and many of their leaders are not ordained PC(USA) ministers, they don’t get counted. They’re not included in the denomination’s formal membership tallies, and the leaders of those communities don’t have voice and vote at presbytery meetings or the General Assembly.

At first, that may not seem like a huge problem — some might say, why does that matter, except for those directly involved? The answer: in a denomination that’s growing older and smaller every year, the question of how the denomination deals with its youngest and most diverse congregations, including how it supports the leadership of immigrant fellowships, is in part a question of what kind of church the PC(USA) wants to be.

Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, said in January that she hopes the denomination’s polity will at some point address the fact that “we have almost 15,000 members of our churches who are part of new worshiping communities who are not included in our data and our statistics.”

J. Herbert Nelson

Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, has said that some immigrant fellowships draw more than 200 to worship — they are bigger than many PC(USA) churches, but don’t pay per capita or have a voice in presbytery. When immigrant Presbyterians aren’t counted, “it’s segregation any way you look at it,” Nelson told the 2020 Vision Team. “They are being marginalized on every front.”

At least one overture coming to the 2022 General Assembly is raising these issues, somewhat indirectly, by asking the General Assembly to set up a task force “to explore the theology and practice of ordination to ordered ministry for ruling elders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and recommend any needed changes to the General Assembly in 2024.

The Rev. Nikki Collins coordinates the 1001 New Worshiping Communities program. (Photo by Randy Hobson)

That language may not sound wildly interesting at first — but it’s an attempt to get at the question of whether new worshiping communities and immigrant fellowships should have a pathway to participation in the decision-making structures of the denomination.

Many leaders of new worshiping communities are creative and entrepreneurial, often holding down two or more jobs, but they are not necessarily not seminary-educated or ordained in the PC(USA) system.

“The typical common solution has been to get those folks into the commissioned ruling elder process,” said Nikki Collins, coordinator of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative. “And to many, that feels pretty disingenuous,” because it requires them to be elected as a ruling elder at another congregation, and to participate on that church’s session “when their real energy is towards this new worshiping community. We are living in the letter of the law, but not necessarily the spirit when we do this.”

Some presbytery leaders are asking key questions:

  • Could there be a way for new worshiping communities to prepare their leaders as commissioned ruling elders, using presbytery-based models that don’t require a seminary degree but provide theological training for congregational leaders?
  • What is the denomination’s vision for sustaining new worshiping communities — some experimental, some full of life and innovative ideas, but often without a lot of money?
  • What does it mean for a connectional church when these new worshiping communities are part of the denomination but don’t pay per capita?

A case for flexibility

Sometimes, the idea of what counts as a “congregation” can feel blurry. Most PC(USA) congregations are small — nearly 2/3 have 100 members or fewer, and 40% have 50 members or fewer.  Many of those small congregations can’t afford to call a full-time minister, and many of these mostly White congregations are shrinking while newer, uncharted immigrant congregations are growing.

At the end of 2020, the PC(USA) had 529 new worshiping communities. The net loss of so many small congregations closing in the denomination (116 churches in 2019) has been “mitigated” by these new communities, according to a September 2021 report issued by Presbyterian Research Services.

That report stated that new worshiping communities tend to be younger and more racially diverse than the overall membership of PC(USA) churches — it says 45% of participants in new worshiping communities are people of color, many of them immigrants, and they are more likely to draw people from unchurched backgrounds. That statistic is based on a survey from data collected from February to April of 2021 in which only 34% of the 529 new worshiping communities responded — so the results are limited.

Rev. Fernando Rodríguez, associate presbyter for mission at the Presbytery of Denver. Photo from the presbytery’s website.

In the Presbytery of Denver, Fernando Rodríguez, the associate presbyter for mission, works closely with six new worshiping communities, four of which are immigrant fellowships — East African, Latinx, Vietnamese and an Indian community speaking the Telugu language.

“We get our ‘diversity’ in our denomination from new worshiping communities, but most of them can’t be a part of the day-to-day decision making” of the mid councils, Rodríguez said. “These are vibrant communities in every sense of the word. It’s just they can’t participate,” because most of their leaders aren’t PC(USA) ministers.

