Response to "An Open Letter To the PC(USA)"

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)Image via WikipediaI have been reading and re-reading An Open Letter to the Presbyterian Church (USA) that was recently released by an as-yet-unnamed "Fellowship" of PC(USA) pastors.   It begins thusly:
To say the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is deathly ill is not editorializing but acknowledging reality.  Over the past year, a group of PC(USA) pastors has become convinced that to remain locked in unending controversy will only continue a slow demise, dishonor our calling, and offer a poor legacy to those we hope will follow us.
 First, I have to say that I agree with that statement wholeheartedly--as much as it pains me to say it.
 I have been a Presbyterian for nearly twenty years, served on staff at three different PC(USA) churches and have been an ordained minister of the Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA) for the past six years.  In those twenty years, I have seen our denomination continue to decline, continue to splinter and continue to stumble blindly toward irrelevance.

I also should say at this point that I don't agree completely with the Open Letter, and I am fairly suspicious of the motives behind it--at least the motives of some of the signees.  Many of these pastors are leading churches that they would gladly lead out of the denomination if the PC(USA) would allow them to keep the church property that their presbyteries hold in trust.  In my opinion, what is being proposed here is essentially a path toward creating a new Reformed "body" to which those churches that wish to disassociate with the PC(USA) could be legally released.

I also should say that I have some fairly strong theological differences with many of the signees.  

Having said that, I believe that what the Open Letter is espousing is the beginning of a conversation that has been a long time coming. 

The acknowledged "reality," that the ministers who penned the Open Letter are referring to is 45 years of steady decline in the membership of not only the PC(USA), but also very nearly every "mainline" Protestant denomination.  But PC(USA) congregations in particular are hemorrhaging people at an alarming rate--mostly through attrition.  In other words, our aging congregations are dying and we are not doing enough to reach younger generations of believers, and almost nothing to reach the unChurched. 

To add insult to injury, the vast majority of the small churches in the PC(USA) don't even have an installed pastor, mostly because they can't afford one.  51% of the churches in the PC(USA) have 100 or fewer members.  That's a lot of very small churches without a lot of means. Meanwhile our seminaries are graduating hundreds of candidates for ministry every year that can't find a job.  It's not because there aren't ministry jobs, it's just that most of them pay so poorly that to accept one of them would be akin to indentured servitude for a seminary grad with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.

The Open Letter describes it like this:
Most congregations see far more funerals than infant baptisms because we are an aging denomination. Only 1,500 of our 5,439 smallest churches have an installed pastor, putting their future viability as congregations in doubt. Even many larger congregations, which grew well for decades, have hit a season of plateau or decline.  Our governing bodies reflect these trends, losing financial strength, staffing, and viability as presbyteries, synods, and national offices.
There are countless reasons how we got here, but in the words of the Open Letter, it's more important to discuss "how to move forward," than to wring our hands as we examine the past.  Suffice it to say, we're a divided denomination, and we've been focusing on our battles with one another for decades rather than focusing on how to be the Church.

The Open Letter states a set of values that the signees espouse:
  1. A minimalist structure, replacing bureaucracy and most rules with relational networks of common purpose;
  2. Property and assets under stewardship of the local Session.  Dues/Gifts for common administration should only allow and enable continued affiliation among these congregations;
  3. Rather than large institutions, joint ventures with specialized ministries as congregations deem helpful [PC(USA) World Mission may be a source of joint support, aspects of the Board of Pensions, Presbyterian Foundation, Presbyterian Global Fellowship, Presbyterians for Renewal conferences, Outreach Foundation, etc.];
  4. An atmosphere of support for congregations both within and outside of the PC(USA).  

In my assessment of the GA a few months ago, I wrote the following:
I'm not sure how it would look, but I think the General Assembly needs to move more toward a "support and equip" role for presbyteries and churches.  Imagine if we were able to eliminate the cost of expensive events like the GA219.  Imagine if we streamlined the Office of the General Assembly and decentralized the whole thing, placing "power" back into the hands of the organizations that are closest to their own context and much better suited to address the issues near and dear to the heart of their own communities. Imagine if the GA never needed to have huge, expensive meetings every two years because there would have been countless small, contextualized, cheap gatherings throughout.  Imagine if all of the governing bodies of our denomination focused on helping churches realize the ten things I listed.  Imagine if they simply trusted the power of the Holy Spirit to work and move people within the Church to speak truth to power... and to equip individual churches to take action and be the hands and feet of Christ in the world to bring peace and justice.   Imagine if we stopped wasting time on fruitless motions, statements, studies and position papers, and just got about the business of doing God's work in the world. 
You could replace "General Assembly" with "Synod" or "Presbytery" and get a view of what I was trying to say.  Some might say, "Well how do we retain our Presbyterian identity if we do what you suggest?"  I would suggest that we would be returning to classic Presbyterianism with the "power" returned to the local church.  I have a copy of the Book of Order of the "northern" Presbyterian Church from the 1950's.  It's small enough to fit in a shirt pocket.  We've created a monster, and we're paying or it dearly.  Much of what we need to be doing to reverse the trend of decline in our denomination can and must be done from the local church or Session level with support from the "governing" bodies.

I am not entirely convinced that the vision of the Open Letter is the right one, but I am willing to hear more. Essentially, the signees assert the following vision/path forward for their growing movement:

1.  Fellowship - The primary purpose of this Fellowship will be the encouragement of local congregations to live out the Good News proclaimed by our Savior, increasing the impact of the Kingdom of Heaven.   It is an intermediate tool to bring together like-minded congregations and pastors, to enable us to build a future different than our fractured present.  
The key word here is "like-minded." I am a bit concerned that the focus here is solely on theological agreement rather than agreement in the need for transformation.  I would be curious to see if the signees would entertain notions of the latter as well. 

