Ties that bind

El Paso’s PC(USA) churches seek way forward by worshiping together

February 9, 2010

LOUISVILLE

The connectionalism that binds the Presbyterian faith is mightily at work in El Paso, Texas, and the result is an effort of prayer and discernment to determine the way forward.

The eight churches of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in El Paso, which are part of Tres Rios Presbytery, began worshipping together Jan. 10 in a weekly service of evening prayer. 

“It’s a quiet, meditative emphasis on listening and prayer and coming together to worship ... as Presbyterians in El Paso,” said the Rev. Cathy Cummings Chisholm, executive director of the partnership. “It’s exciting to see what has happened already.”

The effort is the result of collaboration that has been taking place for some time among the city’s pastors, who meet weekly for fellowship and support. The group reflects the diversity of Presbyterian congregations in the border town, which range from nearly dying churches with just a handful of members to thriving mission-oriented congregations numbering in the hundreds.

“Most of the churches in El Paso have significant challenges,” including declining membership and building issues, said the Rev. John Nelsen, pastor of University Presbyterian Church. The coming together is primarily to discern “what God is doing in El Paso, what are the needs.” 

University Presbyterian, described by Nelsen as very “mission minded,” has two services with combined attendance of between 160 to 170 people.

The pastors all recognize that the world has changed, he said. “There is no way that we can fiscally and person-power eight Presbyterian churches into the future that much longer.”

Perhaps the biggest catalyst for the pastors’ decision to begin this period of worship and discernment was a meeting they had in fall 2009 with the Rev. Stephen A. Hayner, president of Columbia Theological Seminary.

Hayner’s seminar focused on the church, the future and change, and out of that the El Paso group decided to enter into weekly worship as part of its discernment process. Chisholm said the 5 p.m. worship, as well as a prayer guide, will rotate among the churches each month, and that each has made a commitment to pray with and for each other.

The services will go through May, after which the churches will evaluate the experience and decide next steps.

“All kinds of possibilities” have been discussed, said the Rev. Robert Reno, pastor of First Presbyterian Church. “A lot of things are coming together.”

First Presbyterian, which is more than 100 years old, has been struggling with declining numbers for some time. “We are concerned about maintaining our facilities and how to grow the membership,” Reno said.

The church does have active programs, including a preschool, but it also has a long history of deficit spending. It sees about 170 people in attendance on Sundays.

The situation is much bleaker at Manhattan Presbyterian Church, which in its heyday in the 1950s saw between 600 and 700 members, said the Rev. Katherine Norvell, the church’s pastor. Today worship consists of between 20 and 30 people, mostly older adults, she said.

The church, which sits in an economically challenged part of the city, also has been running at a deficit for several years and will soon run out of money, Norvell said.

It is getting difficult to “sustain a viable church,” she said. “We have a couple more years that we can continue where we are and then we will … have to do something.”

Norvell, who currently serves the church three-quarter time, said among the options are for her to leave and have a pulpit supply pastor come in.

“We’ve already cut to bare bones,” she said. “We are trying to be proactive.”

In the meantime, Manhattan and the other seven El Paso churches will continue on with their covenant to worship and discern together in order to see where God leads.

“I really think that the process is significant in a lot of ways,” Norvell said. The group got clear early on that in order to do something that has a chance of working, “we really needed to build the relationships among the congregations first and foremost.”

There is sadness that things may significantly change among some members, she acknowledged, “but there also is hopefulness.”

In fact, Norvell said, one member has already commented, “I’m just ready to be part of something bigger now.”

Along with University Presbyterian Church, First Presbyterian Church and Manhattan Presbyterian Church, the other five churches in the partnership are Highland Presbyterian Church, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Divine Savior Presbyterian Church, Faith Presbyterian Church and St. Andrew Presbyterian Church.

Toya Richards is a freelance writer and communicator in Louisville. She formerly worked on the staff of the Presbyterian News Service.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter

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