I so profoundly resonate with the following open letter that I happily publish it to provoke thought and prayer for renewal in the PCUSA in particular and the mainline Protestant denominations in general. The Presbyterian Church (USA), much like other mainline churches, is clearly dying. Millions of people have left and scores of congregations (maybe several hundred more still) are thinking about leaving. In the end staying or leaving is a question of conscience. But a number of pastors of the largest congregations in the denomination, and the leaders of renewal ministries much like ACT 3, have issued an open letter that expresses a different way to understand this crisis and a direct way to respond to it in faith joined with real missional hope. Some of the signatories are good friends and one is a former ACT 3 board member. Here is the letter without any editorial changes.
An Open Letter to the Presbyterian Church (USA)
February 2, 2011
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
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. We recently met in Phoenix, and have grown in number and commitment. We humbly share responsibility for the failure of our common life, and are no better as pastors nor more righteous than anyone on other sides of tough issues.
Our denomination has been in steady decline for 45 years, now literally half the size of a generation ago. 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.
How we got to this place is less important than how to move forward. We are determined to get past rancorous, draining internal disputes that paralyze our common life and ministry. We believe the PC(USA) will not survive without drastic intervention, and stand ready to DO something different, to thrive as the Body of Christ. We call others of like mind to envision a new future for congregations that share our Presbyterian, Reformed, Evangelical heritage. If the denomination has the ability and will to move in this new direction, we will rejoice. Regardless, a group of us will change course, forming a new way for our congregations to relate. We hate the appearance of schism – but the PC(USA) is divided already. Our proposal only acknowledges the fractured denomination we have become.
Homosexual ordination has been the flashpoint of controversy for the last 35 years. Yet, that issue – with endless, contentious "yes" and "no" votes – masks deeper, more important divisions within the PC(USA). Our divisions revolve around differing understandings of Scripture, authority, Christology, the extent of salvation amidst creeping universalism, and a broader set of moral issues. Outside of presbytery meetings, we mostly exist in separate worlds, with opposing sides reading different books and journals, attending different conferences, and supporting different causes. There is no longer common understanding of what is meant by being "Reformed." Indeed, many sense that the only unity we have left is contained in the property clause and the pension plan; some feel like withholding per capita is a club used against them, while others feel locked into institutional captivity by property. While everyone wearies of battles over ordination, these battles divert us from a host of issues that affect the way our congregations fail to attract either young believers or those outside the faith. Thus, we age, shrink, and become increasingly irrelevant. Is it time to acknowledge that traditional denominations like the PC(USA) have served in their day but now must be radically transformed?
We need something new, characterized by:
- A clear, concise theological core to which we subscribe, within classic biblical, Reformed/Evangelical traditions, and a pledge to live according to those beliefs, regardless of cultural pressures to conform;
- A commitment to nurture leadership in local congregations, which we believe is a primary expression of the Kingdom of God. We will identify, develop, and train a new generation of leaders – clergy and laity;
- A passion to share in the larger mission of the people of God around the world, especially among the least, the lost, and the left behind;
- A dream of multiplying healthy, missional communities throughout North America;
- A pattern of fellowship reflecting the realities of our scattered life and joint mission, with regular gatherings locally, regionally, and nationally to excite our ability to dream together.
Our values include:
- A minimalist structure, replacing bureaucracy and most rules with relational networks of common purpose;
- Property and assets under stewardship of the local Session. Dues/Gifts for common administration should only allow and enable continued affiliation among these congregations;
- 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.];
- An atmosphere of support for congregations both within and outside of the PC(USA).
We invite like-minded pastors and elders to a gathering on August 25-27 in Minneapolis to explore joining this movement and help shape its character. Our purpose is to LIVE INTO new patterns as they are created, modeling a way of faith: the worship, supportive fellowship, sharing of best practices, and accessible theology that brings unity and the Spirit's vitality.
- A Fellowship: The most immediate change we intend is creating a new way of relating in common faith, a Fellowship (name to be determined). 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. This Fellowship will exist within current presbyteries for the time being, but energies and resources will flow in new directions. 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.
- New Synod/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). More importantly, we long for presbytery-like bodies with theological and missional consensus rather than fundamental disagreement over so many core issues. We need new processes that identify and support the next generation of leadership differently than the current model, which unintentionally weeds out the entrepreneurial persons we so desperately need in our congregations. Many current functions should be removed; some, like curriculum and mission relationships, have become less centralized already. We will work with the Middle Governing Bodies Commission since changes to The Book of Order will be needed to step fully into this reality.
- 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). It is likely that a new body will need to be created, beyond the boundary of the current PC(USA), while remaining in correspondence with its congregations. The wall between these partner Reformed bodies will be permeable, allowing congregations and pastors to be members in the Fellowship regardless of denominational affiliation. All kinds of possibilities exist, and much will depend on how supportive the PC(USA) can be in allowing something new to flourish.
- Possible Reconfiguration of the PC(USA): We intend to continue conversations within the PC(USA), and have met with both Louisville's leadership and that of the Covenant Network in the past few months. We believe the denomination no longer provides a viable future and perceive that the Covenant Network also sees a broken system. We hope to work together to see if some new alignment might serve the whole Church.
Any model that includes an entity outside the PC(USA) does mean fewer remaining congregations, pastors, and elders to fight the challenges of the current PC(USA). Votes will swing in directions that had not been desirable before. For many this outcome simply acknowledges that fighting is not the way we choose to proceed; our goal is not institutional survival but effective faithfulness as full participants in the worldwide Church. We hope to discover and model what a new "Reformed body" looks like in the coming years, and we invite you to join us, stepping faithfully, boldly, and joyfully into the work for which God has called us.
