2022 General Assembly to consider pressures on small churches and presbyteries

The PC(USA) is changing. In what ways does the polity and funding structure need to change too?

Photo by Yohan Marion on Unsplash

Smaller churches, smaller presbyteries.

It’s like wisps of fog floating through the mountains of business coming to the 2022 General Assembly: concerns about the financial and leadership pressures at the grassroots of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

It’s there, for example, in an overture from the Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky, seeking an amendment to the PC(USA) constitution to add the office of parish associate back into the Book of Order as another way of providing pastoral leadership to congregations.

“An increasing number of smaller PC(USA) congregations are employing temporary pastors rather than called and installed pastors, mostly for financial reasons,” the rationale for the overture states. “Two-thirds of the congregations in Mid-Kentucky Presbytery are served by temporary pastors or by no pastor at all. An increasing number of larger PC(USA) congregations are reducing the number of called and installed pastors on their staffs, again mostly for financial reasons.”

Concerns for supporting small churches are made apparent again in a resolution from the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee, asking the denomination’s six agencies to identify all congregations that don’t have installed pastoral leadership or don’t meet the minimum compensation standards.

Native American pastors sometimes serve congregations without compensation, the rationale for the resolution states.

“Currently 80 percent of the PC(USA)’s predominantly Black congregations are without installed pastoral leadership. At least 40 percent of Hispanic/Latino congregations do not have installed pastors. Across the denomination, congregations are struggling to provide sufficient income to installed pastors, leaving many congregations of color with the burden of persistent inequity and the lack of parity across the PC(USA).”

Photo by Andrew McQuaid on Unsplash

And it’s part of the foundation of the recommendations coming from the Special Committee on Per-Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability. Whether or not the assembly chooses to follow that committee’s recommendation to create a commission to begin a process of unifying agencies at the national level of the denomination – not surprisingly, there’s some pushback to the idea of restructuring – the findings that surfaced in the committee’s four years of work remain concerns for the church, as outlined in a June 6 Riverside Conversations webinar hosting by the Office of the General Assembly.

In the webinar, committee members discussed some of the learnings gleaned from an extensive series of listening sessions they conducted with presbytery and synod leaders — findings that reflect the difficulties mid councils face in trying to collect per capita (or per-member assessments) from congregations, many of which themselves have been losing members and some of which can’t afford full-time pastoral leadership.

In addition to the General Assembly per capita (the current rate is $8.95 per member, with a recommendation coming for the assembly’s approval for a rate of $9.61 per member for 2023 and $10.28 per member for 2024), some presbyteries and synods also assess per capita to fund their own operations.

Some of what the per capita committee has learned in the listening sessions:

  • Both congregations and presbyteries are decreasing in membership. In general, smaller congregations mean smaller presbyteries.
  • Some (although not all) presbyteries try to send to the Office of the General Assembly all the per capita they owe – whether or not they collect that full amount from congregations. Technically, the obligation for paying General Assembly per capita rests with mid councils, not with congregations. So when there’s a shortfall in the amount collected, some presbyteries try to find a way to make up the difference.
  • Many presbyteries feel financially squeezed. That often results in cutbacks in presbytery staff and programming, which means presbyteries are less able to provide resources, training and support to congregations.
  • Congregations pay per capita based on the membership they reported two years ago to the national church – which means some are paying for more members than they actually have left on their rolls.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic “exacerbated the financial slide for congregations and some presbyteries,” the committees report to the assembly states. The last two years have been rough.

The financial pressure on presbyteries already has contributed to some restructuring of mid councils. Committee member Jeanne Radak is presbytery leader of the Presbytery of the Highlands in northwest New Jersey — one of four new presbyteries created when seven presbyteries merged in New Jersey. “We knew that as we got smaller, it would get harder” to do the ministry work needed, Radak said.

Sarah Moore-Nokes

Also, “when per capita goes up, mission giving goes down,” said committee member Sarah Moore-Nokes, a minister and former presbytery executive from Wisconsin. “We cannot continue that pattern.”

The committee’s report states that “presbyteries have or are considering cutting staff, going to virtual offices, using financial reserves and investments, merging with other presbyteries. … The time is now to engage decisively into experimenting with and/or developing new models of funding for our presbyteries. We are running out of time.”