2.  New Synods/Presbyteries - In the near future we will need “middle bodies” that offer freedom to express historical, biblical values amid ordination changes in the PC(USA).  This part of the proposal does firmly state that their reason for decentralizing and reshaping the middle bodies would be to assure space in the future for those who oppose homosexual ordination.  I see a broad benefit to this part of the proposal for both "sides" of the liberal/conservative dichotomy in that we could take the opportunity to reshape the middle bodies to truly be "resourcing" and "equipping" arms of the denomination,  helping churches realize their local visions of mission and ministry. 

3.  Possible New Reformed Body - Congregations and presbyteries that remain in a denomination that fundamentally changes will become an insurmountable problem for many. Some members of the Fellowship will need an entity apart from the current PC(USA). This is fairly radical.  But I can see a positive side of this. Rather than continuing on the road to extinction this proposal might just give the denomination some energy and life that both conservatives and liberals can embrace.  This might give liberals and conservatives the ability to loosely affiliate and join together on "common ground" issues without abandoning their values and principles. The word I keyed in on here is a "permeable" understanding of how this might look. 

4.  Possible Re-Configuration of the PC(USA) - We believe the denomination no longer provides a viable future... This is hard to hear, but probably needs to be said.  The end result could be the end of the PC(USA) as we know it.  What purists need to understand is this doesn't have to mean the end of  a "Presbyterian" or "Reformed" identity, and almost assuredly not the end of our basic structure.  The letter goes on to say that their intent is not "institutional survival," but "effective faithfulness."  While that statement is fairly loaded, I can see this as a positive as well.  When we become obsessed (as we have) with self-preservation, we lose sight of what it means to be the Church.  I think this would give both "sides" the freedom to move from self-preservation to kingdom building.

I've heard a couple of concerns about the signees and the letter.  Some have noticed that there are no female signees from the list of pastors on the letter.  This is not to say that there won't be, however, I am fairly certain that there will be female signees in the near future.  This is a legitimate concern, and some folks might well wonder what the future being visioned by the Open Letter has in store for female ministers, elders, candidates for ministry, etc.  I am not sure, to be honest.  But most of these churches on the list have been ordaining women as elders and ministers for nearly 40-plus years.  I highly doubt they intend on abandoning the practice. 

Others have pointed out that nearly all of the pastors on the list are so-called "high steeple" pastors of large congregations.  I am a pastor of a 600-plus member church, and I am told that technically I would probably be lumped in with this group---although I am not as cool or good looking as John Ortberg.  If you are the pastor of a small church it is completely understandable how this whole thing might smack a bit of arrogance.  It's no fun to be worrying about your budget, dealing with lack of resources, not getting a raise for years at a time, and then listening to a bunch of "well-off" people complain.  

Here's something to consider, however.  Generally speaking, most of the vibrant, growing churches in our denomination (few though they may be) are more moderate to conservative congregations.  These are churches that are for the most part focusing on evangelism, stewardship, diversity in worship, youth, children and family ministries, etc.--the very things I believe will give us life for the future. Many of these churches also happen to be larger churches.  This is not a coincidence.  However, not all "high steeple" pastors are conservative, and not all small church pastors are liberal.  I imagine that there will be a plethora of small church pastors signing on to this Open Letter going forward.  I also know that there will be plenty of "high steeple" pastors who won't. 

At this point, I will be among the latter, but I do want to be a part of this conversation.  I plan on attending the gathering in August to hear more and see if there might be some room in this movement for a moderate voice.  For those of us (regardless of our leanings) who want to see our denomination transformed and reformed for the 21st century, this might be a way forward. 

The Open Letter espouses a new "association" of pastors and churches that will seek to reform the PC(USA) from within if possible, and from without if necessary.  You can grasp a bit of the vision in the letter.  The signees seem to be envisioning a group that will hold their own conferences, perhaps create their own curriculum, resources, etc. and develop their own leaders.  This isn't without precedent.  Willow Creek Church in Illinois has had an association of churches for many years.  These churches pay dues, have access to resources and seek to emulate Willow Creek's approach to ministry.  Mars Hill Church, with the infamous pastor, Mark Driscoll, has a large association of churches across the country that does the same thing.

I am guessing that what the signees are hoping to move toward is a similar entity that will draw not only from PC(USA) churches (both large and small) but also from churches outside of the denomination who want to be associated with a like-minded "Reformed" body.  If PC(USA) churches begin paying their "dues" to this association and not to the denomination, it could create a financial crisis for the GA, and I surmise the signees to the Open Letter are hoping that perhaps this crisis (or the threat of it) could lead to further reforms.

I'm not sure how I feel about the approach, but at this point I am completely open to listening to anyone who will agree that we need to focus on life instead of death. I'll be eager to see how this journey continues. 


  1. "Generally speaking, most of the vibrant, growing churches in our denomination (few though they may be) are more moderate to conservative congregations. These are churches that are for the most part focusing on evangelism, stewardship, diversity in worship, youth, children and family ministries, etc.--the very things I believe will give us life for the future. Many of these churches also happen to be larger churches."

    How do you back this up? The research I've seen (Natural Church Development, U.S. Congregational Life Survery) points to specific characteristics of thriving congregations but shows doesn't correlate them with church size or theological leanings.

    I think it's also interesting that the churches represented by the 45 signers of the "white (male) paper" had an average decline of 2% in 2009.

    You can find my thoughts on the demongraphics of the signatories here:

    Going to read your next post. I'm sure I'll have some things to say there too. :) I do appreciate you taking the time and effort to put your thoughts down. This is how change happens.


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