We invite you to:
Download and share a PDF of this letter. Or download and share a PDF of the white paper "Time for Something New", or visit our temporary webpage for more information, and email us at email@example.com if you have questions and/or would like to be a signatory on this letter.
Vic Pentz, Peachtree Presbyterian, Atlanta, GA
John Crosby, Christ Presbyterian, Edina, MN
David Peterson, Memorial Drive Presbyterian, Houston, TX
Jim Singleton, First Presbyterian, Colorado Springs, CO
David Swanson, First Presbyterian, Orlando, FL
Rich Kannwischer, St. Andrews, Newport Beach, CA
Mark Toone, Chapel Hill Presbyterian, Gig Harbor, WA
G. Christopher Scruggs, Advent Presbyterian, Cordova, TN
Mark Brewer, Bel Air Presbyterian, Los Angeles, CA
Allan Poole, Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian, Durham, NC
Rick Murray, Covenant Presbyterian, Austin, TX
Tim Harrison, Crossroads Presbyterian, Mequon, WI
Bob Burkins, Elmwood United Presbyterian, East Orange, NJ
Doug Pratt, First Presbyterian, Bonita Springs, FL
Mateen Elass, First Presbyterian, Edmond, OK
Rich McDermott, First Presbyterian, Fort Collins, CO
Richard Gibbons, First Presbyterian, Greenville, SC
Dan Baumgartner, First Presbyterian, Hollywood, CA
Jim Birchfield, First Presbyterian, Houston, TX
Jim Davis, First Presbyterian, Kingwood, TX
Jerry Andrews, First Presbyterian, San Diego, CA
John Sowers, First Presbyterian, Spokane, WA
Jim Miller, First Presbyterian, Tulsa, OK
Jack Peebles, First Presbyterian, Yakima, WA
Don Baird, Fremont Presbyterian, Sacramento, CA
Doug Ferguson, Grace Presbyterian, Houston, TX
Bill Teng, Heritage Presbyterian, Alexandria, VA
Ronald W. Scates, Highland Park Presbyterian, Dallas, TX
David Lenz, Hope Presbyterian, Richfield, MN
Paul A. Cunningham, La Jolla Presbyterian, La Jolla, CA
Bob Sanders, Lake Grove Presbyterian, Lake Oswego, OR
Kevin Pound, Mandarin Presbyterian Church, Jacksonville, FL
John Ortberg, Menlo Park Presbyterian, Menlo Park, CA
Jeff Ebert, Presbyterian Church at New Providence, New Providence, NJ
Douglas Garrard, Palm Desert Community Presbyterian, Palm Desert, CA
Paul Detterman, Presbyterians for Renewal, Louisville, KY
Mike McClenahan, Solana Beach Presbyterian, Solana Beach, CA
Steve Hartman, Third Presbyterian, Richmond, VA
David Joynt, Presbyterian Church of Toms River, Toms River, NJ
Douglas J. Rumford, Trinity United Presbyterian, Santa Ana, CA
Patrick H. Wrisley, University Place Presbyterian, University Place, WA
George Hinman (Senior Pastor) and Tim Snow (Executive Pastor), University Presbyterian, Seattle, WA
Peter Barnes, Westlake Hills Presbyterian, Austin, TX
Baron Eliason, Westminster Presbyterian, Lubbock, TX
*Signatories represent themselves, not necessarily the Session or congregation of their respective churches.
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Nice article, thanks.
Great letter. It was written by a group of friends and collegues who are saddened by the state of the PCUSA and hope to turn it around to the faith.
Do you want to know the intial response? All the signers are white males of large churches with patriarchial tendencies. Therefore, it is clearly implied, we should not listen to them.
Now we wonder why the denomination is in so much trouble – people will not listen to a dissenting, even truly prophetic voice. By this means they counter the letter by ad homonem attacks.
This is awesome! I sense that it is very bold, Holy Spirit directed leadership by some very courageous men, and surely women too. We need these trailblazers to model and lead us in such a grand expedition. I am so excited about this…and I’m not even affiliated with them. May God bless us richly by their faith!!
As the pastor of a small town Presbyterian church in the hinterlands of NY, my take on the “desperately ill” letter is one of disappointment. The call for developing a unified theological core assumes that our diversity as Presbyterians is a weakness when it is potentially one of our greatest strengths. The call for restructuring does nothing more than revisit the past when we have restructured and restructured only to find that restructuring the denomination really does not affect the life of our churches at all.
That there are deep, serious issues is true, that they are systemic is also true. The system that needs renewal, however, is our local churches. That is where we must continue to put our focus, not on doctrinal or structural issues. It is the quality of local congregational life that matters. The “deathly ill” letter, sadly, takes us in precisely the wrong direction.
Before you attempt a witty retort, please learn how to spell…it generally supports arguments a bit better.
If I were speaking for myself, I am so moved and excited by what our Pastor Rich Kannwischer has presented to us in a recent Town Hall Meeting and also his sermon today (with a crowded church, magnificent choir and strings, and Communion with our Lord). We are all excited, truly excited to be a part of something so inspired. It is taking us to the foot of the cross in such a personal way and encouraging strongly that our walk has to make a difference. I am older, but it is so wonderful to see this re-directing of our path to focus totally on Jesus Christ and know to whom we belong. We need to know Him so personally, concentrating on Him. I have been a follower of Jesus Christ all my life and this just brings me closer to the Lord ‘in remembrance of Him’ and all He has for us now and forevermore. We don’t walk alone, we walk together. This speaks to people of all ages and am grateful for that. May God bless all of you as you Shepherd us in the way we should go.