Polity possibilities. Collectively, through a number of recommendations, the 2022 General Assembly is being asked to consider what polity and structural changes might best serve a changing church — a church of smaller congregations, many of which don’t have full-time pastors, and a denomination in which growth is often seen through new immigrant congregations and new worshipping communities, which may not necessarily be formally chartered as churches.

One of the questions: what role do commissioned ruling elders serve in pastoral leadership? What changes might be needed in the PC(USA)’s polity involving ordination to serve the needs of small churches? How can the ministry of small congregations – many of which do creative ministry and are important forces in their communities – be better supported?

The 2021 statistical report for the PC(USA) shows the trends:

  • In 2021, the denomination lost another 51,584 members, with the denomination now at 1.19 million members, down from 4.25 million members in 1965.
  • About two-thirds of PC(USA) congregations have 100 members or fewer.
  • About one in five churches have 25 members or fewer.
  • The number of presbyteries dropped from 170 to 166.
  • The denomination dissolved 104 congregations in 2021.
  • A third of Presbyterians are age 71 or older.

At the congregational level, “there is a sense of urgency,” said Paul Helphinstine, who is a member of the per capita and financial sustainability committee and a pastor from Tennessee. “We may have dollars and cents to keep things limping along” for a while, but when presbyteries become less effective, congregations feel the impact, Helphinstine said in the webinar.

“There is a real distance that is being created between congregations and the agencies of the church. That’s where the urgency comes in. We see it on the ground.”

General Assembly commissioner John Thomason, a ruling elder from the Presbytery of East Tennessee, said in some presbyteries, “it’s getting harder and harder to maintain the staff as our churches are getting smaller and smaller.”

Another webinar participant wrote in the Zoom chat:

One of the committee’s recommendations is this: asking the assembly’s co-moderators to appoint a team to develop possibilities for experiments for different ways of funding the work of the PC(USA). The committee did some of that work, but it basically ran out of time to extensively develop possible models for experimentation.

Other overtures coming to the 2022 assembly address the question of finding alternative ways of training and ordaining pastoral leaders for small congregations, immigrant churches and new worshipping communities.

An overture from the Presbytery of Northern New England asks the assembly to approve a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow presbyteries to ordain a commissioned ruling elder as a minister of Word and Sacrament after that person has served in a ministry commissioned by the presbytery for six years.

The per capita work group finishing their conversations with leaders from the PC(USA)’s 16 synods later this week, and has heard from representatives of most of the 170 presbyteries. Photo from 2019.

The rationale for the overture states that some people can’t afford to quit their jobs to attend a traditional seminary and that some presbyteries are having a hard time finding qualified pastors.

The proposal “will increase the pool of candidates available to smaller congregations who otherwise could not afford a pastor,” the rationale states. “This allows the opportunity for candidates who live far from a seminary to stay and serve in local communities where they have a deep understanding of the context and can remain in close contact with the support of their local network of family and friends. This support can help a person stay grounded while preparing for ordained service as a minister of Word and Sacrament.”

A variety of entities are recommending disapproval of this overture — including the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, which responded that the ordered ministries of ruling elder and ministers are distinct, and the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, which says the overture would contribute to gender injustice, as some women ministers already find it difficult to find churches willing to call them, and this proposed amendment would “diminish the value of the education, time, and sacrifice of those teaching elders who have taken the time [to attend seminary] and answered the call to serve the church.”

The Committee on Theological Education commented that the issues this overture raise might better be addressed by a proposal from the Presbytery of San Fernando, which is asking the assembly to create a task force to explore the theology and practice of ordination to ordered ministry for ruling elders in the PC(USA). One potential piece of that conversation: to explore ways to bring more church leaders who aren’t ministers into positions where they have a voice and vote in denominational life, particularly for new worshipping communities and immigrant churches.

In a comment to that overture, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly stated: “Each of our 166 presbyteries has developed ways to nurture and organize new congregations and develop leaders for the church that fit their particular context. At the same time, the emerging context of 2022 and beyond requires that we as a broader denomination reexamine the assumptions that lie beneath these structures that were developed for a church at work in a different time and place.”

So a question floating in the fog is this: The PC(USA) is changing. In what ways does the polity and funding structure need to change too?