Can we think big in the Presbyterian Church (USA) anymore? Should we even try?
A wise former Pastor and Presbytery Executive, John L. Williams, has written “A Theological Essay on Vision” that contrasts the Bible’s dream and vision accounts with those of management consultants and the tamed goals of self-interested organizations. I confess I have seen little of his work reflected in the Vision 2020 Committee’s use of the letters, P, C, U, S, and A, as an acronym to promote the church. So, I want to be careful in these New Year’s resolutions not to let realism triumph over imagination too much. Much change is needed, some change is achievable; we have to distinguish the two, and tilt toward the former.
Williams titled his book, Old Man Dreaming, and some would reframe it quickly (and shallowly) as “Old Church Dying,” looking at our demographics and the birth dearth in our larger society. These resolutions look first to God as Opener of Horizons, and pick up on the conversion required to see in new ways. This does not mean un-seeing who we have been, but to focus on the present and future usefulness of our heritage and resources. Parker Palmer’s wisdom also comes to mind: “The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness, the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results.” So, here are some resolutions for a dreaming church:
- Go Green in a serious way. Put solar panels on the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, or find other means to take that building largely off its coal-based power grid. Give major incentives to congregations to do the same, or host solar array “farms,” which are secure and rapid payback investments and (like cell tower rental) may even bring in money. Would a $50 million investment get things moving? Why not bring the Presbyterian Foundation into 100 Witherspoon to help cover the costs and strengthen cooperation, as the legal requirement for having the Foundation separate in Indiana no longer holds? This would be good witness both outside and within the church, especially to younger people, and similar greening could apply to the full or partial adaptation of church buildings for housing and other uses. ** Yes, this would be a PILP, Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, on steroids.
- Invest in Childcare Centers in Churches on an inter-racial and inter-cultural basis whenever possible.Having seen this in the church I served, rebuilding a children’s center took dedicated work, but it also helped grow the church, encouraging relationships among parents, teachers, board members, pastors, and other church staff. We had a limited scholarship program for economic diversity, but the importance of breaking down the effects of housing segregation makes bridging racial gaps an ever more needed goal.
If universal pre-K of any kind ever comes, then this opportunity is reduced, but after-school tutoring, drama, music programs and other student and family support opportunities are there. What about neighborhoods without a lot of resources, or properties that need repair? What is the incentive structure for presbyteries and their staff leaders to help withering churches with programs that invite the community in? We speak about mission as getting outside the walls of the building, but in many places those walls can still shelter much mission program and potential to grow.
- Invest more in young peoples’ movements and opportunities. The American Prospect recently ran an article looking at 11 movements that shaped the last decade. One may not agree with all of them, and there is no necessary zero sum trade-off between institutions and the movements that re-shape them. What those movements have done, however, and mainly with young activists, is re-shape policy directions without the big money that has strangled our political system and increased corporate concentration. More than re-branding or re-positioning, this is a call to solidarity, as in the civil rights, women’s, and peace movements of the past. And it should mean more YAV (Young Adult Volunteer) sites, road show (or “revival”) events, international exchanges, and targeted media (like Unbound!).
- Get Closer to the Full Communion denominations. Just suggesting work on buildings and community outreach immediately raises issues of critical mass, and the generational rise of the “nones” should make even strong congregations and presbyteries plan ahead. Not much has been done by the PCUSA since the 1997 agreement on “full communion” with the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (see: https://www.pcusa.org/resource/ecumenical-formula-agreement/ ). Since then, the Lutherans have developed much closer relations with the Episcopalians in both the US and Canada. The much smaller Reformed Church is going through a radical segmentation or regionalization that has exposed theological tensions and survival questions. The UCC remains our closest relative, with a similar go-it-alone national office, in their case in Cleveland.
