The Way Forward for The PC(USA): A Modest Proposal

I would be remiss if I didn't include--along with my assessment of the recent "Open Letter to the PC(USA)"--a proposal for a way forward that might serve as a compromise from the band-aid removal method the Open Letter seems to espouse.

But first, I need to say a few things about why the change is needed.  Our denomination (in it's previous forms) did not used to be so bogged down with bureaucracy and bureaucrats.  I've written elsewhere that the Book of Order used to fit in a shirt pocket. 

So what happened?  Here's my Readers Digest version:  The bureaucrats in the church created larger and larger sets of rules and regulations each and every year.  They then fashioned departments, divisions and branches of government to "support" what they created.  As a result, they became the de facto experts on all things Presbyterian.  Now they spend an inordinate amount of money and energy convincing the rest of us that we can't possibly do without both them and the unwieldy bodies they represent.  Keep in mind that these are for the most part good people with good intentions who are trying to serve the Church as best they can.  Nevertheless, the legacy we are creating is unsustainable.

Now, the recent move to reduce and transform our Form of Government was a move in the right direction, but it wasn't radical enough for my taste.  It also doesn't address the real problems most of our churches are facing as they struggle to stay alive.

 The local church in the PC(USA) has become little more than a caretaker of the vision the General Assembly establishes---a kind of necessary evil for the ivory tower crowd to manipulate and mystify in order to accomplish their own goals.  And almost none of these goals address the fact that the vast majority of our churches are on life support. 

I see the local church a bit differently.  I see the local church as the only way out of the mess that we've created and the best and surest tool to fix our leaky ship.  I see the local church as it was meant to be.

A few months ago, I blogged about the 219th General Assembly of the PC(USA) and expressed my concern over the way the bureaucrats in our denomination have their head in the sand about our future.  I asserted that growing, vibrant churches (regardless of denominational affiliation) have at least 10 things in common.  I'll list them here once again:

1. Effective, Engaging and Relevant Preaching
The preacher most likely does not read his/her sermon.  The sermon is not an academic exercise, it's a proclamation of the Gospel that relates to real life. People have a way to respond to it.  The preacher works hard to not be self-indulgent, but to deliver messages that the community needs to hear in order to more fully follow Jesus.  The goal is to draw people in to a closer relationship with Christ. If the "senior pastor" isn't the most effective communicator, then the leader or pastor who is... gets the job.  Far too many people are leaving Presbyterian seminaries with the knowledge on how to write a sermon, but without really learning how to be an effective preacher.

2.  Evangelism is a Priority
 Evangelism is taught from the pulpit, emphasized in the church's culture and is part of the DNA.  People want to invite, to share their faith and they are given the tools to do it.  The big secret here is:  When people are excited about their church and about worship, they invite.  When they have a real, true, vibrant and transformational relationship with Jesus, they want to share it. 

3.  Prayer is an Integral Part of Community Life
The extent of the prayer life of the community of faith is not formal read prayers on Sunday morning or perfunctory prayers before a committee or Session meeting.  There are prayer meetings, opportunities to learn about prayer, to go deeper and to bear burdens.  And there are prayer warriors who take on the "heavy lifting" in the prayer ministry.

4.  Joyful, Authentic Worship
The worship services in all of their variety are celebrations.  People are not afraid to express joy, to laugh, to applaud to respond in some way.  They leave feeling that they have experienced God and given their best in worship.  Nothing should be forced, but should be done authentically, and in Spirit and in Truth.  

5.  Bible Studies/Small Groups 
There are  plenty of opportunities for the community to engage in Bible study in small groupsThere is a clear structure and plenty of opportunities to be trained for leaders.  Small groups that meet regularly to pray and study help to develop community and nurture members in their faith. 

6.  Clear Vision/Organization
  The core values and noble goal of the church are clear and communicated to the congregation.  There is a clear vision that the church leadership owns and keeps in front of the people.  The church is organized well and has systems in place to generate trust, involvement and commitment from members. 

7.  Stewardship as a Way of Life
  Biblical Stewardship is preached, taught, espoused lifted up and communicated in a variety of ways and not just once a year.  There is a dedicated group that devotes itself to the stewardship ministries of the church on a year-round basis.  There are opportunities for members to take classes, learn, study about Biblical financial planning, stewardship.  

