Category Archives: clergy

Presbyterian News Headlines For The Second Half Of June 2015

Having gotten behind on news headlines I am just going to push the reset button and post a current one. And yes, a bunch of other stuff is sitting as drafts or in research right now.

There was a lot of news the in this time period so here are some headlines on select topics from the second half of June. (Not counting some GA stuff I plan to post on separately.)

In a still developing situation, two Presbyterian pastors from South Sudan have gone on trial in Sudan for preaching there (including some more recent information):

In Sudan: Imprisoned pastors facing possible death penalty barred from seeing families, lawyers – from Pulse Nigeria

Are Christians in Sudan facing persecution? – from BBC News

Sudan: South Sudanese Priests Defend Themselves During Trial Session – from allAfrica

PCUSA Writes to President Obama with Concern Regarding Imprisoned Sudanese Pastors – from Christianity Daily


The shootings and grieving at and for Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston had some Presbyterian connections:

‘All Shall Be Well’: Hear the Touching Voicemail from Charleston Massacre Victim Sharonda Coleman-Singleton – from People (and a bit more from the Presbytery of Los Ranchos)

Denmark Vesey and Clementa Pinckney – from Cheraw Chronical; The freed slave Denmark Vesey who founded Emmanuel AME was before that a member of Second Presbyterian Church next door

Salisbury native leads vigil in Charleston after mass shooting – from Salisbury Post; And while Emmanuel AME was closed Second Presbyterian next door provided space for prayer services

Cynthia Hurd funeral delivers a message of hope and mark on history – from The Charlotte Observer; Second Presbyterian also providing overflow seating for funerals

Delaware Pastor Writes Hymn for Charleston Victims ‘They Met to Read the Bible;’ Song Goes Global – from The Christian Post


A terrorist attack in Tunisia took 38 lives, most of them tourists from Britain on holiday. It included two from Scotland praised for their faith and work in the Church of Scotland. Their funeral was just held.

Tunisia attack: Prayers at Cumbernauld church for couple – from BBC News

Tributes paid to Scottish Christian couple killed in Tunisia terrorist attack – from Christian Today

Tunisia beach attack: funeral held in Scotland for Jim and Anne McGuire – from The Guardian


Digging back a little bit, in the various meetings this spring a number of Reformed branches have voted to become more inclusive, with some reactions from more traditional denominations:

French Protestant church allows gay marriage blessing – from Reuters UK

Largest Protestant denomination in Belgium allows gay and lesbian clergy – from Gay Star News; “The Synod of the United Protestant Church of Belgium has voted to decide that being gay should not be a barrier to being a minister in the church which already performs blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.”

Russian Church severs ties with Scotland & France churches; warns a blessing of LGBT clergy paves the way for the Antichrist – from Christian Examiner


And looking at it more broadly:

Free Presbyterians slam supporters of ‘yes’ vote – from Portadown Times; a reaction to the Ireland referendum

Minister faces Presbytery probe over same-sex views – from Portadown Times; the only Presbyterian Church in Ireland minister to openly support the “Yes” vote was examined over her beliefs

How humanists changed Scottish marriage – from BBC News; “The first humanist wedding in Scotland took place exactly 10 years ago. Over the past decade the number of ceremonies conducted by humanist celebrants has grown massively, already overtaking Catholic weddings and threatening to replace Church of Scotland as the most popular belief service.”


A publicity campaign by the Church of Scotland to recruit new, and younger, ministers appears to be working:

Church of Scotland hails recruitment drive success – from The Scotsman


And in Zimbabwe, the Health Minister thanks the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland for working with the local residents to build a clinic, but more are needed:

Health Minister Says More Clinics Needed in Nkayi – from Voice of America Zimbabwe


From the PC(USA)

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) missions chief resigns – from WDRB; Linda Valentine steps down as executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency


A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court goes in favor of a small Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and its temporary signage in Gilbert, Arizona:

Supreme Court rules for church in case against Arizona town’s sign law – from The Washington Post


In the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) a battle over property between the Livingstonia Synod and a break-away church as well as a dispute involving an out-spoken cleric in Blantyre Synod.

CCAP Controversies Rage On: Livingstonia battle and Blantyre Synod Infighting – from Nyasa Times


High-profile PCA pastor, TE Tullian Tchividjian, resigns admitting infidelity

Renowned South Florida pastor steps down amid marital affair – from Local 10

After affair leads to pastor’s exit, Coral Ridge worshippers urged to keep the faith – from The Sun Sentinel


A proud adherent, if not member, of the PC(USA) declares his candidacy for President of the United States. Worth noting that his church, First Presbyterian of Jamaica, Queens, is the oldest continually serving Presbyterian church in the U.S.

