Overcoming Our Fear of Transformative Change in the PC(USA)

It Is Time to Rethink Ministry

March 13, 2018

Image of Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II


Rethinking ministry is difficult. Implementing new ideas and establishing them is even more difficult. We should be acutely aware of this fact of faith as we engage this season of Lent/Easter. Jesus encountered the struggles of the cross while trying to reform the practices of the Jewish temple and community.

In a time when the Church is called to rethink ministry, it appears that in some places we are unwilling to engage the challenges. I stated at the beginning of my tenure as Stated Clerk that “anytime a General Assembly appoints three different groups to fix the national church, it is clear that reform is needed.” Consistently, I have urged our staff in the Office of General Assembly to cooperate with the process of change while praying with hope for positive expectations within the PC(USA). I am thankful that they have responded favorably to my request.

My call to cooperate with the Way Forward Commission, the All Agency Review Committee, and the 20-20 Vision Committee is recognition that transformative change is needed at every level of our denomination. In each of my ministry calls over the past thirty-two years, contextual change was at the core of my work. In every circumstance, letting go of the old model was the most difficult aspect of engaging transformative change. I contend that our call to reform the PC(USA) in this present time is no less difficult as we are now called to retool our national church in significant ways.

I believe that the most significant problem that we are facing at the national church level today is the belief that the corporate model of leading the church is the best leadership model. However, this model has proven to be an impediment to the transformation of our denomination for many years. We have become enamored with the thinking that the corporate way of implementing ministry provides a greater security financially. It is interesting that we continue to pursue this model while facing membership loss, internal conflict, struggling mid councils, and a host of other negative outcomes over the last thirty-five years since reunion. I used to hear the words, “If you do the same thing in the same way, you will usually get the same results.” Well, if our denominational results are any measure, we have proven this statement to be true.

We must return to “being” the church that Jesus intended us to be. A church focused on liberating those trapped by the winds of despair, while giving hope to those who need to hear a Word from the Lord. If we are honest, each one of us has experienced this need in our lives. This requires hearing God’s words anew while following the scriptures that daily call us to ask the question: “What greater love have any man (or woman) than to lay down his/her life for a friend” (Jn. 15:13). This concept is lost in our present need to depend on the empire solution to resolve the PC(USA)’s national church issues.

Comments that I hear in the pews are concerns about membership loss, racism, gun violence, desires for good pastoral leadership, property fights, immigration, aging church leadership, congregational redevelopments, attracting younger members, connecting to justice-centered work, and a host of other concerns that are close to their congregational and faith needs.

It is my view that we are challenged to respond to a new contextual reality. Simply put, the world is not the same. The needs of people have changed. Generational cultures are far different than my years of growing up. Ministry and community needs are continuously in flux. I use the words, “transformative change,” because change without transformation could simply be understood as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Transformative change requires a significant spiritual investment. It also requires a divestment of self-interest.

It is my prayer that we all will be reminded that the world, and all that is in it, belongs to God. We are called to serve the present age. And, transformative change requires submission to God’s will and not our own.

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  1. I enjoyed the article; but, regrettably, it begs the question: change from what to what? transform what into what? We've seen plenty of change in PS(USA) in recent decades that have been transformative, whether intended or not. In the process, we've lost a million members and are looking at losing another 400,000, the next few years. So when will we decide what kind of change in ministry will best meet the spiritual needs of the unchurched so that they wish to join our spiritual family? So far, we have a seriously ailing franchise in God's business of salvation.

    by Charles Adams

    March 22, 2018

  2. If we are to be the salt that gives the bread it's savor, perhaps we should stop trying to be the whole loaf?

    by Frank D. Watson

    March 22, 2018

  3. I agree that the church needs transformational change, but as long as we worry about increasing our numbers and budgets, we won't be able to transform ourselves. It seems to me that part of the problem is the lacj of belief that "God will provide". Your article gave me a lot of food for thought. A breath of fresh air. Thank you.

    by Jean Degrooth

    March 16, 2018

  4. Agree with you Rev.Nelson. Have been concerned about this as an elder here in Brandon, Fl. After reading your article I feel that speaking with young Christian families that attend a vibrant, growing church will be my next endeavour. Why they chose their church, what do they receive from their ministerial "teaching/support/etc". I have also begun working on a letter outreach campaign. This will be sent to past members letting them know that they are missed/their pew is waiting for their return. My prayers are with you, as we work to grow God's family.

    by Judith Almand

    March 15, 2018

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