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Flexibility sought for small congregations

Blake Brinegar updates on new General Assembly proposals impacting small congregations.

As churches are shrinking, and the ability to pay full-time pastors or convince them to consider smaller or rural pastoral contexts, the denomination will need to be more flexible and nimble to meet the needs of these congregations.

While there isn’t a clear definition of what a rural context is, the USDA estimates the rural population of the U.S. could be as high as 49% of the total population. Rural congregations, however, often see decline or stagnancy in membership for a range of reasons, including opportunity: as high school or college graduates might have difficulties finding employment in their home communities, and pastors’ spouses could face the same issues. Finances can be an issue for smaller congregations, especially as costs for providing healthcare, pensions and other associated benefits increase. Rural churches also tend to struggle to find called and installed pastoral leaders, and for some, rural contexts can sometimes be viewed as “less than.”

Seventy-five percent of churches in the denomination are considered small, with fewer than 150 members each. But the numbers of new worshiping communities and small churches have grown. According to the most recently available statistical report (2022), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) added 20 new worshiping communities, and the number of small churches with fewer than 50 members has increased from 3,510 in 2019 to 3,752 in 2022.

Three GA overtures could be especially pertinent to the small church or rural context:

POL-03 comes from Santa Fe Presbytery and deals with “other forms of corporate worship” adding an entirely new paragraph to the Book of Order. This is the proposed paragraph to be added:

G-1.0104 Other Forms of Corporate Witness (Small Worshipping Communities, etc.)

In circumstances where the formation of a traditional ecclesiastically and legally organized congregation is not desired or deemed appropriate, but a worshipping community nonetheless wishes to exist and function in relationship to The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), presbyteries and congregations may work together with such a group to provide supervision and support. Such recognized groups shall be under the mutually agreed upon oversight of a minister of the Word and Sacrament approved by the presbytery, shall include at least one ruling elder in their chosen leadership, and shall function under the financial, legal, and disciplinary sponsorship of an ecclesial council (either a session or a presbytery). The sponsoring council shall, in consultation with the worshipping community, authorize any celebrations of the sacraments within the group in accordance with the Directory for Worship. Membership records for group participants desiring to be formally enrolled as baptized, active, or affiliate members in the PC(USA) shall be maintained by the sponsoring council. Such groups shall not hold property, and may not undertake any financial, legal, or contractual obligations, apart from their sponsoring council. They shall adhere to the sponsoring council’s required policies on sexual misconduct, harassment, child and youth protection, and antiracism. Presbyteries shall determine appropriate means of representation and participation of such groups in and through the sponsoring councils (session and/or presbytery).

This overture could offer small congregations flexibility in the ways these worshiping communities constitute themselves while reminding the wider church of the connectional nature of the denomination.

CF-01 comes from Riverside Presbytery in California and pertains to Christian formation materials
to be developed by denominational resources.

The Presbytery of Riverside (CA) overtures the 226th General Assembly (2024) to direct the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Christian Formation (and/or their successor entities) and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, in collaboration with Research Services, to study and formulate a plan for the future development of educational resources for faith formation and nurture especially for congregational use.

Research should be qualitative, including methods such as focus groups and interviews with practitioners. Relying on
this and pertinent prior research, collaborators shall pay particular attention to affordability and the needs of the small church. The Office of Christian Formation and the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation shall bring a concrete proposal regarding funding, staffing, and implementation to the 227
th General Assembly (2026).

In the description of the research to be performed, there is a reference to the small church, which often is also rural. There is the desire to be keenly aware of the affordability of the materials, as well as meet the needs of the small church, in faith formation. While not always the case, affordability is the driving force behind decisions in these contexts. Often the rural context is led by a commissioned ruling elder who has another job and may be limited in the amount of time for Sunday school preparation. This overture could be helpful in making curriculum accessible for those who lead the education programs in the churches, who may not feel adequately equipped to create their own.

ORD-07 comes from Palo Duro Presbytery in Texas and seeks to clarify G-2.1001 on the use of commissioned pastors, (CREs), by amending G-2.1002:

G-2.1002 Training, Examination and Commissioning [Strikethrough text indicate deletions; underline and bolded
text indicate additions.]

A ruling elder who seeks to serve under the terms of G-2.1001 shall receive such preparation and instruction as determined by the presbytery to be appropriate to the particular commission. Such preparation shall include a certificate of completion of boundary training, which includes the topic of sexual misconduct, and child sexual abuse prevention training with recertification at least every thirty-six months. The presbytery shall determine which training courses are approved to meet the criteria of these two requirements. The ruling elder shall be examined by the presbytery as to personal faith, motives for seeking the commission, and the areas of instruction determined by presbytery. A ruling elder who has been commissioned and later ceases to serve in the specified ministry may continue to be listed as available to serve but is not and is authorized to perform the functions specified in G-2.1001 until commissioned again to a congregation or ministry by the presbytery subject to annual review by the presbytery. The Commissioned Pastor will carry voice and vote as Commissioned Pastor while they continue their life in the presbytery.

This overture could have an impact on congregations, particularly those that are smaller or in a rural area, that may not have access to a minister of Word and Sacrament to fill in. The intent is to honor the ability of commissioned pastors by allowing them to perform the duties of a commissioned ruling elder (CRE) for pastoral service, even after their commission expires. There are times when CREs who are not currently commissioned to a congregation or ministry are available and are asked to fill the pulpit, preside at the Communion table and possibly moderate the session. This overture aims to make it clear these individuals could celebrate the sacraments, moderate session, or fulfill any other duty listed in G-2.1001 provided their activity is reviewed annually by the presbytery. The overture also adds voice and vote in the presbytery for the CRE’s tenure in that presbytery. There is potential in how this would help rural congregations who find it easier to hire an available commissioned pastor, than a minister of Word and Sacrament. This overture could also help presbyteries who find pulpit supply lists dwindling.