I think Linda Valentine, Executive Director, and the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) are leading the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) toward the right path. They are inviting all of us, at every ministry and governing body level, to courageously embrace God's preferable future with hope. We talk about changing how we faithfully internalize being sent into the world, yet we do not move. We agree we must change the approach to and delivery of ministry, yet rarely evidence growth. We have difficult decisions to make in the years to come, not unlike the recent releasing of long-term staffers in Louisville. We need to courageously act to realign our ministry to achieve the objectives God has called us to.
I believe Presbyterians must again be empowered to be the salt and light in more pervasive and effective ways on the street, across the nation, and around the world. The 219th General Assembly meeting in Minneapolis in July offers a unique opportunity to gain a better understanding of what’s important, to internalize it, and initiate responsible action. If not now, the opportunities that present themselves will be gone in two years, when we hold the next national gathering. So if not now, never. A spirit of prayerful urgency and courage must be divinely inspired and evoked from this assembly. I believe we are ready for a change. How ready are you for change? What do you need to move forward in hope?
Presbyteries and their Customers
A presbytery evidences effectiveness when its congregations are vitally and effectively fulfilling their own unique purpose as sent by God into the world.
If a congregation's session is not locating expected and necessary resources for its own unique mission from its presbytery, synod, and General Assembly, then it should, and no doubt will, find resources elsewhere. It’s well past time for presbytery leaders to learn and embrace to new opportunities. We can do a better job of collaborating with our congregations and other community assets to build the capacity of our mission. Sessions constitute a presbytery’s number one customer, therefore presbyteries have a strategic responsibility to ensure a session’s continuous ministry improvement, vitality, and sustainable change. We have often acquiesced to the status quo, or mistakenly believed that we have time for incremental steps. Our persistence of decline experience will continue to impair our capacity to grow and change unless a remedy is implemented.
According to change theorists, decline is the label we give to an organization’s trajectory when neither adaptation nor learning takes place in the face of massive membership dissatisfaction. Under these circumstances we ought to expect the demise of the organization. Though the PC(U.S.A.) membership is restless, we are also increasingly disappointed with our direction. We display symptoms of increased institutional trauma and decreased institutional intelligence.
We are not bereft of information, we are bereft of the right information that helps us learn. By raising our institutional and emotional intelligence we gain insight of mind and spirit. This will fuel our courage to act differently, to act better, to act authentically in our communities and in the world. Without relevant and reliable data we remain subject to tyranny and guesses about ministry direction.
Change in Practice
All across the country, many governing bodies are taking a new approach. In the Synod of the Northeast, presbyteries and their leaders have been learning together and initiating ministry adaptation within their own structures and congregations. In Newark Presbytery, where I have the privilege to serve as General Presbyter, we have begun to internalize a commitment to redirect our energy outward, away from a flatline of self-destructive congregational survival and deficit-defined ministry to a baseline model of “everyone can choose to grow.” By authentically reconnecting out of our abundance to the 800,000 people that live within our bounds, and beyond, the world can be different.
New Jersey’s Presbytery Partnership Group’s (NJPPG) eight presbyteries have also begun to chart a new course. In March, our presbyteries were offered a learning strategy called the Listening Project to help them assess their own presbytery’s mission clarity, vitality and effectiveness. This is huge. Every presbytery in New Jersey, in its unique historical and geographic setting and phase of organizational life, can come to its own place of readiness and take responsibility for itself to grow and change. Now needed assessment tools and funds have been provided to provoke that change. Are our presbyteries ready? I believe they are. Without courage to choose God's preferred future, however, our will lead to our demise. Clarity from the NJPPG Listening Project promises to provide the catalyst. Time will tell, but time is short.
A Remedy for Forty-Years of Decline
Recently we learned that in 2009, our denomination’s membership declined 3.3%, representing in the aggregate a net loss of 1,800 people every week, a higher rate of decline year over year. This information increases our knowledge. I think this decline rate is not only unacceptable but preventable, yet the GAMC and few other church leaders have even mentioned it. The point is that this information alone does not increase our intelligence to act differently.
We need insight that derives from intelligence. Realize that the PC(U.S.A.), along with all other major denominations, are continuing a 40-year decline. A wilderness experience of a vast scale. But there's more: Our church appears unaware that every major volunteer association in North America has experienced the identical decline in membership during the same 40-year period. In our denomination's peak membership years, few knew in 1970 that the preceding years’ rising growth rate were about to become a slippery slope of decline, and even fewer knew that the decline of all churches, and all other volunteer associations from PTA’s to bowling leagues, could be attributed to the same cause. The cause for the decline? Member’s disconnecting from an increasingly fragmented community life in America. We can do something with this information. It adds to our institutional intelligence as a church. Reconnecting to our communities can reverse the cause for this decline. This is a remedy that fits our missional and social context, empowered by God's Spirit.
I humbly point you to my presentation on SlideShare, http://www.slideshare.net/kryoho, entitled The Reciprocal Church. It offers a correlation between the 40-year decline of volunteer associations to the decline of the PC(U.S.A.), and offers guidance and remedies that every congregation regardless of its capacity or location, and even the GAMC itself, can put into practice this week.
Incarnational, missional behavior transcends every current challenge and obstacle we face as a denomination and members of communities. Let’s get our heart around the world and our head out of the church long enough to not just make a difference in the world, but make the world different.
The executive team in Louisville deserve our support and prayers as they lead us as God sends us to love the world more than we love the church. When our heart is for the world, we will choose to act differently as disciples of Jesus Christ in the church. Pray for our world, our leaders, and our 219th General Assembly and its commissioners. I think Presbyterians are ready for a change. GA219 is the opportunity. Do you think we are ready? Are you?
Dr. Kevin Yoho,
192 Broad St., Bloomfield, NJ 07003