Whatever the future of the organizational structures—and this is an important question—the Book of Order gives permission for a lot of experimentation on the local and regional levels and we should be doing that. The argument here is not only about numbers, but ability to offer formation to those members, which means sustaining an educated ministry and cultural presence within the larger society. Most members already see the “mainline” churches as interchangeable. We aren’t, but that is certainly an argument for exploring fuller communion with the Christian Church/ Disciples of Christ and moderate Baptist fellowships. And for keeping strong ecumenical connections to historic African-American and other Protestant churches despite the problems bishops pose to our democratic and representative ethos.
Deepen our internal culture and theological conversation. The best person who talks about this is Marilynne Robinson, novelist, professor, and former Presbyterian—now UCC–lay theologian in Iowa. Frederick Buechner and Robert McAfee Brown are older exemplars of the thoughtful faith they sought to communicate widely, without dumbing Christianity down. Fred Rogers has recently returned to prominence in popular culture, which celebrates him as puppeteer, musician and pioneer of caring values on TV; his loss is felt more as the culture coarsens, though the tradition and practices that shaped him are little understood. Bill Moyers did a kind of adult version of expanding that caring neighborhood, starting from a progressive Baptist and then UCC framework, but again without being terribly explicit about his faith. While I deeply admire the Rogers and Moyers models, this is an argument to thicken our internal stew.
Include “our” colleges and universities in that conversation. While we do not want to wear cognitive blinders, not all subcultures are narrow. Our task is to encourage new venues and vehicles for creativity that also anchor whole families in communities that overtly embody Christian sources for love and integrity in all callings. Education and communication have to go together… and that means strengthening ties to “our” seminaries, colleges, and universities— effectively ecumenical as most are. The cooperative study of the teaching of the humanities in PCUSA-related colleges and universities—approved in 2018—would be very helpful.
Break the Organizational Inertia—which is not only among the deck chairs in Louisville. The present synod and presbytery structure was largely designed in the early 1970’s for a projected 4 million member denomination. Ooops! Without regional partnerships with the Full Communion churches, it is simply stretched too thin, which is reflected partly in the struggle over pricing per capita. If theological and cultural identity is more important than organization—and I think it is, when your group is small minority—then the old debates over centralization and de-centralization are over—if the internet hadn’t weakened them already. The key issue is helping congregations get competent leadership for a tough job that is not financially rewarding in a winner-take-all economy that is killing the middle class (yes, we need big structural economic changes—but here we are talking about the church).
At the last GA, the “Way Forward” focused on Louisville, taking the “back office” financial and other trustee functions away from the Presbyterian Mission Agency and putting them into a separate body, “A Corporation,” (addressing personnel and organizational culture issues with an unnecessary structure, imho). What they did not address was the basic division of poorer boards (the Mission Agency and Office of the General Assembly) and richer boards (the Presbyterian Foundation, Board of Pensions, and to a lesser degree the publishing house and investment and loan program). Whether there is “mission creep” from the financial boards (seen in their centralized help of pastors and presbyteries), and whether A-Corp can help sort that out, the mid-councils and congregations need to see more of a united team delivering resources and opportunities for mission and growth in Christ. Otherwise we will continue to get more congregational and dominated by the cultures around us.
Name the Spiritual Issues in Mental Health & Addictions. We used to argue that God was necessary for morality— the conscience in conversation with the Spirit or the inner Christ, which is still true. But it is increasingly clear in hyper-individualized consumer culture that a faith or spiritual center, connected to a caring community, is necessary for mental health. Not a recent discovery, of course, and one the General Assembly moved to address in 2018 by setting up a mental health initiative. (Thank you to the largely Texas-based folks who saw the need for a national initiative to re-invigorate the social witness policy, “Comfort My People,” from 2008 ). There is a holistic Gospel message here that is right up our alley as a non-fundamentalist church and we ought to double-down on it. It is something that looks compassionately at the human collateral damage of our over-priced and under-performing medical system, while addressing meaning pieces that medication (legal and illegal) cannot. And the theme of health connects back to the environment and the need to re-direct the economy is a more sustainable and egalitarian way.
