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What role do new worshipping communities and immigrant congregations play in the PC(USA)?

The 2012 General Assembly enthusiastically endorsed the idea: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) would start 1,001 new worshiping communities over the next 10 years.

The reality: it’s now 2022, the deadline is here, and with 529 new worshiping communities in existence at the end of 2021, the numbers have fallen short of the goal. But the 1001 New Worshiping Communities program is still seen as an incubator of innovation and experimentation in the PC(USA) — and a place of support for vital new congregations created by immigrants from around the world.

Some say “congregations” isn’t the right word to use — technically, under PC(USA) polity, many of the immigrant fellowships are not chartered churches. They don’t fit the traditional 1950s church model — a church gets planted, it gets bigger, it charters, it hires a seminary-educated minister, it starts paying per capita to support the denomination.

That happens with some new worshiping communities, but not with many others.

And some Presbyterians – including some mid council leaders — say it’s time for new conversations in the denomination and at the 2022 General Assembly about what role new worshiping communities do and should play in the life of the PC(USA).

It’s a big conversation in part about diversity and about how these congregations look different from many traditional churches — be they congregations started by immigrants from Ghana or Honduras or Vietnam, or new worshiping communities ministering to incarcerated women or “a church for the unchurched.”

For a predominantly White denomination that’s growing older and smaller, what do these new initiatives offer? What challenges do they face? If the PC(USA) is serious about wanting to welcome and support them, what pieces of the polity and ways of financing the work need to change?

That’s the focus of several overtures coming to the 2022 General Assembly — including one from the Presbytery of San Fernando, written in collaboration with a group of Presbyterians involved with new worshiping communities. That overture is asking the General Assembly to create a task force to explore “the theology and practice of ordination” for ruling elders — to consider whether more flexibility is needed to serve the needs of new worshiping communities and immigrant congregations.

Immigrant churches

Many of those involved in immigrant churches are Presbyterians of color, said Nikki Collins, coordinator of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative.

Unless those churches charter, “they have no voice or vote in our governance at all. We say we’re a Matthew 25 church and we say we want to dismantle structural racism,” Collins said. “We say we want this representation, but we don’t have a mechanism for it. And if we do not bring these voices into our decision-making, they will go away. They are going to find a place where they can be part of the whole. To me, it is very much like we said 10 years ago ‘If you’re gay, you can join our churches, but you can’t be on our session.’ So we are saying to these new worshiping communities ‘We’re glad you’re here, but you can’t vote.’ And these are people who are choosing us” — immigrants whose families became Presbyterian because of PC(USA) international mission work.

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

Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, “talks about the mission field coming home” — how for so many years, Presbyterian missionaries from the U.S. went overseas to evangelize in other countries, a history of which many Presbyterians are extremely proud. And now immigrants from those countries, some of whose families have been Presbyterian for generations, are arriving in the U.S., ready to worship and do ministry and evangelize here.

Others come from Pentecostal backgrounds, but “they want the historicity, the foundation, the accountability, the longevity of an established church,” said Lindsay Armstrong, executive director of the New Church Development Commission of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta.

For leaders of those congregations, the transition often is difficult. Some have served as pastors in their home countries, may have attended Bible school or seminary and even been ordained in their home church. Here, they often work other jobs to support their families in addition to serving the church.

Working through the visa process “is expensive and time-consuming,” Collins said. “Many come with theological education from seminaries we are not in relationship with,” so even with pastoral experience “they don’t have the credentials immediately to be ordained as ministers of Word and Sacrament” in the PC(USA). They might have to take more classes or pass ordination exams, even though English is not their first language. “Yet what we really want are leaders who come from as close as possible the communities they will be serving,” she said.

The Presbytery of Greater Atlanta has 28 new worshiping communities, 14 of which are immigrant churches. What’s happening in Atlanta is a microcosm of what’s happening across the country, Armstrong said.

Lindsay Armstrong

More than 1 million immigrants have arrived in the U.S. every year since 2018. A Pew Research Center study from 2014 found that 68% of recent immigrants were Christian.

“There are incredible gifts of the immigrant church,” Armstrong said. “While they are often dismissed or overlooked or seen as just an outreach ministry by some of the more established churches … their overwhelming religious impact has been to inject expanding diversity and vitality into the country’s Christian community. They are the face of church growth in the United States. That might not be for the PC(USA) yet but it could be if we pay attention and welcome them.”

Armstrong says she’s seen immigrants bring ingenuity and fresh thinking, new ways of praying and worshiping, and deep compassion for their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. “These are relationships that change us,” she said. “They change hearts, they change minds. While we are in this moment of extraordinary transition where the end of White Christian America is upon us … they are raising questions that Western blind spots ignore.”

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)

Many leaders of those immigrant churches work multiple jobs to pay the bills. Armstrong knows a refugee leader who comes from a long line of Presbyterian ministers in Myanmar, who supports a wife and four children and whose education was completely disrupted by political turmoil. “He would love to be a Presbyterian minister,” she said. “He doesn’t even have a high school equivalency.”

A group of Zo immigrants wants a leader who is fully credentialled in the PC(USA) system — “they want their pastor to be called and installed, just like everybody else,” Armstrong said. They also want a pastor who speaks their language.

A Chin Presbyterian congregation from Myanmar, many of whose congregants make $7.25 an hour working at a chicken processing plant, recently bought a building. “It’s small, but it’s theirs,” Armstrong said. The congregation pays its pastor a salary. But if they chartered as a PC(USA) church, they could not afford to pay the pastor the presbytery minimum salary. So that congregation does not have voice or vote at presbytery meetings.

