The panel discussion was titled “Church Departures—After the Dust Settles.” It was one of several dozen workshops offered at the 2016 Polity Conference of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

But the panelists—presbytery executives from six presbyteries—told listeners that they in fact are still waiting for the dust to settle. Some are still in litigation with departing congregations. Most are just beginning to ask, “How do we relate to each other now? How do we move forward?”

Some presbyteries have lost a dozen or more congregations in the wake of General Assembly decisions allowing gay and lesbian persons to be ordained and ministers to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Others may have lost only one or two congregations, but the ones they lost—because of their size—represent a sizeable portion of the presbytery’s membership. Some presbyteries have said good-bye to real estate worth millions of dollars, while others have reached property settlements with departing churches that boosted the presbytery’s financial resources.

Not all churches are leaving on bad terms, said Marsha Heimann, stated clerk of Lehigh Presbytery. She told of one of Lehigh’s departing churches that is still doing a mission project with the presbytery.

The Reverend Katherine J. Runyeon, stated clerk of the Presbytery of San Francisco, encouraged mid council leaders to remain hopeful, saying, “This time of creative transition allows for a lot of creativity.” 

Waking Up White

The Reverend Denise Anderson and the Reverend Jan Edmiston, Co-Moderators of the 222nd General Assembly (2016), led a discussion of the book Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, by Debby Irving—a book that was handed out to everyone at a recent meeting of Chicago Presbytery.

“Her story resonates with a lot of Presbyterians,” Edmiston said, explaining why she was promoting the book. “Our hope is that it would start conversations. But it’s not just about reading the book. My hope is that we would be somewhat changed.”

 “The conversations we’ve been having about race have been in silos,” Anderson said, adding that she hoped those conversations would broaden to include groups of different backgrounds and races. But she advised white participants that African American people may be reluctant to participate because they are weary of such conversations.

One workshop participant commented, “White people need to educate themselves and not depend on African Americans to teach us about racism.”

Conversation with the Stated Clerk

“The PC(USA) is alive,” the Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, told a group of mid council leaders. The problem is, “nobody knows it.” In a wide-ranging conversation during one of the workshop sessions, Nelson talked about his vision for the church and responded to questions.

“The challenge for the church is not to keep up with the world, but to be relevant,” Nelson said. The church must be relevant “not just for younger people, but also for older people who are living longer.”

To leaders concerned about bad press in the wake of departing churches, Nelson said, “We have to begin to speak boldly about Presbyterian contributions”—for example, about how the denomination has planted and nurtured churches in other countries that are now strong leaders and voices for social justice in their societies. He mentioned the involvement of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia in working for peace in that nation.

“These stories will not be told unless we tell them,” Nelson said.

What Presbyterians like about being Presbyterian

A recent survey shows that “Presbyterians pretty much like being Presbyterians,” the Reverend Eileen Lindner, pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Tenafly (New Jersey), told participants in a workshop titled “What Can We Learn from COGA’s ‘Churchwide Conversation’?”

“More important, they like the same things about being Presbyterian: tradition, our polity, Reformed theology,” she said.

Lindner, who described herself as “a social scientist by training,” helped coordinate a survey process for the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly in which Presbyterians were invited to complete an online form containing questions about PC(USA) identity and purpose. Responses were compiled and analyzed by the denomination’s Research Services office and presented to the 222nd General Assembly (2016).

“We hoped to get 1,500 responses,” Lindner said, but more than 3,200 people participated. “I was thrilled with the response. People wanted to tell us what they thought about the church today.”

Although the responses were weighted toward pastors and elders, Lindner said, “We feel pretty confident that what we found is true about the church today. It is the best snapshot that we have available at the moment.”

Asked, “Why is it important that my congregation is PC(USA)?” the top responses (in order of frequency) were (1) connectional nature, (2) identity, heritage, tradition, (3) theology and Reformed theology, (4) polity, (5) helping the world and my neighbor, and (6) thinking church/educated leaders.

Two challenging confessions

How confessions can be used in the life of the church’s mid councils was the topic of a workshop led by the Reverend Charles Wiley, associate director of the Theology, Formation, and Evangelism office of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA). Discussion focused primarily on the Confession of Belhar, the most recent addition to the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions, and the Confession of 1967.

“These two confessions are both confessions of faith and confessions of sin,” noted the Reverend David Gambrell, associate for worship in PMA. Wiley added that “they are also calls to action.”

“People always ask me, ‘What’s new in Belhar?’” Wiley said. “Most of the themes of Belhar are found it other confessions.” But, he added, Belhar includes a strong statement about God’s concern for the poor that is not in other confessions: “that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.”

Because Presbyterians tend not to identify as “the poor and the wronged,” Wiley said, “I think this sentence raises questions for Presbyterians about who God is toward me. It challenges us in a deep place.”

He suggested that councils reflect on another strong statement from Belhar: “Unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin that Christ has already conquered.”

How to make unity visible is the challenge, Wiley explained. “Presbyterians are often satisfied with the idea of things rather than living them out. We prefer to study and make statements rather than to act.”

Wiley cited a statement from the Confession of 1967 that he said might make a good charge to end a presbytery meeting: “In steadfast hope, the church looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God.”

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