If there’s an article to be written about discerning the church’s future together, all it really needs to say is that the future of the PC(USA) is being reformed by God, and it is limitless. But earlier this month, the Presbyterian Outlook published Catherine Neelly Burton’s article “The future of the PC(USA) is pastor-less, and that’s OK” which outlined a specific way that the Presbytery of Southern Kansas is trying to live into the realities of church and life in rural America.
What I read in that piece was a creative, hopeful way that one presbytery seeks to support churches with vital ministries but without a full-time installed pastor. And that’s an article worth reading. Every presbytery should be finding creative, hopeful ways to support their churches.
The headline, however, left a lot to be desired because it answers a question I don’t think any of us need to answer. Do we as a denomination believe in the priesthood of all believers? Yes. We do. It’s why ministers of Word and Sacrament take the same ordination vows as ruling elders. It’s why we train and commission lay pastors. It’s why both ministers and ruling elders serve and vote on the presbytery, synod, and General Assembly levels. It’s why many churches pass communion plates through our pews, each member ministering to the other, whispering to their neighbor, “This is the bread of life. This is the cup of salvation.”
Do we as a denomination continue to value theologically educated and ethically trained pastoral leadership?
Can the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) include more lay leadership and still be faithful? Of course, it can. But we need to ask better questions. Starting with this one: Do we as a denomination continue to value theologically educated and ethically trained pastoral leadership? Relatedly, do we believe that individuals and communities should go without trained leadership when they cannot afford it (implying they do not deserve it)?
These questions go hand-in-hand. If we value theologically educated and ethically trained pastoral leadership, and if we believe that a community’s financial status does not define its worth, then the only faithful response is to help churches that are struggling to call theologically educated and ethically trained pastors. (It sounds like this is the exact effort being made in that Presbytery of Southern Kansas, which is funding a presbytery-level position for a minister of Word and Sacrament to resource small churches who can no longer afford a pastor.)
If we do not value theologically educated and ethically trained pastoral leadership, then we need to evaluate the effort we put forth in ordaining people. As it currently stands, the PC(USA) affirms that God calls certain people to specific leadership, and training for this position demands a full-time three-year degree, a psychological evaluation, Clinical Pastoral Education, ministry internship(s), applications and interviews for approval, and passing five ordination exams. If, as the title of Outlook’s article suggests, the future is pastor-less, then this ordination process is unfaithful and demonstrates poor stewardship. If we don’t need, want, or value the calling of ministers of Word and Sacrament, why are we spending all these resources to develop and install them? As the Internet says, make it make sense.
Do we believe that individuals and communities should go without trained leadership when they cannot afford it?
Furthermore, if we believe that a person or community’s worth is not defined by their finances, then rural churches struggling to support installed ministers offer an opportunity for the PC(USA) to practice our faith. I say this as a pastor in a rural-ish context and as a person who has deep familial and cultural roots in a small, rural Appalachian town.
As Neelly Burton notes in her article, pastors are not the only decreasing resource for rural communities. These spaces are also losing trained, professional medical workers, attorneys and teachers. If the PC(USA) provides theologically educated and ethically trained pastoral leadership in these communities, it is a chance for us to be in but not of this world. Our actions would signal that our rural siblings deserve the same care that their suburban and urban siblings have access to. These communities have become accustomed to abandonment. It will be a shame if the church contributes to such disparity by just accepting that, since every other trained profession is leaving rural America, clergy will, too.
The final question for us to ask calls us to say the quiet part out loud. PC(USA) clergy are increasingly women (of the 218 people ordained in 2017, 122 were women and 96 men). Yet employed clergy are primarily men (nearly three-quarters of those serving as PC(USA) pastors or co-pastors are men). We know this because we track it closely. We issue regular reports outlining in detail the pay disparity between women clergy and their male counterparts (almost $10,000 in 2022).
A report released by the Board of Pensions in 2018 noted that “Women outnumbered men as associate pastors – with 405 women and 316 men – but the men still out-earned the women in that position, with males making an average of $64,463 and women $62,910.” We can only imagine how much starker the disparities would grow if we had clear, accessible data on queer clergy and clergy of color.
So before we accept the blanket assertion that churches (rural or otherwise) simply cannot support a called and installed pastor, we should ask a third crucial question: Who do we identify as theologically educated and ethically trained pastors? In other words, “Whom do we consider as valuable leaders?”Our professions of faith say one thing, and our statistics say another.
Who do we value as leaders?
Faithful growth is not just an increased budget or higher Sunday worship attendance. It’s also expanded understanding of the Holy and greater appreciation for the Divine. It’s practicing spiritual disciplines more intentionally and opening our hearts wider spiritually. It’s a closer relationship to God and a better understanding of Scripture. Proverbs says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Does that not mean that part of the work of the church is to dig deep into the faith we practice by facing these clergy employment and pay trends head on? A Brief Statement of Faith says, “In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to unmask idolatries in Church and culture.”
That means that the future of the PC(USA) may be pastor-less. Or building-less as churches sell property to fund their ministry and service. Or Sunday-morning-less to navigate cultural shifts in timing and schedule. Maybe it means the future of the PC(USA) is specific-congregation-less to accommodate more parish/neighborhood-based ministry as opposed to multiple tiny churches saturating a community. Or denomination-less to encourage a unified Christian witness in the connectional, universal church we profess in our Apostle’s Creed. I vote for a future of the PC(USA) that is idol-less, and that will only be possible if…
The future of the PC(USA) is being reformed by God.
And it is as limitless as the holy imagination that we vow to practice when we are ordained.
The Presbyterian Outlook is committed to fostering faithful conversations by publishing a diversity of voices. The opinions expressed are the author’s and may or may not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Outlook’s editorial staff or the Presbyterian Outlook Foundation. Want to join the conversation? You can write to us or submit your own article here.