5 faith facts about Donald Trump: a Presbyterian who collects Bibles – from Religion News Service

Donald Trump Is A Proud Presbyterian – from World Religion News

And finally, it may not be continuously serving, but a neighbor of First Presbyterian, Jamaica, was founded a bit earlier and is celebrating a milestone anniversary.

First Presbyterian Church of Southold to Celebrate 375th Year Anniversary – from Long Island Exchange

The Fellowship Gathering — Through The Tweets Dimly

Last week was an interesting week for me, what with the Virginia earthquake on Tuesday and the two day Fellowship of Presbyterians Gathering in Minneapolis on Thursday and Friday.

I did not make it to The Gathering so I have been trying to follow it from my vantage point over here on the Left Coast. News and blog articles about the event are starting to appear, but it was fascinating to track the Twitter comments and interactions during the meeting.  However, what I found was that while the tweets were interesting and helpful they were not enough to help me connect all the dots to understand what the Fellowship is and where it is going. (Guess you had to be there… )  What follows is not so much reporting on the Gathering but sharing my impressions from and about the social media content related to it. As Scott Keeble (@skeeble99) put it:

Gotta love overreactions to 140 char. summaries of a conference you aren’t at.

If you want to play along at home you need to check out the tweets with the hashtag #mn2011.  As the meeting was getting underway I did comment that I did not see a lot of use of the #pcusa hashtag and by implication there was a distancing from the institution. Several friends of different theological stripes informed me that it is indeed common practice to only use the conference hashtag and that nothing sinister should be seen in the use of hashtags.  I stand corrected and apologize for casting aspersions where nothing should have been read into it.

Now, if you want a good look at the best play-by-play of the event you need to check out the constant stream of tweets from Carolyn Poteet (@cvpotweet) who was the unofficial live-tweeter. Her stats say she is only at 1034 tweets ever — I would have sworn that she had 10,000 in one day last week! Of course, she hit her rate limit a couple of times and to get the complete picture you need to also check the tweets from @TomJHouston which she co-opted to keep the info coming while her account was in time-out.  Carolyn, thanks for all your efforts! Your tweets helped tremendously to follow along. (Generally tweets I quote but are not identified as from another source came from Carolyn and I trust that my quoting her in what follows does not stray from Fair Use.)

Also be aware that there were times when the participants split up into breakout sessions so if you see tweets sent at about the same time but on very different topics that is probably what is happening.

Moving on from the reporting to the “conversation” the first thing that impressed me was the theological breadth represented by those tweeting from The Gathering. In particular there are several people I know that I don’t think were at the meeting to sign up for the New Reformed Body but were checking out the Gathering for other reasons. I trust that they will provide their thought in the blogosphere in the near future. Based on the Twitter activity I make a back-of-the-envelope calculation that about 5-10% (100-200 people) of those present probably held viewpoints contrary to the view of orthodoxy the Fellowship seems to be promoting.

In addition, I was pleased to see at least three of the “big four” from the General Assembly at the meeting.  The GA Moderator and Vice-Moderator were there — Moderator Cynthia Bolbach made some well-received comments towards the end of the meeting, judging by the tweets, and Vice-Moderator Landon Whitsitt was his usual self providing a nice stream of insightful comments throughout the meeting. (More on this later) If I understood the tweets correctly, GA Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons was also in attendance and spoke briefly — as Seth Normington (@revnormsy) put it “Brief, rather opaque comments from ga stated clerk, gradye parsons. Nice of him to attend. Blessings, good sir.” There was no mention of GAMC Executive Director Linda Valentine being present and likewise but I saw no identification that anyone else from the GAMC was in attendance. [Update: Thanks to Jody Harrington’s comment below where she commented that Linda Valentine was at the conference. The text above has been adjusted appropriately.]

That leads me into a few observations about the meeting gleaned pretty much exclusively from the tweets:

  • Besides the breakout sessions there were also discussion groups. It looks like the higher governing body professionals and officers were grouped together in their own groups. I did not see an explanation of this and am curious why.
  • Carmen Fowler LaBerge (@csfowler2003) informs us “#mn2011 registration info: 950 clergy; 575 elders; 53 church administrators; 20 PCUSA staff; 68 presbytery execs. 300 didn’t indicate.” (That would be 1966 total)
  • Carolyn also tweeted the answer to one of the nagging questions I had: “Primary diff from New Wineskins – tone.” Another time a speaker is quoted as saying “I felt like New Wineskins got hijacked by angry people.”
  • Leslie Scanlon (@lscanlon) of the Outlook provides us with some of the descriptions of where the conservatives feel they or the denomination is – “Some metaphors used at #MN2011. Deathly ill. Stuck in a box canyon. Car sunk in swimming pool. #pcusa”
  • Because it is Twitter with a 140 character limit the acronyms were flying. Two that I had to recalibrate my brain for were NRB – which to this group means New Reformed Body but I normally think of as National Religious Broadcasters – and the FOP (or FoP) – which of course here means Fellowship of Presbyterians but in my day job is a professional organization.
  • There were questions from afar about the diversity in the Gathering but I did not see the questions answered.  However, at one point Carolyn tweets this telling comment “Potty parity at #mn2011! First time in my life I’ve ever seen a line at the men’s room but sailed through the ladies’!”

