This is a blog for those interested in the future of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Again, though denominational issues aren’t my favorite subject, I would be remiss not to offer an update. I’ve just returned from a huge gathering of Pastors and Elders in Minnesota who were planning the future of the denomination. Here’s what I take away.
I have to say the gathering of The Fellowship in Minneapolis (#mn2011) is the best Presbyterian conference I’ve been to in fourteen years of ordained ministry. Specifically because it both generated an upbeat atmosphere and because it did something practical.
• It was well attended, with around 2000 people. To put that in perspective, that’s bigger than the gathering of delegates, advisory delegates, and staff to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.
• People were excited to be there and clearly having fun reconnecting with old friends. There was a lot of laughter.
• The worship experience was outstanding.
• The message was direct and had concrete action plans that people could get behind. There was a clear next step when it was over.
• The demographics were surprising. Maybe a quarter or more of the crowd was under 45. There was a significant contingent of young adults, giving it a feel of being a voice of the future of the church.
You have to realize that this is all the more powerful because it is so ironic. What company or enterprise has a huge, nation-wide meeting in which people spend tens of thousands of dollars getting together to talk about the fact that the company is failing. No one does that. That’s outrageous. And that very conference was uplifting, exciting, forward-looking, and hopeful. Nothing about that makes sense. Must be a God thing.
What was most impressive was what the gathering accomplished. The gathering is now a united movement of Presbyterians who will form a New Reformed Body (NRB) for churches who are tired of the failure, incompetency, and conflict of the PC(USA). This body will be ready by a January meeting (in Orlando) to formally accept churches into it. The NRB will include:
1. Churches that will formally ask to be dismissed from the PC(USA) and join the NRB with their property. In so doing, they will most likely also leave the Board of Pensions. In the NRB, congregations own their own property.
2. Churches that will establish a union membership in both the NRB and the PC(USA), making them members of two bodies.
3. Churches that will establish an affiliate membership in the NRB. This might be best for churches for whom deeper commitment might create internal or external conflict.
This is a smart structure on a number of levels.
First, in acknowledging that denominations are dead, it’s an act of living into a new structure which will function differently than a denomination. What exactly that will look like is as yet uncharted territory, meaning the pioneers will most likely get to define it as they go. Bureaucrats will look for paperwork and policies to explain this change, but this is really too innovative to fit into pre-existing boxes.
Second, in allowing for concrete movements with a concrete timeline, it offers an alternative to death-by-status-quo on the one hand or transfer to not altogether appealing denominations on the other. It should calm some of the panic that congregations are feeling.
Third, it’s actually an act of affirming those elements of our tradition which we value while admitting that it’s time for a game-changer. Churches leaving for other denominations, even Presbyterian denominations, have sometimes left a wake of resentment. This at least might be a way of saying that the desire is not so much to leave as to avoid changing the moral and theological positions many of us believe cannot be changed. It’s sort of (oddly) an act of radically staying in place by changing everything.
It may be time to acknowledge that this is a moment like the one that Paul and Barnabas came to, where, for the good of the whole Church, they had to do ministry in different directions. There’s a certain grace to allowing each body to function without persistent threat of conflict and a poor witness to the world. There’s no gain by forced maintenance of the status quo, because, again, the status quo has been 45 years of declining membership and financial hemorrhaging. Change will come fairly soon anyway as systems are no longer able to keep their doors open. We’ve witnessed the closing of SFTS in So. Cal., there are presbyteries switching from full-time to part-time executive presbyters, there have been regular layoffs at the national offices, and there have been budget cuts at every level of the denomination. An optimistic move forward is far better than the alternatives.
So let’s bless it and look for new life.