Increasingly in the PC(USA) system – with so many small churches unable to afford full-time pastoral leadership, with immigrant churches and experimental new worshiping communities just getting started – the idea of “called and installed really does have socio-economic implications,” Armstrong said.

“I think we would be very wise to look at the educational requirements for being a pastor with some more flexibility,” she said. “If we could find some ways to celebrate different kinds of maybe competency-based educational standards, that would be huge.”

The Racial Equity Advocacy Committee is asking the 2022 General Assembly to consider a proposed amendment to the PC(USA) constitution that 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.

Innovations

Sarah Dunne Pickrell, Director of New Worshiping Communities with Heartland Presbytery. Photo submitted.

For new worshiping communities that aren’t immigrant congregations, their leaders also are experimenting with new ways of networking, sharing ideas, and building creativity. For example, Cyclical Inc., a California-based non-profit that serves as an incubator of sorts for church planting, is partnering with Sarah Dunne Pickrell, who is director of New Worshiping Communities for Heartland Presbytery and one of the founding leaders of The Open Table, a new worshiping community in Kansas City.

“A lot of our small churches are closing their doors, and COVID’s making that even harder,” Pickrell said. “As we see this decrease in our traditional churches but an increase in new worshiping communities … there is so much imagination and creativity coming out of these communities. To get their voices to the table is going to be really important.”

Many leaders of new worshiping communities are entrepreneurs — some never set out to go into ministry, Collins said.

“They have incredible gifts and skills to get something started and gather people,” Collins said. But often this kind of entrepreneur “doesn’t see themselves as going to seminary becoming a minister of Word and Sacrament.” To them, “the structures of membership and roles, it doesn’t matter so much. They don’t want to invest their time as leaders who are often bi-vocational or tri-vocational to get through all the hoops and paperwork.”

Going to seminary takes years and money. “And the work is in front of them now,” Pickrell said.

Many new worshiping communities also face questions of financial sustainability — beyond the mission program grants available from the PC(USA).

“The biggest barrier is money, and just figuring out how do we pay our staff and make that sustainable,” Pickrell said. “As missional communities, the very people that they are attracting and including in really beautiful ways are often people who may not have the means to create a more sustainable church” — they may be young people and more transient like students, artists, or those struggling with addiction or insecure housing.

Initiatives funded through 1001 program grants have included Utmost Athletes in Vancouver, Washington, which combines strength training with Bible study; Earthen Hands, which uses gardening in Maryland as a way of building relationships; and Access Worship, a ministry in Colorado to people with special needs and their families.

The August 2021 Heartland Presbytery NWC leader retreat in Olathe, Kansas. Photo submitted.

Some involved with new worshiping communities don’t want to be members of a church —that’s one of the reasons they’re attracted to something different to begin with. “A lot of folks carry trauma and baggage, and rightfully so, from church experience in the past,” Pickrell said.

So new worshiping communities provide alternative approaches to spirituality and building community — sometimes a meal and conversation, music, art, breath work and meditation, social justice work, “a broader understanding of what prayer means,” Pickrell said.

Some gatherings don’t look at all like traditional Sunday morning worship services — they range from dinner churches to jazz vespers to coffee shops to podcasts.

Often with those leaders “there’s still real desire for theological training,” Pickrell said. She’s been talking with Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and others about “what would theological training look like for someone in this context?” — for someone who wants to learn a decolonized theology, inherently missional, based in liberation theology and the work of Black and Brown theological leaders and mystics.

The barrier, she said, is money and resources, the need to build “a runway to even try on the things they’re dreaming up.”

What’s next?

Joint worship service with Latinos Unidos and Igreja Presbiteriana Brasileira in San Mateo, California. Photo submitted to Outlook in 2017.

Some immigrant congregations and new worshiping communities do hope to charter as churches, although that might not be possible right away.

“I haven’t met a single new immigrant community that doesn’t want to charter – not a one,” Armstrong said. Some are motivated by gratitude for the support the PC(USA) has given – they want to be part of the denomination and to give back.

Others “do want voice and vote, and want to be considered what they already consider themselves: a fully embodied church.”

The difficulty for many is finances.

“In some presbyteries there are immigrant communities that are large and vibrant and have been thriving for quite some time,” Collins said. “They don’t charter because they can’t afford per capita. … But there are churches that have been chartered for 100 years that don’t pay per capita.”

There are some new worshiping communities that do not intend to become PC(USA) churches, Collins said. Some that aren’t moving towards chartering “want to have a little more flexibility, want to be governed by a board that doesn’t all see themselves as being or becoming Presbyterian elders. They have a broader connection to the community, more as a nonprofit with strong ties to the presbytery.”

She and others want the PC(USA) to talk about a polity that’s flexible enough to allow for innovation.

A photo of a 1001 New Worship Communities leader cohort. Photo from 1001 NWC website.

“Is there a way that we can include the ones that are organizing themselves differently or could never reach that threshold — like a community that serves people who are largely homeless or in transition, or largely people who are students?” Collins asked. “Can they ever get to a session status? … I don’t know.”

Some Presbyterians say it’s essential for mid councils to hear the voices and feel the influence of those experimenting in ministry — those who see the possibilities of doing things differently.

“Where are the places we can open up our polity to make more space while still honoring the things that are important to us as Presbyterians?” Collins asked.

“As a denomination that has invested $12 million over the past 10 years into this work, why would we spend all this money and all this time, if we’re not going to be changed by them?”

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