Going back to that bullet point about the tone of this group, I was struck by how positive the official portion of the meeting was.  That did not completely extend to the Twitterverse, but I’ll talk about that below. Based on the 140 character reports the leadership of the FOP is in communication with, and maybe even working with, the OGA leadership.  It was also made clear that  “we are not calling anybody apostate,” and “will not seek to demonize the #PCUSA in any manner.” And one final quote on this – “One of the ways this won’t be a spin off to a new denom (quickly), is b/c we don’t want to lose relationships w/people we love.”

Two big topics at this meeting that are inexorably linked are the New Reformed Body and theological beliefs, usually referred to as the Essential Tenets of the Reformed Faith.

Coming into the meeting the FOP had made it clear that the NRB (yes, I can throw acronyms around too ) was going to happen but that there were a lot of details to be worked out.  The impression I got from the Twitter reporting and discussion is that enough details have to be worked out and now this is a train that has left the station and is headed for the announced constitutional convention January 12-14, 2012, in Orlando. But the FOP clearly hopes for the NRB to continue in some form of partnership with the PC(USA).  One comment was “the degree to which the NRB can relate back to the PCUSA, and we hope it can, baptisms, ordinations, permeable boundary.” Another said “hopefully we can share some HQ functions – missions, theology and worship…” One of the themes I found most helpful was the description of what they are about in this sequence of tweets from Carolyn: “like-minded church to unite around a common purpose. from Phil 2:1-2,” “we’ve created such a broad tent that there’s no center pole. we need to establish essentials again,” and “need to make clear abt what’s at the center rather than police the
boundaries, so people can determine if it’s a good fit for them.”

Related to this is the question of standards.  At the Gathering the NRB was described as an “empty warehouse” waiting to be filled.  That is to be done this Fall when draft documents are posted on the web site, regional gatherings are held, and they are finalized at the constitutional convention in January.  There is a clear intent to define or state the Essential Tenets of the Reformed Faith. But this led to a lot of Twitter conversation about the standards.  There were comments about the return of subscription. While not necessarily advocating subscription, @BenjaminPGlaser, who was at the meeting, asked in a tweet “I wonder how many of the ministers/ruling elders at #mn2011 could affirm the WCF w/out major qualification…” (WCF is of course the Westminster Confession of Faith, a document that Presbyterians historically have included in the standards that needed to be subscribed to.) There were also references to Machen, particularly his final sermon recently republished in Theology Matters. To that TwoFriars commented “Machen’s fundamentals are NOT Reformed essentials, FYI.” Along a similar line Landon Whitsitt (@landonw) commented “I’m struggling to reconcile the fact that the “essentials of faith” being thrown out at #mn2011 are classicly Evangelical, not Reformed.” Craig Goodwin (@craiggoodwin) had a number of thoughtful comments about standards and in response to Landon asked ” …are Evangelical, not Reformed. Can’t be both?” It will be interesting to see what this discussion produces throughout the Fall leading up to the January meeting.

Going forward I suspect the real hard questions will not revolve around the theology, although they probably should, but around the “Three P’s”, yes pensions, property and power.  To put it bluntly – can you take it with you when you leave?  From the Q&A portion of a presentation on the NRB Carolyn tweeted “lots of Qs about per capita, pensions, etc. A – we’re not giving answers
at this point, don’t want to get tangled in the details.”  This turned out to be a bit deeper than it seems — they put off some of the discussion of details to a breakout on Friday but they are also putting off details until the relationship of the NRB with the PC(USA) is more clearly defined.

I want to look at this topic of the relationship between the NRB and the PC(USA) in more detail another time after the presentation videos are posted and I have had a chance to digest them.  Let me just say here that three possible models were proposed: 1) This might be accomplished with union presbyteries – a polity solution that already exists. [ed. note – I should have seen that before now!] 2) Create the category of affiliate churches or affiliate presbyteries like the current affiliate members. Requires new polity language. 3) Leave completely.  Regarding this, Carolyn quotes Jim Singleton: “Singleton – yes, this is gonna be messy!!”