8.  Mission/Outreach
  There is a vibrant and growing hands-on mission to the church's surrounding community.  The church seeks to answer the question, "If we ceased to exist tomorrow, who would miss us?"  Members have multiple ways to do mission and volunteer their time talent and treasure to support it.  The church also places a priority on supporting global missions, and is actively seeking ways to get members involved in hands-on global missions. 

9.  Ministry to Families--Youth and Children
The church dedicates resources to ministries to children, youth and their families.  There are dedicated staff for these key areasThe church welcomes children in worship, there is space for youth and efforts made to engage youth and children in the life of the church. Families are considered when scheduling events, providing support, resources, etc.  The church understands that in order to live it must work on engaging multiple generations. 

10.  Focus on Outsiders as well as Insiders 
The church doesn't live in the Past.  It is aware that it may have wonderful traditions and practices that might not "outsider-friendly" and does a good job to make them more so, without losing it's denominational or particular identity.  The church listens to Outsiders and tries to adjust to become the kind of community that welcomes and engages them.  The church also ministers, nurtures and cares for Insiders even while it encourages them toward flexibility and openness. 

Recently, the United Methodist Church conducted study where they examined their "best practice" churches---ones that were growing, vibrant and bucking the trends of decline.  The results can be found here:

They distilled it down to four aspects:
1.  Small Groups
2.  Worship Services that are diverse (traditional and contemporary) with relevant sermons
3.  Pastors who mentor and cultivate laity
4.  Effective lay leadership

Honestly, I think my ten assessments could be drawn out of their four, but I digress. 

I think the only way that we are going to survive as a denomination is if we become less concerned with property than with people. We need to become more nimble and get a lot more honest about what is and isn’t working in our churches. Our middle bodies (Presbyteries and Synods) need to become "equipping" bodies rather than "governing" bodies (The GA must also, for that matter), and we need to begin focusing on ministry and mission that will result in new converts, church growth and an expanded impact on our communities and the world.  Here's how this might look:

1. Lead By Example In Areas of Property
I think that our "governing" (including the GA) bodies need to divulge themselves of their property and use the funds that they would receive for skilled staff and materials to support churches in the 4 (or 10) key areas of church growth. There are many churches in the area with space that could be used for Presbytery, Synod or GA offices. I remember when I worked for Best Buy we had to do the same thing for our District Office in order to save $$ to be used for staffing and other areas.  And release the property to the control of the Sessions.  It was a mistake to hold them in trust because it's now created an environment of distrust and stagnation.  When you have to hold the issue of property over a congregation's head in order to force them to remain in the denomination, you've lost anyway. Who knows? Maybe if the denomination extended this act of trust, it would lead to further dialogue and at least some form of connection with congregations on both sides of the liberal/conservative dichotomy who feel unrepresented. 

2. Get Real About Non-Viable Churches
I think the governing bodies need to get more involved and become more aggressive in working with churches that are declining. We need to either find ways to revitalize them, re-imagine the use of their space or merge them with churches in their area that are thriving. There’s nothing wrong with having satellite locations that are resourced, equipped, etc by larger, growing churches in spaces that used to be small, dying congregations.  This can be done in collaborative ways that are not heavy-handed, bringing partner churches together to solve the issues.  I have seen presbytery committees act in heavy handed ways when dealing with congregational issues, disputes and dying churches (again, the "expert" mentality shines through in those moments) and essentially throw gasoline on the fire when partner churches and collaborative efforts could have resolved the issue far more easily. 

3. Find Out What Is Working And Do That
I would also like to see us do more “best practice” kind of brain storming. Get the pastors and leaders of churches that are growing together to talk about what they are doing to grow-- and then get that information in the hands of churches that aren’t.  This isn't about providing "templates" for transformation that are sold by some "expert."  Every church is different and their contexts are unique.  What might work in one church would fail in another.  We've got to get away from the template approach and provide space for conversations, opportunities for conferences, workshops, etc. In this kind of space, church leaders won't feel like they've failed if some experts template doesn't work at their church.  They get the tools to find their own template, and for the most part it won't cost churches any money.  

