On Sunday, Tony De La Rosa, Interim Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, reported to the 222nd General Assembly of the PC(USA) that the PMA is, for the first time in years, balancing its budget without using reserve funds. He announced to commissioners that agency is working hard to revenue trends within the denomination, rather than at “fundraising efforts.” With the denomination continuing to lose members, both through natural attrition (a nice way of referring to “death”) and the recent mass exodus of conservative congregations, it has become a matter of survival for the mainline denominations to face reality.
Ok, maybe that wasn’t far. We have been facing reality for nearly six decades. But have we faced it honestly? For years we told ourselves, “It’ll turn around.” But it hasn’t.
The reality is that we live in what many have dubbed “Post-Christendom,” when the Christian Church is no longer a driving force or center of power within American culture. We have watched for years our congregations shrink, our budgets dwindle, and the workforce at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville scramble to do the same amount of work with fewer and fewer people. I love our denominational staff! They are amazing people, and some of the best of the best. But they can only do so much. The more we ask them to do, the less well they are able to do it.
There are two sides to De La Rosa’s report. Yes, the PMA is face the truth of their revenue streams and has developed a balanced budget. But there was still an ominous tone that foreshadows continued staff and resource cuts at the PMA.
Many have suggested that we are still operating as a denomination through structures that were developed in the 1950s, when we could not build churches fast enough. The landscape has changed. We are less than half the denomination we were at our height. Some church historians have suggested we entered a bubble in the post-war era of the 40s and 50s. However, in the tumultuous 60s the church was challenged in its social witness and desire to still be “the Church.” Since then, the Church in general has been pushed farther to the margins of society, resulting in few people participating in the life of local congregations.
What is our future? Everyone is guessing. The truth is, our leadership structure has yet to faithfully respond to the flattening of access to resources and media. No longer are the days when local congregations rely on denominational leadership for connection to broader missions and ministries. No longer are the days when local congregations are beholden to the denomination for educational resources or information.
Is it time for us to do the really hard thing and finally admit that “the way we’ve always done it” really is not serving the larger purposes and mission of Christ’s Church? Is it time for drastic change? What might that look like? How do we take care of the people who have poured their hearts and souls into the Church?
As the Way Forward Committee (#4) discerns structural overtures that seek to streamline and simplify our structure for post-Christendom, may we hold our commissioners gently and humbly in our prayers. May we seek to follow our ordination vows and seek solutions with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.