The question-and-answer session was part of the PCUSA’s Big Tent National Elders Conference workshop that took place Aug. 3 at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville, Ky.
Parsons spent almost 90 minutes fielding questions related to various topics regarding the church and the denomination.
Following is a look at Parsons’ responses to questions posed by those ruling elders who sat down with the stated clerk.
What are you excited about in the denomination?
“I get excited about people,” Parson said. “I see the 1001 Worshiping Communities (initiative) and how it is on the growing edge. I recently served as a Bible study leader at a conference and shared a joyful experience with people. Seeing that gets me excited.”
What concerns you most about the denomination?
“I think God is doing something with God’s church, the church at large; there’s something going on that’s huge,” Parsons said. “I think all mainline denominations believe that. But I’m concerned that we get so wrapped up in our internal whatevers that we may miss the moment.”
Is the PCUSA still losing members?
“We are still losing members, as is every denomination in America,” Parsons said. “We lost 100,000 last year.”
What is contributing to the losses and what can be done about them?
Parsons explained that there are three categories of losses tracked: transfers from the denomination, death and those who fade away, which is the biggest single loss category.
“Those can be a variety of reasons,” he said of people fading away. “It can be a personal struggle with God, a crisis of faith, sickness or death. They may be in church, then they are there two Sundays a month, and then you’re asking, ‘Where are the Smiths?’”
He suggested offering a friendly environment and quality worship as possible ways to keep people in the church.
“Everyone tells me how friendly their churches are, but then no one speaks to people who visit. There’s a disconnect there,” Parsons said. “We need to be learning how to articulate our faith and how to share it. A good starting point is quality of worship.”
How many churches have left the PCUSA this year?
The stated clerk, a self-proclaimed statistics junkie, indicated that 48 churches have left the PCUSA – about half going to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) and half to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. That accounts for 8,695 members, and Parsons noted that most of those departing churches are small, with 15, 20 or 30 members.
Parsons also pointed out some 20-30 churches are dissolved each year, and there are currently 28 on the PCUSA books that are unoccupied.
Do most churches leaving take property with them?
“For the most part, most churches dismissed leave with their property,” he said. “By and large, they leave with some sort of payment in kind. Some go to civil proceedings, but that is not a place we need to have that conversation.”
Is there a way to avoid church dismissals?
“We are on the path that we’re on, a relational conversation that parallels marriage/divorce conversations,” Parsons said. “We’re too far into this now and can’t go back. It’s immensely painful. No matter the theological differences, there still has to be a covenantal relationship. I wish no one would want to go, but I know we (the PCUSA) are not always the top choice. We’ve discovered that being a Christian is a relational business.”
How can the denomination help sustain those discerning the call to ministry and how will Board of Pensions (BOP) changes have an effect?
“CPM’s (Committees on Preparation for Ministry) need to be very honest with those coming through,” Parsons said. “There are a lot more people going into ministry than we have slots for. God has called a lot of ministers into the Presbyterian Church, and I think He is telling us there is ministry to be done. We need to help them be self-starters, to support and encourage them to go do ministry when ministry needs to be done.”
As for the BOP issues, Parsons pointed out that changes may lead to many more bi-vocational calls, noting that approximately half of the denomination’s 10,000 or so churches have 150 members or fewer.
“Most of them are not able to have a full-time teaching elder because health care is a huge driver. Our biggest expense line is health care,” he said. “We lament the loss of mission money, but it usually equals the amount health care goes up. That is going to impact employment in the church.”
What can be done to help pastors who are not employed on a full-time basis?
“Local sessions have to understand that they may need to fill in when the pastor is not available,” Parsons said. “That’s going to be an acquired taste for many of them. They have to recognize the needs, what the teaching elder can do and what others need to do. You can’t blame (part-time teaching elders) who have to work their shift.”
What changes do you see in the future for ruling elders?
“I’m convicted to believe that traditional churches becoming vibrant will be about ruling elders, not so much teaching elders,” he said. “In a lot of places all the ruling elder does is go to a meeting and do communion. We have to get away from that board of directors mentality. (Ruling elders) are spiritual leaders in the congregation with a ministry all their own through the gifts they have.”
Parsons extolled the need for teaching elders to give ruling elders more responsibility, sharing duties with them.
“If you can have (ruling elders) actively involved in leading the congregation beyond the session room, you can have a thriving church,” added. “When elders are in meetings, they should focus on spiritual needs rather than budgets, repairs and things other than ministry.”
Are there new ways to do ministry?
Parsons noted the 1001 Worshiping Communities initiative is a learning lab to conduct ministry in a different way, noting that there have been 120 of them formed to date with a goal to have 1,001 in 10 years.
“It’s really an open-ended question,” he said. “How can we reach people in a new way? Some people in our world do not want to walk into a traditional church setting. It’s like a new baby. Everyone gets excited about it, and it gives hope for the future. It’s a chance to celebrate new life. The goal for us is to enlarge the kingdom. These (initiatives) can help us learn. There are going to be ups and going to be failures. 1001 is a different product line, still part of the church, and we’re excited about it.”
He said the premise of any ministry should be about proclamation of the Word and how it is shared.
“Now, it’s built around one person, usually a dude, who delivers the Word from behind a pulpit. We need to get past that,” Parsons said, sharing that years ago traveling groups would criss-cross the country, stopping to evangelize along the way.
“Somewhere we forgot how to do that, and we need to remember,” he continued. “It’s in our DNA somewhere. I think we need to change, get past the point where we are the frozen chosen and get back to a willingness to serve.”
Why do people not want to be in church?
Parsons quickly pointed out that judgmentalism is the No. 1 reason people stop going to church. Additionally, he noted that millennials (those people ages 18-30) seek fairness and they leave if they feel the church is not living it out in practice.
“Many people try to interact with a loving God and receive such unlovingness in return by those people in the church around them,” he said. “Why would they stay? We believe in a church with some sense of discipline, but we need to leave room for people who live life differently. But if it’s not what we want – those who dress like us, have the same skin color, the same standard of living – we walk right past them. That’s not going to work.”
What’s coming up at the 221st General Assembly?
Parsons said a lot of the topics of discussion left over from the 220th GA in Pittsburgh will be on the agenda for next year’s gathering in Detroit June 14-20.
He expects marriage and divestment to be hot-button issues, along with the Belhar Confession and a final vote on the Heidelberg Catechism as well as results of investment in Israel. He does not anticipate too many tweaks to the Book of Order.
He expects a conversation centered on racism, noting that many of the goals and concerns discussed prior to the 1983 merger still have not been attained.
How can we convey GA discussions to our congregations?
Parsons suggested keeping an open line of communication with the congregation during the GA’s proceedings and told those attending not to get bogged down in parliamentary dynamics.
“They don’t care about that. They want to know what’s important and why,” he said. “They want to know what’s decided and how it will impact them, as a congregation or individual. They want to know what they will be asked to do. That’s what you need to be sharing with them.”