Now, a couple of weeks ago in my pre-Gathering piece I suggested that this event was a Rorschach Test for those who had issues with the PC(USA).  Well, I see now that I was right in concept but wrong in scope.  This event was a Rorschach Test for the whole PC(USA) and maybe even for American Presbyterianism more broadly. But after the broad reaction that the very first Fellowship letter last February engendered I should have expected that.

Departing from Twitter for a moment it is important to note that groups with opposite views have posted very specific pieces on their web sites interpreting or making suggestions related to the Gathering.  More Light Presbyterians issued a call to prayer for the meeting and a related article.  Individually, Janet Edwards offered a suggestion to the FOP ahead of the Gathering, as did Shawn Coons, and Adam Walker Cleaveland wanted to make sure the elephant in the room got named. Clearly this meeting had a lot of people’s attention across the denomination.

So back to Twitter and the meeting…

First, in the interest of full disclosure I would comment that I (@ga_junkie) did not tweet much but did make the one comment I discussed above that could have been considered snarky, and also a second that could be taken that way as well.  Early on Andrew Johnson (@AndrewJohnsonYM) tweeted “New reformed body… no brand but Christ” which I retweeted adding “Starting to sound like the Springfield Presbytery”. (If you need the reference, Springfield Presbytery was part of the Stone-Campbell Movement that left the Presbyterians two centuries ago proclaiming “No creed but Christ” and led to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). )

The vast majority of Twitter comments I saw were constructive and contributed to the social media discussion.  Yes, a lot may have had a snarky edge to them, but I found few offensive and there was a general improvement in tone when the organizers made it clear that this new group was not about demonizing the PC(USA).

Yet most of the comments, my own included, seemed to clearly reflect the lens through which the writer was viewing the Gathering.  Exempli gratia:

DavidIvie1 David Ivie
#mn2011 why would a group convene to protest gay ordination and then on day one celebrate women’s ordination? no sense of irony?

David Berge
#mn2011 lots of people talk about “post-denominationalism” 4 better or worse #fellowshippres is actually doing something about it

rwilliamsonjr Robert Williamson Jr
If you want to leave, I will
bid you peace. If you want to stay, I will embrace you. But I can’t
relate to the leave-but-stay option

John Stuart
The future of the Church is in Christ’s good hands, not conferees nor ordinands.

joyousjava Lara B Pickrel
Sometimes our churches’ panicky attempts to keep people from leaving (for the sake of numbers) feels like idolatry.

Craig Goodwin
Pleasantly surprised by tone and focus of #mn2011. Did it take finally losing the vote for Presby evangelicals to get focused on mission?

Reading the events through our own lens or filter is not inherently an issue.  It is what shapes our diversity and understanding of the world and the conversation and listening process for others helps us to not only see alternatives but can help us refine, sharpen or adapt our own perspective.  Along those lines I have to point out and say how much I appreciated the tweets from Landon Whitsitt (@landonw) who was multi-tasking and reporting on the proceedings through both his open source lens as well as his progressive lens. This tweet captures his dual perspective:

Okay…I’m putting my cards on the table. Except for including GLBT
persons, I want a church that looks like what I’m hearing at #mn2011

Let me conclude by saying that in spite of some sharp comments in the Twitterverse I was generally very impressed by the depth, breadth, level, volume, tone, thoughtfulness and civility of the Twitter conversation around this event.  But the operative word here is “around.” While the live tweeting helped me know what was going on I still feel that I am looking through a glass dimly related to where this is going. The quotes that were passed on and the sessions reported on still seemed to reflect the influence of the core group of tall-steeple pastors. There seemed to be lots and lots of discussion of a New Reformed Body but I did not sense how that might have been informed or moderated by Dr. Mouw’s comments regarding why we need each other. And I am still left with the impression that tail number four may be wagging this dog. But this is only what I see from my remote vantage point via the Twitterverse.

So, as this moves on I am looking forward to several things. First, I want to see the videos when they get posted on the Fellowship site so I have the primary sources for much of this information and I can judge for myself. Second, I await written accounts from those who were there – something longer than 140 characters. (The Presbyterian Outlook has already posted several articles by Leslie Scanlon including ones on the lead off presentations, Richard Mouw’s message, the talk by Ken Bailey, and an initial summary. There are similarly one, two, three and four articles from the Presbyterian News Service.  In addition, it looks like Two Friars and a Fool are aggregating blog posts on the Gathering but I would single out Jim Miller’s which is getting a lot of Twitter recommendations.) Once I have a chance to view, read, think and digest I anticipate being ready to make some more comments about the content of the meeting.