4.  Staff For Growth
The things that we see in strong, vibrant churches are fairly common: Energetic, creative, relevant and engaging preaching; Commitment to evangelism; Strong ministries to youth, children and families; Clear mission and focus on growth both “deep and wide;” Outward, rather than inward, focus.
Honestly, I think we need to staff our middle bodies--an our churches--with these things in mind--focusing on youth, college, children and family ministry, etc. Our governing bodies halfheartedly staffed these positions because the majority of their budget is going to things that---honestly---are not contributing to local church growth and strength AT ALL.  Until our denomination starts seriously staffing for church development, evangelism, family ministries and pastoral development---with people who are actually qualified and skilled at these tasks---we will probably not make it another 40 years.  Some people might hammer me for this, but things like creation care and global missions tend to suck up a lot of resources in our governing bodies, while their impact on the local church is barely felt.  I'm not saying that we don't devote resources to them, but we should empower those local churches who feel the call to those ministries to pursue them, and focus the energies of our middle bodies on growth issues.  

5.  From Governing to Equipping
If middle bodies began focusing on equipping churches for growth, it wouldn't mean the end of their "governing" responsibilities.  However, it should mean the end of governing as their main focus.   For example, governing bodies need to lead the way to look outside of our denomination to discover new ways to Evangelize, and to start putting money and resources into helping our churches develop vibrant youth ministry, children’s ministry and family ministry.  For example, what if instead of wasting resources on a Presbytery-wide youth "facilitator" we were able to fund a youth director for a cluster of small churches in the same area or town, who couldn't afford one on their own?  Why aren't we spending more resources to fund college ministries or strengthen churches who have them?  Why aren't we finding more ways to do mass-marketing and outreach to benefit churches who can't afford to do their own?  Maybe instead of prescribing ministries where resources will go, middle bodies might find what is working well for outreach, missions, evangelism, ministry, etc. in the churches and find ways to support them and equip them?

6. Development of Leadership
While it is true that many middle bodies provide workshops and leadership training, the events are typically poorly attended, held when most active members and church leaders can't attend, not focused on growth issues, etc., etc.  For the most part, the "best practices" church leaders don't attend these--at least in my experience.  I think that the governing bodies should provide amply opportunities and/or resources for the following:

1.  Support Continuing Education for Pastors in these areas: Preaching, Leadership, Stewardship, Evangelism, Visioning, Mission(al) Issues.  Provide scholarships to pastors who wish to receive training in these areas (especially preaching!).

2.  Support Continuing Education for Youth Workers and Children's Ministry leaders. Provide scholarships to those who wish to attend conferences and workshops.

3. Hold Continuing Education events where the training and workshops are focused solely on growth issues, and hold the events in locations and on dates that will attract the most people.

4. Organize and facilitate cluster groups for Elder training, Peer-to-Peer development of pastors, and much more.  We are currently using them for Missions, why not for lots of other stuff?

7.  Reduce Number of Issues that Middle Bodies and GA Currently Handle
I believe that the "governing" responsibilities of the middle bodies (and even the GA) can be reduced by empowering middle body committees to handle more of the issues referred to them by local Sessions (including ordination, installation of pastors).  Additionally,  we suffer too much from "paralysis by analysis."  Our governing bodies spend an inordinate amount of time studying, writing white papers on controversial issues, voting on the same issues over and over again. I think this needs to end. No more position papers, no more studies, no more... trust local churches to take up prophetic challenges as they are called to them.   In addition, I believe that we can give local churches more authority to govern themselves in their own context without giving up our Presbyterian identity.  And in so doing we can free up our governing bodies to equip and resource the local churches in the aforementioned growth areas.  Right now, the tail is wagging the dog. 

I realize that this is incomplete and probably will get even more shot full of holes.  And I don't see any way to achieve the things that I have outlined here other than by radically transforming the way our denomination works.  Honestly, in order to truly retain our Presbyterian identity, we must reform.  So it is in this spirit that I affirm many of the ideas that were lifted up in the "Open Letter To The Presbyterian Church (USA)."  Perhaps we might find new ways to relate, new bodies and new structures that can be combined with tried and true "Presbyterian" or "Reformed" ways of being the Church.  And then we might begin to find our way once again.


  1. I think I generally agree with you, Leon.

    I can't claim to be very familiar with the work at the Synod level and above, but it feels like it has gotten bloated through the years. I'd love to see the denominational bodies move away from provider of content and programs to providing resources and support for local churches directly.

    But part of me wonders what the big fuss is about reforming the denomination. I don't feel that the denominational entities or governing bodies are hindering my church in any way, shape or form. And the resources and connections they do provide can be helpful.

    I think if each local church focused on being the kind of church it needs to be, then the denomination would reform on its own.


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