When I served as a commissioner to the 219th General Assembly this past summer, I was assigned to one of the two Social Justice committees. We recommended passing a number of studies about a variety of social issues like education and immigration. As we passed each one, someone would inevitably point out how much money each one cost and question whether a struggling denomination should be spending these kinds of resources on such things. At one point, I made the argument that this is what Presbyterians do. We study things to learn how we can best act in the world. For a national denomination to do this, it will take money.
By the end of GA, my attitude had changed. During the plenary sessions, we were given regular updates about how much money the things we had passed would cost the church. It was like a running total on the cash register at a check out line. With each plenary session, you could hear the “cha-chings” as our bill grew bigger and bigger.
I may have some of the following details wrong, but this is how I remember it. On the very last day, as everyone was trying to finish up business and be done, someone stood up and asked that the assembly reconsider the funding of a wetlands study in Louisiana and redirect those resources toward a national office for campus ministry, which we had acted to restore a day or two before without providing means to fund it. After not much debate, the assembly denied this suggestion. Beyond all the parliamentary procedures, what this boils down to is that we chose to fund a wetlands study rather than support for campus ministry. Some of us, at least, were stunned.
As I’ve reflected more and more on this in the months since, this closing day experience has exemplified for me what is wrong with the PC(USA). Back in the middle of the 20th century, when denominations like ours had grown to become large bureaucracies that functioned as mission agencies, I suppose funding a wetlands study made sense. But today, as our church continues to lose members and relevancy, why in the world should this be a priority for us, especially when there are perfectly good organizations better suited for this task (many of whom may in fact be staffed by faithful Presbyterians)?
As I think about what I would suggest as a better list of priorities for the PC(USA), here is what rises to the top of my list:
As the front lines of our ministry and mission, every level of our denomination should be oriented toward the support of vital congregations.
New Church Development
I am learning that study after study shows that the best and most efficient way to grow is through new church development, not the revitalization of struggling congregations. Let’s do some pruning of old and ineffective Presbyterian vines and plant some new congregations that will reinvigorate our mission.
I realize that my position as an associate pastor with primary responsibility for youth ministry is a rarity in our denomination. At the presbytery and national levels we need to do a better job supporting youth ministry for congregations that cannot afford a full time youth worker. We also need to do a better job connecting our young people beyond local congregations.
This is a tricky one, because traditional ways of doing camping ministry—which typically involve owning a camp—are becoming financially unsustainable for presbyteries. Yet we cannot ignore the vital role a variety of camping experiences play in the faith formation of young people and adults. We must think of new ways to maintain and nurture vital camping ministries.
If the city of Chicago is any indication, Presbyterians are simply failing at campus ministry. By not supporting campus ministry the way we should, we are losing young adults while other churches and parachurch ministries are picking up the few who might express interest in faith during college. The stereotypical young adult exile from church doesn’t have to be that way, and we sure aren’t doing much about it. Instead of hoping that these young adults find their way back into churches after college, let’s do a better job tending to them during this critical time of life.
If it was up to me, the Presbyterian Church would drop everything else—and I really mean everything—and spend the next decade or two focusing on these priorities. If the Presbyterian Church is really worth saving, this is the way to do it.