In the face of a radically changing ministry context and a great hunger for leadership throughout the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the General Assembly Mission Council and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly met here Feb. 24 to embark upon a frank and far-reaching examination of leadership needs for the church.

This dialogue began in the spring of 2009, when the Committee on Theological Education called the GAMC and COGA to join with it in looking at the church’s leadership needs, thereby forming the Joint Committee on Leadership Needs. 

At the same time, Barbara Wheeler — former president of Auburn Theological Seminary and now director of its Center for the Study of Theological Education — was asked to share her research on Commissioned Lay Pastors, a study that had been commissioned by the Office of Vocation in partnership with COTE.

Setting the context

The GAMC/COGA joint session opened with presentations by the Rev. Jay Hudson, president of the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program and the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly.

Using a variety of lenses through which culture can be understood, Hudson presented an overview of the changing societal context for ministry.

“Today’s world is looking for movements rather than institutions,” he said. “A movement is much more democratic, and you can’t control it. Do we lose the spirit if we become an institution?”

In the post-modern world, where chaos dominates, people aren’t trustful and openly express their disillusionment with institutions, Hudson said.

He lifted up the challenge of reaching out to other cultures and younger generations, who are seeking “third places,” or more informal gathering places where relationships can be nourished, old and new friends can be seen and food and drink are readily available.

“We live in a culture that wants to be spiritual and not religious,” Hudson said. “People see the church as looking inward and focused on how to survive while what they want is a church to look outward and be missional.”

‘The Great Emergence’

Parsons spoke on the “Great Emergence,” in which the church seeks to unload or unpack whatever it feels is not necessary to carry forward into the new world.

“People are seeking a new and more vital form of Christianity, in which the organized expression of Christianity is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self,” he said. “How is God trying to un-ossify us as part of the governing structures of this church?”

To explore that question further, Parsons asked small groups to discuss the groups of people religious lecturer and author Phyllis Tickle has designated “re-traditioners” and “innovators.” Re-traditioners focus on changing the internal structure toward a renewed ideal, while innovators seek to create new external forms altogether. 

Parsons asked groups to brainstorm creative ways to bring the two groups together in mutually beneficial ways. He then asked the groups to talk about the characteristics of leaders in the church.

Jean Demmler, a GAMC elected member representing the Presbytery of Denver, said, “The whole point seems to be that one way to work together is continually talking with each other.”

Parsons closed with an observation from his own experience conducting workshops with elders across the country.

“The elders consistently tell me that they don’t want to be elders who sit around the table talking about leaky roofs and budgets,” he said. “They want to be engaged actively in ministry. People are ready for a movement.”

Study of Commissioned Lay Pastors

In her presentation, Wheeler questioned why so much time should be devoted to the role of Commissioned Lay Pastors in the PC(USA).

The CLP office is important, she answered, “because it’s a lens through which questions about church leadership come into clearer focus.”

The two-part study, commissioned in 2007, began with interviews of presbyteries about their use of CLPs.

Auburn Seminary took on the task of assessing the strengths and gaps in CLP preparation around the denomination.

“One of the contentions of those who first imagined the role of Commissioned Lay Pastor was that training needs would vary a great deal from culture to culture and place to place,” Wheeler said.  “This argument prevailed, and therefore the preparation requirements in the Book of Order are spare.”

Wheeler said that the requirements of CLP programs are largely limited to the eight areas of study named in the Book of Order  — Bible, Reformed theology and sacraments, Presbyterian polity, preaching, leading worship, pastoral care and teaching — prescribing an eight-course pattern that prevails across the majority of programs.

Wheeler questioned whether this is the right curriculum for the CLP role as it is now defined, calling the Book of Order topics a “minimum checklist.”

She questioned if the PC(USA) might be better served by a different description of the requirements. Such a change might prompt program designers to use more imagination and produce more dynamic curriculums.

Wheeler also addressed the amount and level of preparation of CLPs for the pastoral ministry. Requirements are far more rigorous for the certification of Christian educators than for CLPs, she said.

Wheeler also asked whether a denomination with leadership challenges should put more emphasis on using the leadership of its elders rather than creating a role that looks like “substitute pastors.” 

Anticipating the report of the JCLN, she said, “The report that you will consider in the next hour picks up on this theme and makes a compelling suggestion: define elders who are being commissioned to certain tasks as commissioned elders, not pastors.

“Our denomination is making a lot of decisions about its future based on what might be called ‘laissez-faire congregationalism,’” she said. “We have full-scale congregations with highly trained leadership where we have a natural constituency that can afford to pay for the privilege.

“Where our kind are dwindling, in numbers or resources,” she said, referring to the majority of PC(USA) congregations, which have less than 100 members, “we offer something less, and many of the churches that get something less will not make it.”

Wheeler stressed that although some CLPs are “doing a great job,” sending them to serve struggling churches can give the impression that Presbyterian ministries are viable in those locales, when that might not be the case.

“Instead of using CLPs alone as the fingers that plug holes in the leadership dyke, wouldn’t it be better to find creative new ways to deploy our full battery of leadership resources — seminary-trained ministers and commissioned pastors or elders along with ruling elders, deacons and educators providing vibrant mission and ministry where it is so badly needed?”

Cynthia Campbell, president of McCormick Theological Seminary and a member of COTE, said Wheeler’s presentation raises questions about education on a larger scale. 

“First, because there are a number of people who go into training with no intention of becoming CLPs, I wonder what else we could be doing to provide a deeper level of education to the heart of the American population who are consumers of education and information,” asked Campbell.  “If you look at the statistics about Presbyterians and our education level, that’s who we are. That’s another part of our ministry that we have neglected that could be greatly enhanced.”

Second, Campbell said, those responsible for presbyteries’ CLP programs should take a closer look at how Christian educator certification program are structured and the level of expertise they demand.

Report of the Joint Committee on Leadership Needs (JCLN)

The Rev. Clark Cowden, a member of the JCLN, the GAMC and the executive presbyter of San Diego Presbytery, introduced the committee’s report, Raising Up Leaders for the Mission of God.

Cowden said that “mission of God” was used intentionally in the title instead of “mission of the church” because the former is bigger than the church and encompasses broader needs.

Elaborating on many of the cultural trends noted earlier by Hudson and Parsons, Cowden — citing Alan Roxburgh — said that because neighborhoods and communities change significantly over a period of time “we have to stay in touch with our changing communities so that we do not become ingrown or irrelevant.” 

According to the report, it’s critical that the church be led by those who know how to lead creative change, are innovative and entrepreneurial, are experimental in revitalizing existing communities and are capable of establishing new ministries that engage the culture.

The report encourages the expansion of the three enduring offices of the church. 

“We recommend the intentional broadening of the roles, responsibilities and spiritual formation of deacons, ruling elders and teaching elders,” Cowden said. “They remain overly dependent on their pastors and wouldn’t know what to do if their pastor got hit by a bus. We don’t want that to be the case. 

The report also recommends that new models of collaboration be developed between congregations, governing bodies, seminaries, colleges, institutions, training organizations, consulting groups, foundations, para-church groups and fellowships.

Cowden said the JCLN’s paper “is an invitation into a conversation, not a destination paper where we already have everything figured out.”

To read texts of the reports, visit the Office of Vocation Web site.