Three things have happened in the PCUSA which have caused me some discomfort, as people have thought about the future of our denomination.
1) In 2008, Beau Weston wrote a paper on “Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment.” The “Establishment” was to be made up of all kinds of people, but mostly tall-steeple pastors.
2) More recently, a group of male pastors of mostly large, conservative churches wrote a letter stating that the denomination is “deathly ill” and outlining their hopes for the future.
3) Then there was a NEXT Church gathering, which was a conference that resulted from a conversation that was largely initiated by progressive big-steeple pastors.
I have many friends in the NEXT Church group and I was invited to the initial conversation and the gathering. Scheduling conflicts kept me from participating, but I would have loved to be a part of the discussion and the resulting conference. I was out of the country.
As soon as I returned from international roaming rates, I excitedly checked the #NEXTChurch Twitter hashtag to find out what happened at the event. I have to admit, my heart sank when I read the timeline. Many of the tweets explained that it was an event where four people preached, and three of them were men from tall-steeple churches. Testimonies were given, by mostly men. After some initial questions, I heard the gender equity was pretty good, especially during worship. In the breakout groups, mostly men moderated the conversation, but men and women reported that the gender balance was okay and that the racial ethnic representation was good in the worship leadership.
As I waded into the conversation with my tactless sass and a bit of misinformation, friends pushed back. Some pushback was good. I retweeted something on gender representation that was false, and I apologize for that. A seminary student said that I needed to make more friends among the organizers.
White guys commented on blogs how annoying it was that people (um, I would be one of those annoying people) are always bringing up how many women and people of color were involved. I know, I write about this a lot.
One friend pointed out that there seemed to be a distrust of big-steeple churches. He rightly explained that the big-steeple pastors had the resources and the power to pull the gathering off, and we should be thankful that they did.
I felt my own distrust rising up when he mentioned it, and I’m not sure why. I am the Associate Pastor of a 350-member church. It’s not a powerful church position. But, let me be clear. When my congregation called me, they asked me what my long-term career goals were. I answered, “I want to be the Head of Staff of a large, progressive congregation.”
I am very content where I am. I love my congregation. But, I don’t expect that I’ll be at this position for the next 30 years. I don’t think that God is calling me to big-steeple church any longer, but that has certainly been my hope up until recently. I guess I just want to put those cards on the table as I wade into this topic, because I have not had animosity against large congregations. I have felt called to serve in one.
So where is the frustration coming from?
It is a pattern in the Presbyterian Church (and probably in most organizations), that when a group wants to advocate for something in particular, then they will craft a letter ask the most powerful person that they know to sign on to it. We are denomination with a democratic structure, but we also know that some votes can count more than others. More than once I’ve felt frustrated by watching my influential colleagues throw their weight around.
In the Presbyterian Church (USA), the stats are pretty interesting. About 65% of our congregations are made up of churches that are under 150 members. When we imagine the future of the church, we know that the big-steeples are pretty safe. Even the conservative ones, who can’t abide by a democratic change in our polity, have enough power that they will probably end up with their property and be largely unscathed when they sever themselves.
The 65% often cannot afford a pastor. Many have a membership of people who are over the age of 65. Most will be coming to the end of their life cycle in a decade or so. Are we willing to be a church of the 35%? Or will we start looking toward the edges for innovative ministry?
The big steeples have ministry models that many smaller congregations cannot replicate. The vast programs, staffing structures, beautiful buildings, and musical excellence are out of reach for most churches. The congregations that are growing the fastest are immigrant congregations. Many new congregations are finding deep community in smaller forms. As these churches are being planted, many appreciate the depth of their community and realize that they might lost something when they become larger.
I guess what I’m getting at with all of this is that the future of the church may not come from the tall-steeple pastors’ imagination. I am thankful for their voices in the discussion. I acknowledge the vast sum of money that they spent to put on a conference. But, as we look toward the future, I hope that we can keep looking at the edges. I hope that we can keep listening to immigrant communities, women, people of color, younger people, and those who are engaging with technology. I have a deep longing that those who are engaging with technology will not turn into another boy’s club, commenting about how annoying the girls are for wanting to be a part.
There are people who have not been able to attain the large pulpit, who are doing something different, who may not have much weight to throw around, and yet, they need to be heard in these conversations.