Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), brought greetings this morning to the 150 gathered at the national conference of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians meeting at Central Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colo.
From their website:
The mission of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians is to strengthen the church of Jesus Christ, with the help of God’s grace. We are called to achieve this goal by working for the unity of the church, furthering the inclusion of LGBTQ persons, seeking understanding and reconciliation, and joining with others seeking a still more just and inclusive church.
Receiving a standing ovation, he opened his remarks by noting his perfect attendance at all Covenant Network national conferences. He said, “this is my last time to be here as Stated Clerk but not my last time, I want to be clear about that.”
“This is a good church and a great church,” he said. “This is a faithful church centered on the Word at work in the world.”
Parsons acknowledged and celebrated the role of the Covenant Network in helping to “shape the PCUSA as a more gracious and generous, fully inclusive church.”
Then he said, “There’s a tendency when we hear something that we don’t want to hear — to tell them to shut up.” Parsons encouraged the Covenant Network to resist that temptation.
“Think as we go forward, as we pray and think toward the church we want this church to be – that cannot happen if we tell some folks to be silent.” He continued that discerning the mind of Christ must include more than just a memo issued by a small group gathered together which is why, he said, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly(COGA) is inviting everyone to participate in the conversation about the identity and future of the PCUSA.
Parsons said, “COGA is asking the whole church to put their whole 2 cents.” He assured them that there is no fore-gone conclusion — “there’s no thumb on the scale,” but indeed the process is intentionally open.
He invited everyone to visit: www.pcusa.org/identity. From there you can download a paper copy of the discussion questions or answer via online survey.
Parsons concluded that the goal must be to “find some common understandings about who we are, what we are and what God is calling us to be about in the 21st century.”
‘The State of the PCUSA’
In his workshop, “The State of the PCUSA,” Parsons offered a largely statistical look at American religious demographics, but made no mention of congregations departing the PCUSA.
Parson’s presentation drew heavily upon the Pew Forum on Religion report ending in 2014, which just rolled out another 638 pages of analysis on Tuesday.
After assuring attendees that the PCUSA membership losses track with other mainline denominations in the United States and exploring the changing U.S. religious landscape, religious affiliation of immigrants, fertility rates, etc., Parsons acknowledged that, “When I was growing up in a little town south of Nashville, whatever church your parents went to you when you were born was your destiny. The only way out was to marry into another church …. Now it’s much more fluid.”
Parsons then addressed the issue of racial division to a room filled with 100-percent white faces. “The flat out challenge for us as Presbyterians, after all our best efforts, we’re still a 92-percent white church. We have to ask ourselves, my grandson who is 3, when he’s 21, a 92-percent majority white church is going to seem very odd. If we don’t want to become a boutique church, we have to take this seriously. If you really want racial-ethnic people to be a part of your church, you have to really care what’s going on in their lives.”
From race, Parsons turned to the generational challenge. He said, “34-percent of older millennials self-identify as unaffiliated with a particular religion and 88-percent are not looking. When we consider that the average age for first marriage for men in America is 29 and the average age of a woman in America having her first child is lower than the average age of first marriage, we cannot rely on an old formula wherein we baptize, catechize, confirm our kids, send them off to summer camp and then expect that they’re go off to college and cultivate their testimony – returning to the church after they settle down in marriage and have their first child, is just not realistic. By the time they marry, they are committed to religious non-affiliation.”
DIY vs. DIT
Parsons asked, “Do you know the difference between the ‘Do it Yourself culture’ and the ‘Do it Together culture’? We are a church built around DIT. We are in a DIY culture. That is one of our challenges. The 1001 stuff is part of the DIY world. But how do you do that when one of our core values is DIT?”
He said, “My new favorite number in statistics is 815. Last year on the congregational statistical report we asked churches to tell us how many people their church ministered to beyond themselves. In the 40-percent return, the average was 815 people per congregation.”
Acknowledging that its a soft statistical number, Parson’s extrapolated the 815 out to “1.67 million people minister to 8 million beyond themselves in 2014.”
Then he asked, “if we start thinking in terms of ministry community and not membership, consider the impact we’re actually having a denomination.”
Parsons concluded by challenging workshop attendees to consider a different definition of “success.” He asked, “What does it mean to be successful as a church?” Parsons suggested that the answer is “some measure of faithfulness.” Then asking, “but how do we measure faithfulness?”