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How should presbyteries support new worshipping communities?

Union Presbyterian Seminary Doctor of Ministry student David Bonnema explores best practices for planting and funding new worshipping communities.

Many 1001 New Worshiping Communities have begun in nontraditional settings, including coffeehouses. (PNS, "Funds freed up for 1001 New Worshiping Communities program," May 4, 2022)

I accepted a call to Unity Presbyterian Church in North Carolina in March of 2018. Shortly after my arrival, the Presbytery of Western North Carolina asked me to chair the brand new Congregational Formation and Transformation Committee. One of the primary responsibilities of this committee is to develop and implement a strategy for new church development within the presbytery.

I agreed and then learned the presbytery had no specific strategy for planting and supporting new churches. We were truly starting from scratch. How should a presbytery properly support the forming of new churches within their geographic bounds? This was a big question for which we didn’t have an answer.

Fast-forward four years. In September of 2021, the presbytery partnered with Unity Presbyterian Church to plant Artisan Church. The presbytery’s first new worshipping community (NWC), Artisan Church has the goal of creating a radically welcoming community exploring new pathways for worship near Lincolnton, North Carolina. Arriving at the point of planting a NWC felt exhilarating. Even so, getting to this point was a lot like building a plane while flying it. I couldn’t help but wonder — how have other presbyteries gone about the process of creating NWCs? Is there a way for presbyteries to share knowledge of what has worked — and what hasn’t — in planting churches?

Artisan Church near Lincolnton, North Carolina. (Facebook.)

As a Doctor of Ministry student at Union Presbyterian Seminary, I decided to commit my doctoral research to answer this question. What follows is a brief overview of my preliminary findings.

The problem

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was formed in 1983 because two denominations merged: the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A (UPUSA). The PC(USA) has had a net loss of members every year since its founding in 1983. According to the 2021 PC(USA) statistic report, the denomination reported 1,193,770 members. That is 51,584 less than the year before. The PC(USA) has averaged a loss of about 56,000 members every year since 2016.

If the decline in membership continues at this rate, the PC(USA) will cease to exist by 2043.

The rate of new churches being formed each year has paled in comparison to the number of churches being closed. In 2021, ten new churches were organized while 104 were closed.

In 2012, the 220th General Assembly created a goal of forming 1,001 new worshipping communities in the next 10 years. According to the 1001 Worshiping Communities 2020 Leader Report, there are 545 new worshipping communities currently active within the PC(USA). NWCs have helped the PC(USA) mitigate the trend of significant membership losses. The formation and growth of NWCs provide a glimmer of hope for our denomination. If the PC(USA) is going to exist (and thrive) beyond 2043, it will be because of these new worshipping communities.

Therefore, our central question must be: How can presbyteries support the forming of new worshipping communities?

Supporting new worshipping communities

I began my research by surveying all the presbyteries within the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic. A survey was sent to the general presbyter of each presbytery. The survey included questions about how the presbytery supported the formation of new worshipping communities. Ten out of the 14 presbyteries or 71% of the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic responded to the survey. Here are some of the results:

  1. Has a new worshipping community been formed within your presbytery within the past five years?

Out of the ten presbyteries that had answered the survey, seven had a new worshipping community form within their presbytery in the last five years. Therefore, 70% of the respondents had a new worshipping community form within the past five years.

  1. If so, did the presbytery help to fund the new worshipping community?

All seven or 100% presbyteries financially supported the NWC in some capacity.

  1. If you answered yes, how was the new worshipping community funded? (You may choose more than one option.)

Three presbyteries (43%) said they funded their NWC through “proceeds of the sale of property (i.e. a closed church).”

Five presbyteries (71%) said they funded their NWC through “an investment account or endowment.”

One presbytery (14%) said they funded their NWC through “the donations of other churches within the presbytery.”

Three presbyteries (43%) said they funded their NWC through “the presbytery’s operating budget.”

Lastly, all seven presbyteries said, in addition to their other answers, that they used a grant from the denomination’s 1,001 New Worshipping Communities office to provide guidance, resources and support for NWCs.

  1. Who provided oversight for the funding? (You may choose more than one option.)

Six presbyteries (86%) reported a committee of the presbytery provided oversight for the funding.

Four presbyteries (57%) reported a partnering church from within the presbytery provided oversight for the funding.

Four presbyteries (57%) reported a presbytery staff member provided oversight for the funding.

Analyzing the results

Based on this data, a couple of things become clear.

One: most presbyteries have had at least some experience planting a new worshipping community within the past five years. Seven out of ten of the presbyteries in the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic have started one. Nikki Collins, national coordinator for 1,001 New Worshipping Communities, shared with me that roughly 140 out of 170 presbyteries within the PC(USA) have started at least one new worshipping community in the past ten years.

This tells me that the majority of presbyteries are trying to plant new churches. What can we learn from one another? I plan to continue my research by expanding it nationwide in the coming year. (If you would like to contribute, please email me at David@unitypres.org.)

Two: presbyteries play a vital role in funding new worshipping communities. It appears that there’s no consensus on best practices for funding new worshipping communities at the presbytery level. Many of the presbyteries appear to have a dedicated endowment set aside for the creation of new worshipping communities. Others have decided that when a church closes and the property is sold, those proceeds will be used to fund the creation of new churches. There’s something beautiful about the closing of one church supporting the creation of another. Still, other presbyteries deemed new church development to be so important that they support it out of their own operating budget. At the very minimum, grant funding through the office of 1,001 New Worshipping Communities. Beyond that, there’s a mix of funding opportunities.

Three: oversight and support can take many different forms. It’s clear there needs to be a dedicated group that is actively engaged in supporting the NWC. Presbyteries are finding creative ways to support the new communities. Sometimes it’s through a committee and other times it’s through a partnering church.

My presbytery, the Presbytery of Western North Carolina, created a both/and approach. We formed a steering committee comprised of pastors and elders from around the presbytery. Their job was to complete the high-level work for Artisan Church (approving the yearly budget, personnel, visioning etc). Additionally, Unity Presbyterian Church volunteered to be the partnering church for Artisan Church. Unity supports the day-to-day functioning of the community. Unity assists with marketing, worship planning, community events, and more. In this way, Unity Presbyterian Church and the Presbytery of Western North Carolina work together to support Artisan Church.

All in all, I believe there is reason for hope for the PC(USA) even in the face of rapidly declining membership numbers. But the hope will only be realized if we identify what presbyteries can do to successfully support the forming of new worshipping communities. The small growth that is currently present in the PC(USA) comes almost exclusively from the forming of NWCs. Therefore, supporting these new communities financially, relationally and administratively, will be tantamount to the ongoing success and survival of the PC(USA) denomination.

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