Start thinking about new names for the church. Yes, it is too early—real ecumenical progress needs to be made first, along with real theological debate across the church. That debate should include the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, which used to be a deliberative council and which changed its own name 3 times in the past 10 years. But the key question is: How do we best point to the redemptive love of God in today’s world? The core of our identity is a world-transformative Christianity that is not fully represented in a Greek-rooted organizational term. Can we change a few of our spots?
** This opener is not only to be provocative. I remember when the Foundation and General Assembly Mission Council were next door to each other in 475 Riverside Dr, NYC. The money side could probably be done in several ways. One would be to find or fund a company (other than PILP) that services the 501.c.3 market for green retrofits and structures them affordably, and then subsidize the congregations and governing bodies that need assistance. The Foundation, in cooperation with Mission Responsibility Through Investment, has a Creative Investment fund that might contribute, though it is capped at $10 million and requires a 2/3rds market return. Overall, the PCUSA financial entities might be more willing to do a serious placement, even in an alternative investment, than underwrite a major greening project directly.
Chris Iosso is the General Editor of Unbound and Coordinator for the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.
Response by Rev. John Odom, Presbyter for Community Life, Mid-Kentucky Presbytery.
Be careful when you talk about the mid councils! Unlike the national agencies, many (if not most) presbyteries have “gone over the financial cliff.” They have been forced to restructure, right-size, and begin to grapple and experiment with a changed world, church, and culture. Mid councils are asking fundamental questions of what it means to be church, what it means to be connectional, what it means to value educated congregational leaders, what it means to be a congregation, what is essential and what is not in order to be church. Also, mid councils are moving past the idea that congregational leaders (TEs and REs) are looking for more programming. They are not. They are looking for more connectionalism, relationship, networking, community, crowd sourcing of resources, and we are hampered by our own polity that will not allow presbyteries or synods to change their own boundaries but requires General Assembly or national action.
I would also add, in light of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (LPTS)’s recent listing of roughly half of their property for sale, what about moving LPTS into the Presbyterian Center? This would certainly reduce our Presbyterian carbon footprint. (LPTS often refers to itself as Louisville Seminary and reaches out ecumenically, including to students from historic black denominations. In any event, like most PCUSA seminaries, LPTS is educating a majority of non-PCUSA students.)
Of course, another radical idea would be to dismantle the Center entirely and to lodge various agencies and ministries around the country, moving them into PCUSA seminaries or synod or presbytery offices, camps or conference centers. In a networked era of working remotely, and 24/7 connectivity, are there really any benefits to having one centralized corporate headquarters? Many synod and presbyteries are now virtual. Would CPJ (Compassion, Peace, & Justice) work best in New York or Washington, DC? TFE (Theology, Formation, & Evangelism) at Austin Seminary? World Mission in Chicago at McCormick, or even Fourth Presbyterian? and REWIM (Racial Equity and Women’s Intercultural Ministries) in Charlotte at Johnson C. Smith University? OGA (Office of the General Assembly) in Louisville at LPTS?
The point is that there has been very little out-of-the-box thinking about adaptive changes for the PCUSA, and a whole lot of energy placed on technical fixes.You claim that the Reformed identity is more theological than organizational, and yet you favor closer relations even beyond our “full communion” partners. I would argue that the only thing truly distinctive about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is our presbyterian polity. That is the one thing that Presbyterians almost universally accept and agree upon. We certainly do not share the same theology, piety, liturgy, or ethical teachings. We do agree that we are the disciples of Jesus Christ who are governed by elders in graduated councils of the church, and yet, polity is not an essential of faith. Here is where my pietistic self kicks in and wants us to circle our institutional wagons around our unique Reformed way of understanding that Jesus is Lord. But if there no longer exists a sufficiently unique charism for Reformed Christianity, then by all means let us “become one” even as Jesus prayed.
John Odom is the Presbyter for Community Life at Mid-Kentucky Presbytery.