Looking out a bit further the real test of this model as the open source community that Landon is looking at will be in the process for posting, consulting, editing and approving the new documents for the New Reformed Body.  At this point I am pretty much trusting Landon’s impression of the proceedings so far in its promise for development of a Covenant Community in a participatory environment.

Looking even further ahead, there is a good possibility that both the New Reformed Body’s partnership with the PC(USA) as well as developments in the other FOP streams will require actions by the 220th General Assembly and changes to the Book of Order. Leslie Scanlon captured this quote from Mark Brewer:

“This next General Assembly is going to be wild.”

I look forward to seeing how the development process works and what product it results in.  I also look forward to seeing how the broader church reacts as this progresses.  This has the promise of being new territory — I like an experiment and I hope you do too.  Stay tuned…

Further Thoughts On The Fellowship PC(USA)

Well, I have had a couple of days to reflect on the Fellowship PC(USA) letter, announcement, and white paper.  I have also had a bit of time to reflect on my own reaction and ask if I jumped too quickly.  The answer to that is maybe yes and maybe no.  More on that at the end.  But first, some comments on the white paper and the developments so far.

Time For Something New – A Fellowship PC(USA) white paper

I have now read the white paper referenced in the original letter and for those who have not read it, it is essentially an extended discussion of the same material as the letter.  In fact, the letter is pretty much a condensed version of the white paper with the meeting announcement and the signatures added.

On the side that maybe I did respond too quickly, I was interested to see that the extended discussion in the white paper addresses a couple of the issues I had with the letter.  On the topic of the conflict and decline in the PC(USA) being about more than the homosexuality issue, the white paper contains this paragraph which the letter does not:

Certainly none of these issues are unique to the PCUSA, [sic] but are all part of larger cultural forces. But what is the way forward? Is there a future beyond the decline as yet unseen? Is there a way to avoid endless fights, to regain consensus on the essence of the Christian faith? We see no plan coming from any quarter, leaving a continued drift into obsolescence.

While it does not seem to consider the broad range of issues the mainline/oldline faces, at least it acknowledges the “larger cultural forces” that are in play here.

Likewise, a couple of my other concerns are moderated in the white paper.  Regarding the diversity and inclusively, they say that they are speaking as a group of pastors but explicitly say “We call others of a like mind to envision a new future…”  Regarding the reference to the PC(USA) as “deathly ill” that was a lightning rod in the letter, the phrase is not used in the white paper but instead they say “The PCUSA [sic] is in trouble on many fronts.” (And as you can see the white paper uses my less-preferred acronym PCUSA instead of the PC(USA) used in the letter.) And finally, there is more acknowledgement of similar predecessor organizations and explanation of why a new one:

We recognize that there are still islands of hope across the church, but they do not seem to represent a movement. Many faithful groups and organizations have been devoted to the renewal of the PCUSA, and they have offered valuable ministry for many years. Yet it appears they have simply helped slow down a larger story of decline. Is it time to acknowledge that something in the PCUSA system is dying?


In many ways this [new] association may resemble some of the voluntary organizations of the past (PGF, PFR, etc.) but it is only a way station to something else. It is an intermediate tool to begin to bring together like minded congregations and pastors to begin the work of another future, different than the current PCUSA.

So some of these ideas are more developed in the 3 1/2 page white paper than they are in the 2 page letter.


It was interesting to see how quickly word spread about the original letter on Twitter and the concerns that many people expressed.  This seems to have led to two rapid responses.

The Fellowship PC(USA) saw a need to respond quickly and the day following the distribution of the letter they put out a one-page FAQ addressing some of the concerns I and others had. Specifically, they address the narrow demographic of the original group (white, male, pastors mostly of larger “tall-steeple” churches).  The response is that this letter was only the beginning of a conversation that they want to broadly include all aspects of the church.  Of course, they get another negative comment from me because in an apparent effort to say that the conversation should include more than clergy they use the phrase “clergy/non-ordained as equal partners.” (Ouch! That hurt this ruling elder.)  This has now been changed to “clergy/laity.”  Sorry, no better. At best this comes off as a technical glitch that in either wording does not include ruling elders as ordained partners in governance with teaching elders (clergy).  At worst, while probably not intended to be so, it strikes me as a Freudian slip or condescending comment that teaching elders are somehow superior to ruling elders in all this.  OK, soapbox mode off.  (And yes, if you think I am being super-sensitive about this one little detail, this GA Junkie is by nature super-sensitive to that one little detail.  Sorry if that bothers you.)

The FAQ also addresses the relationship to the New Wineskins Association of Churches, other renewal groups, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and why their plan is better, different, reasonable, or something like that.