Over the last year or so, a group of mid council leaders co-authored the overture – led by Dave Wilkinson, stated clerk of the Presbytery of San Fernando, Nick Warnes of Cyclical LA, and Dee Cooper, former interim executive presbyter of Heartland Presbytery and currently gap presbyter of Coastland Presbytery. They worked to convene conversations across the church about what they were seeing in a changing church, to dream about what might be possible, and to draft the overture, asking the General Assembly to consider whether more flexibility in PC(USA) polity regarding ruling elders would benefit the church. The Presbytery of San Fernando, which sponsored the overture, has close to 30 new worshiping communities, in part because of the work of the Cyclical LA church-planting team.

Driven by their passion for supporting the emerging ministry of immigrant congregations and new worshipping communities, Wilkinson, Warnes and Cooper organized conversations around the church with leaders of mid councils and these congregations – listening to the challenges, frustrations and joys of the work being done in these congregations, looking for opportunities, and using those learnings to draft a proposal for the changes they see as needed in the PC(USA).

“The issue that we’re facing is that we have a lot of people who have gifts, who have abilities, but there’s no way for them to become involved in the life and the governance of the presbytery or the larger church,” said Wilkinson. “It just seems like we’re being hamstrung by our understanding of polity.

Carlos Wilton is a pastor who has served as a presbytery stated clerk, taught polity to seminary students and is the author of Principles of Presbyterian Polity. “There used to be a kind of standard workaround,” Wilton said – asking a member of a church’s session to resign a few weeks before the term was up, then quickly examine and ordain someone to fill the brief remainder of that term so they can be ordained. That technique that has sometimes been used (a “kind of polity back-flip,” he said) to get a pastor’s spouse (who because of conflict-of-interest rules might not be eligible to serve on the session at the pastor’s church) ordained, so that person could serve on committees at the presbytery level.

Musicians play during worship at Not So Churchy. (Photo credit: Leslie dela Vega)

Another approach is to rely on a partnership of some sort between a chartered church and a new worshiping community. In Kansas City, for example, The Open Table, which offers a dinner church and anti-racism training, has a relationship with Second Presbyterian Church. So Nick Pickrell, one of The Open Table’s founders, became ordained as a ruling elder at Second church, which allowed him to go through commissioned ruling elder training and become a commissioned pastor, said his wife, Sarah Dunne Pickrell, who is director of New Worshiping Communities for Heartland Presbytery.

The issue of seeking more flexibility has been raised previously at the General Assembly — with at least three proposals in the past 11 years seeking possible change in the polity governing ruling elders. The General Assembly voted all those overtures down, in part because of concerns raised by the Advisory Committee on the Constitution.

In 2016, for example, the assembly voted down an overture from the Presbytery of Monmouth that would have allowed congregations to elect ruling elders without requiring them to serve on session.

In recommending that the assembly disapprove the overture, the Advisory Committee on the Constitution commented that the function of ruling elders is “yoked to the practice of governance” on church councils. “Ordaining ruling elders to service beyond the congregation would constitute a substantive change to long-established Presbyterian polity that persons who serve in ordered ministries are elected to serve the body that elects them and are examined accordingly,” the Advisory Committee’s advice states.

A few of Heartland Presbytery’s NWC leaders gather for their monthly Zoom meet-up. Photo submitted.

Wilkinson and some other mid council leaders hope the result will be different this time — in part, because the overture only asks for a task force to study the issue and return with recommendations in two years. “I don’t think anybody’s going to object to the idea of a task force,” and looking into what some clearly see as a problem, Wilkinson said.

The rationale for the overture quotes this from Moffett, the Presbyterian Mission Agency leader:

“Ministry is changing. We cannot use a 20th century model of leadership as we live and lean into new and creative ministries of the 21st century. As so much of our growth and energy is coming from our New Worshiping Communities, we have to find new ways of discussing what ordained leadership looks like in the 21st century. We must not succumb to a dynamic where we are serving our polity

Diane Moffett

instead of our polity serving us. This involves looking at new creative ways to empower and affirm our bi-vocational leaders, our immigrant community leaders, and our New Worshiping Community leaders. They need to have access to serve and vote as leaders in the presbytery, where they can be supported and we can all learn and grow from their insights and wisdom.”

In San Fernando, “A quarter to a third of the whole strength of our presbytery is involved in these new worshiping communities,” Wilkinson said. “They’re not a marginal or insignificant group.” And their influence in the PC(USA) provides the possibility of “moving away from our understanding of traditional church to something that’s much more organic and fluid.”