The Fellowship has also updated the letter (the old link is broken) with a revised one that appears to be the same text but has a longer list of signatories that now includes ruling elders and women.  The original seven names are there for the steering committee, but the 28 names for concurring pastors has grown to 95 (including a couple of women) and there is now a category for Concurring Elders, Lay Leaders and Parachurch Leaders with 15 names. (And I suspect that this will be a dynamic document that will be updated as more individuals sign on.)

The Fellowship letter and viral response, possibly influenced by the concurrent meeting of the Middle Governing Bodies Commission, elicited a response from the PC(USA) leadership with a letter on Friday from Moderator Cynthia Bolbach, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, and GAMC Executive Director Linda Valentine.  This message, titled Future of the church: GA leaders invite all Presbyterians to join in conversation, cites not just the letter but several more conversations going on in the PC(USA) through the MGB Commission, and other task forces.  One of their concluding lines is “We ask that those who would challenge us also join with all of us across the church as we work together to make that happen.”  I also applaud their openness to the whole of the Presbyterian family as they address the letter to “All Presbyterians” and part-way through the letter say “Presbyterians everywhere long for vibrant congregations and communities
of faith, and relationships built upon trust and our common faith in
Jesus Christ.”

I mention this broad-mindedness since these developments have caught the attention of the wider Presbyterian family in the blogosphere and there are comments about it by David Fischler at Reformed Pastor and Benjamin Glaser at Mountains and Magnolias.  Within the PC(USA) ranks there is a nice analysis by Katie Mulligan who has a summary of the demographics of the churches represented by the original signatories.  (Thanks Katie. It was something I started to do, but as the signatory list became a moving target I reorganized my thoughts and it will appear as a slightly different statistical analysis in the future.)

There is also an unofficial response
from the affinity group Voices for Justice.  They reject the viewpoint
the Fellowship letter has of the PC(USA) and urge working together as
one denomination.

A Case Study in Social Media

Probably what interests me the most in all of this is how it played out.  As best as I can tell, this went viral, or as viral as something can go within the denomination, within about five or six hours.  The letter and the Fellowship group itself seem like somewhere we have been before and we will see if it plays out any differently.  How this played on Twitter is something else altogether and  I’m not sure anything like this has spread through the PC(USA) Twitter community in the same way.

So here is the timeline from my perspective (all time PST)(note: items marked * have been added or updated):

  • Feb. 2, 10:46 AM – Fellowship letter hits my email box
  • Feb. 2, 11:32 AM – Tweet from @preslayman announcing their posting of the letter – The first tweet I can find.
  • Feb. 2, 12:32 PM – John Shuck posted his first blog entry, tweeted announcement at 1:25 PM
  • Feb. 2, 3:00 PM – Tweet from @ktday that asks “what do you think of this” – quickly and heavily retweeted; beginning of the flood of tweets
  • Feb. 2, 3:17 PM – @lscanlon of the Outlook puts out a series of tweets reporting the letter
  • Feb. 2, 3:32 PM – My first blog post, I tweeted announcement of it at same time
  • Feb. 2, 7:12 PM – Time stamp on the Outlook article.*
  • Feb. 3, 2:31 PM – First tweet I saw about the Fellowship FAQ, from @CharlotteElia
  • Feb. 4, 8:56 AM – @leahjohnson posts first tweet I found about the PC(USA) leadership response*
  • Feb. 4, 9:01 AM – @Presbyterian official announcement by tweet of the denomination leadership response
  • Feb. 4, 10:10 AM – Katie Mulligan posted her blog article
  • Feb. 4, 11:07 AM – @shuckandjive announces the Voices for Justice response

Now that is what I saw.  Please let me know if you have other important events in this history that should be on the time line.  And I am going to keep researching it myself and it may grow.

So, I have to give credit to the Fellowship leadership, or at least their response team, for being able to turn around a response FAQ in 27 hours.  Nice job also by the denominational leadership for having a comment out in less than 48 hours.

In the realm of social media this is a very interesting development – that in the course of a day or two a topic could gather so much attention that the major parties each feel the need, or pressure, to weigh in on the subject.  And that the originating organization received enough criticism and critique that they so quickly issued a clarification and updated list of names.  In case you don’t think the world of communications has changed you need to take a serious look at how a topic, admittedly a hot one but one of limited interest outside our circle of tech-savvy and enthusiastic participants, has played out in just 48 hours.

And I would note that the PC(USA) is not alone in this.  In my observation of the PCA voting on their Book of Church Order amendments this year, and the ultimate non-concurrence by the presbyteries, social media, especially the blogosphere, played a major role.

So here I am commenting on it 72 hours after it broke.  Was my first response reasonable?  As I comment above, it was on only one piece of the evidence and it took me a couple more days to find time to read the white paper.  But then again, maybe it was.  The situation developed rapidly and having my own rapid response to the letter meant that the initial concerns I raised were among those addressed in the clarification the next day.

Now the big question – is all of this a good thing?  I will leave the ultimate answer up to each of you.  I have, in a bit of a play within a play, personally demonstrated what I see as both the negatives and the positives — my initial response was not as well developed as it could have been but in the reality of the new social media world it helped (I would hope) to propel the conversation forward.  Don’t we live in interesting times…

So where from here?  It will be very interesting to see what further role social media plays in this going forward.  Will this discussion become a topic for more narrowly focused groups who continue their work off-line, or will the new realities force or require this topic to remain viable in the extended social media community of the PC(USA). It will be interesting to see, and I would expect that if this Fellowship initiative is to really propel discussion of the future of the PC(USA) they will need to embrace the reality of the connected church.  I think we need a hashtag.

What Is Your Strategy For Mission? Some Thoughts On The Call Of Clergy In The Mainline Church

“Because that’s where the money is”
Quote attributed to bank robber Willie Sutton when asked why he robbed banks.

That quote came to mind this morning over coffee as I read an interesting article, “If cooking slowly and growing organically are in, why is rural ministry out?” by Darryl Hart on Front Porch Republic.  (And a quick note – if you are not familiar with this blog but enjoy well written and thought provoking essays about contemporary culture that sometimes have something to do with religion check the blog out.)  The article is about why clergy would rather pastor suburban and urban churches than rural ones.
 Church in Bodie, California
from Wikimedia Commons

I do not mean to imply that all clergy with a preference for urban churches are there because of the salary, although it might be the case.  As the article discusses, and I was running through in my mind while reading it, you could fill in the blank in the sentence “Because that is where the (blank) is/are” with any number of other things, including “people,” “resources,” “opportunities.”  In fact, the article itself focuses mainly on the people and the large, urban multi-site churches.

But the problem of finding clergy for rural churches is a real one, as Adam Copeland pointed out in his blog post “The huge problem of the clergy shortage that doesn’t exist.”  The problem is not one of numbers — at the end of 2008 the PC(USA) had 10,751 congregations and 21,286 ministers.  The problem is that too few of them sense a call to serve in the rural areas or that rural congregations are less able to afford a full-time minister.

But the problem is a bit more complex than just saying “we have more ministers than churches so there should be no problem.”  Going back to 2007, the last year that the full comparative statistics are available, and looking at the breakdown by call, we can see that there are 21,368 clergy.  But of those, 7,753 are honorably retired (and for the non-junkies reading this honorably retired is a call) leaving 13,615 active ministers.  To find how many are active in parish ministry as a senior pastor, co-pastor or solo pastor you can add up the categories of Pastors (6,100), Supply Pastors (626), and Interim Pastors (484) for a total of 7,210 filling some of the 10,751 pulpits.  So from this viewpoint there is a clergy shortage because only 67% of the pulpits are filled.

(I would note that there a lots of other ways that a pulpit could be filled and it would not show up in this analysis including commissioned lay pastors, yoked churches, union churches, part-time interim and supply pastors who would be counted by their regular job category, and retired ministers serving in a supply or interim capacity.)

So only 53% of the active ministers in the PC(USA) are helping lead congregations as their primary call.  Add to that the 1,395 Associate Pastors and the way these statistics are reported there are 8605 ministers primarily in parish ministry, or 63% of the total.  (This does not include, or intend to minimize, the role of ministers in other calls who still contribute on a congregation level, whether they do so as a Parish Associate or in other ways.) (And while other validated ministries like chaplains and seminary instructors are vital, it does make me wonder when over one-third of the active ministers are not in parish ministry.  Another time.)

Taking this one step further and looking at the filled pulpits geographically by synod you get the following, ranked by % filled:

 Synod No. Congregations No. Filled Pulpits % Pulpits
% of active
in pulpit
 Median size of
 So. Cal. and Hawaii  298  297  99.7%  41.8%  158
 Pacific  463  421  90.0%  44.6%  119
 Alaska-Northwest  268  223  83.2%  49.8%  107
 Rocky Mountains  239  185  77.4%  51.1%  102
 Northeast  1160  865  74.6%  56.2%  110
 Boriquen de Puerto Rico  73  54  74.0%  63.5%  84
 South Atlantic  978  680  69.5%  48.6%  125
 Covenant  783  542  69.2%  61.7%  120
 Lincoln Trails  661  455  68.8%  51.0%  100
 Southwest  164  112  68.3%  48.9%  91
 Mid-Atlantic  1450  926  63.9%  53.2%  105
 Sun  883  540  61.2%  54.3%  89
 Trinity  1279  783  61.2%  60.6%  108
 Lakes and Prairies  908  502  55.3%  57.6%  95
 Living Waters  745  391  52.5%  48.9%  65
 Mid-America  468  234  50.0%  54.5%  73