Several other measures coming to the 2022 General Assembly are raising related concerns, including:

  • A proposed amendment to the PC(USA) constitution from the Synod of the Northeast. That would add language stating that while ordinarily congregations elect ruling elders to serve on the session, “congregations may also elect members as ruling elders to exercise spiritual leadership in a broader sense, in other specific capacities including service in higher councils, without the requirement that they first serve a term on the session.”
  • A proposed constitutional amendment from the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee. That would require presbyteries to accept the credentials of immigrant ministers ordained in other denominations or, if they lack “the educational history required of candidates,” to provide education and mentorship opportunities.
  • An overture from Nevada Presbytery asking the assembly to find a way “by which non-chartered fellowships can be counted as “churches” for the purpose of national reports and statistical data presentations.”

Contextual realities

The Rev. Ebenezer Boateng is installed as the pastor during the chartering service for the Presbyterian Church of the Redeemer in Houston — a process that took 15 years. (Photo by Daniel Ahenkora and originally published by Presbyterian News Service in “It made me want to dance” on Jan. 31, 2022)

For immigrant congregations, the challenges of leadership and becoming self-sustaining are related, but somewhat different. Each immigrant church has its own story — and for many new arrivals, these congregations are lifelines of faith and belonging.

In Denver, many East African immigrants are refugees. “They’re trying to figure out a whole new world, and the church is like an anchor,” Rodríguez said. “It reminds them of home. It provides an enormous amount of support … But to be self-sustaining is another hurdle.”

In some Latino churches, immigration status is an issue, and families are mobile. Housing in the Denver area is expensive, so when immigrants find a cheaper place to live, they often move. “These are highly transient communities,” Rodríguez said. “They are trying to figure out life.”

There are contextual differences too in how the leadership of these congregations emerge, and in their relationships with presbyteries. Many immigrant communities have indigenous leadership — coming to this country with varying degrees of theological training, some of which might not meet the ordination standards the PC(USA) requires.

Some African fellowships are fully formed before they initiate conversations with the PC(USA). A Ghanaian congregation, Ebenezer Presbyterian Church, has existed for a decade but just approached the presbytery in 2020. “They are more Presbyterian than you and I,” made up of immigrants who were Presbyterian in Ghana and with connections to other Ghanaian congregations across the U.S., Rodríguez said. “They are seeking community.”

Sometimes the leaders of immigrant churches went to Bible college in their home countries, or say, “I pastored three different churches when they were back home. I’ve been a pastor all my life.” In the congregation, they are recognized as a leader — but the PC(USA) has its own requirements for ordination. “It’s never an easy conversation to have.”

Redefining membership

To some extent, this overture is asking the PC(USA) to think about what it wants new worshiping communities to become long-term, and about how it defines membership — a question that online worship and the COVID-19 pandemic has provoked many traditional congregations to ask too.

Some participate virtually in worship, but never attend in-person — they may live in another state or even another country. Some are “regular attenders” – singing in the choir, volunteering in ministries, donating money – but never formally join.

The Rev. Dr. Lindsay Armstrong is executive director of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta’s New Church Development Commission. (Photo courtesy of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta)

“The pandemic has transformed the imagination of established church folks,” said Lindsay Armstrong, executive director of the New Church Development Commission in the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. In her presbytery, nine of the 14 immigrant congregations moved online and became international communities — people from all over the world join for worship, drawn in part by the opportunity to worship in their own language and in familiar ways. “They send money every month. They engage every week,” Armstrong said. One pastor has never met his biggest donor, who lives in London.

Some say this is the perfect time to thjnk in new ways about what it means to be church — even if it sometimes feels unfamiliar.

“Why would we not celebrate a faith gathering where they’re asking big questions of God” and bring in people who wouldn’t otherwise go to church, Cooper asked.  “It’s a limited view to validate only those who sit in pews and stare forward and meet on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. and have a full-time pastor – (to say) those are the only ones who count. I feel the Spirit – she’s been moving among us for a long time,” leading the PC(USA) in new ways.

“COVID is maybe the perfect time to introduce something like this, because people are aware that a little risk is the right thing to do,” Pickrell said. “We don’t know what tomorrow holds. Let’s create a space … bringing some of that same faith and trust that we were forced to use during the pandemic. That feels like very divine work to me.”