Looking at this data you get the strong sense that metropolitan areas are more successful at filling their pulpits even though no single synod is exclusively urban or exclusively rural.  The Synod of Southern California and Hawaii is almost certainly the most urban of all the synods covering the urban areas of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego and the surrounding areas.  And while the synods with the lower percentages of filled pulpits do have urban centers, their geographic location in the mid-continent means those urban areas are generally smaller and that there are a substantial number of small-town congregations in those synods as well.

I include the last two columns of data as possible proxies for a measure of the rural/urban blend of the synod.  The median size of the congregations is an easier metric to tie to the rural/urban mix with the conventional wisdom being that rural areas have smaller congregations.  Indeed, there is a strong statistical correlation of 0.77 between the % of pulpits filled and the median congregation size.  My theory behind the second metric, the % of active ministers fi
lling pulpits, is that urban areas should have a lower percentage because there are greater opportunities for other validated ministry in more urban settings.  And indeed, while the correlation is not as good, the -0.50 inverse correlation between % of pulpits filled and % of active ministers filling pulpits is still respectable.

Now I fully realize that there are other interpretations of these correlations.  For instance, higher median size of congregation correlating with more filled pulpits could be seen as an aggressive program of consolidating churches so as to fit the available pastoral resources.  Likewise, the inverse correlation between filled pulpits and the percentage of ministers serving in parish ministry may not be a sign of more and varied opportunities, but rather a greater surplus of ministers available to fill open positions.

OK, so I just set about trying to prove what we think we already know.  Now, what are the implications for ministry and mission?

I would be curious if detailed numbers such as these are available for other Presbyterian branches.  In my search over the lunch hour I was more successful at finding congregation statistics than clergy statistics.  But the anecdotal evidence suggests that mainline churches in general, not just the PC(USA), have more ministers serving in positions outside the parish.  Therefore, if we need more parish ministers we must (1) recruit new individuals with a call for congregational work, (2) convince those presently serving in other ministries that parish work is valuable, rewarding, important, etc. (3) keep ministers in the congregation rather than leaving because of financial needs, burnout, or conflict.  Are the mission priorities such that we value parish ministry enough to recruit individuals to serve congregations and find ways to keep gifted individuals in those congregations, especially when it is in rural areas?

While the PC(USA) may have this surplus to try to work with other areas are not so lucky.  It is a well publicized issue within the Church of Scotland that there are not enough ministers, especially for the islands.  Possible solutions being discussed there include video links to island churches for worship and changing the understanding of the Scottish church so that it does not need to be a national church with a presence in every community, no matter how small.  Within the last week The Herald published an article that indicated its sources say the Special Commission studying the territorial church will recommend altering that section of the Articles Declaratory.  This was followed by some letters to The Herald, some of which advocated keeping the territorial church, but being more creative in providing leadership.  Then today there was a letter to The Herald from the Principal Clerk of the General Assembly pointing out that if the Special Commission recommends it there is still a long process of three GA votes and two sets of presbytery votes to approve the change.

But returning to the essay by Mr. Hart — in it he makes some strong comments about our concept of mission, particularly the interests of those who call themselves evangelicals.  It is not just that the big city has the population and the resources, it is the opportunity for celebrity or the brush with celebrity, the “L.A. moment” as my family calls it.  Mr. Hart writes:

Of course, the reasons why evangelicals fawn over the city may stem from sources other than the obvious appeal of bright lights and big buildings. One of them may be a born-again infatuation with celebrity and the disillusionment that follows when public figures like Mark Sanford or Miss California, Carrie Prajean, fall from grace. Evangelicals are disposed to understand grace and faith in extraordinary categories and so overlook stories of ordinary believers, routine piety, and even rural congregations as insignificant. Discontent with the average and routine aspects of natural life and of grace appears to breed a similar dissatisfaction with humble ministries in places of little interest to the editors of the Times.

So what are our mission objectives and our mission priorities?  Do we “go out into all the world” or just where it is easy, convenient, or even possibly exciting and rewarding?  Is a big urban church better than a small rural congregation?  And maybe most importantly, when a minister makes the commitment to serve a rural parish do we support that decision and find ways to encourage and help them in that ministry?

If all congregational ministry matters equally we need to be ready to support it equally.