I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
2 Corinthians 8:13-15
I am spending much of the month of May connecting with the national church.
It started last week, as Pat Martinez-Miller and I attended a consultation with the Board of Pensions. They are grappling with the issue of rising medical costs, and a much smaller base of members (less than half of the membership from a few decades ago) pooling resources to care for those of us in the medical benefits plan of the Board of Pensions. That doesn’t mean we have fewer pastors. It seems that they have figured out the now fairly common practice of churches choosing not to install pastors in order to avoid paying for the Pastor’s Participation package of benefits. I also pointed out how many churches are changing what used to be associate pastor positions to director-level positions, again to avoid paying Board of Pensions dues. They didn’t have a plan to outline for us, but they were hoping to have something approved in the spring of 2024, to take effect January 2025. That seems a long way away, but if the change is significant, they are counting on presbyteries to help implement the changes, and helping the churches to manage benefits as a part of compensation negotiations.
I am writing you now from the Bon Secours Retreat Center in Marriottsville, Maryland. We are beginning a week of training for new presbytery leaders. The people used to hold the title Executive or General Presbyter, and some do, but many presbyteries have looked to change the titles. The training started this evening, but it was shared already that the participants in this 3-year program represent about one-third of all the presbyteries in the PC(USA), and if you go back a few years more, over the last 7 years, about half of the presbyteries have changed their executive leadership. At nine years in San Gabriel Presbytery, I am now considered one of the old-timers! Four of our seven SoCal presbyteries have leaders in the program, and Riverside is close to calling someone, so we are also seeing an influx of new leaders.
Some of this change is good, as the new presbytery leaders tend to be more diverse, in tune with the changing church, and a bit younger than in years past. And quite a few presbyteries are experimenting with new structures, including having executives also take on stated clerk roles, or employing several very part-time staff who are also pastoring churches. (One thing that hasn’t changed: there were less than a handful of ruling elders in the job, out of 50+ participants.) Actually, we in San Gabriel have made a shift with our stated clerk role, splitting the core duties between an administrative clerk and a clerk for judicial process, inspired by a similar split in New Covenant Presbytery in and around Houston. Because we work hard responding to concerns from our churches, we have been very successful in avoiding judicial cases, thank God.
I will be in Baltimore until Friday. I enjoy working in this format, which invites the participants to share their own insights. Even if I thought any of us is an “expert” in this work, the work is constantly changing, and the regional contexts are so different, that it would be difficult to try to describe the job from one person’s perspective. But I get to share some of the experiments we’ve tried at San Gabriel,
and that has been fun. One thing I have heard from the Board of Pensions consultation and this group, and that is the great challenges experienced by rural churches. You may know that there has been a steady migration from rural areas to cities, and there are many towns now that cannot sustain any church. It has become a difficult place to live, and therefore to work. Many churches feel like they have been forgotten and left to fend for themselves, sometimes by their own presbyteries.
And finally, in a couple of weeks, seven top staff from the national church are coming to SoCal, for a “listening” session. I put that in quotes because at least the first hour (out of three) will be them presenting what they are doing, then they are asking us to discuss the opportunities and challenges we see in our presbyteries. If you have something you want to make sure I say, let me know, or contact the rest of the San Gabriel contingent: Pat Martinez-Miller, Deborah Owens, Sam Bang, and Brian Gaeta-Symonds. That is May 23rd. But on May 21st, OGA staff manager Jihyun Oh will preach at Knox and at Interwoven, and on Wednesday, May 24th, Kerry Rice and Tricia Dykers-Koenig of OGA will come to West Covina and Covina to speak with the pastors there.
It is interesting to hear from the national church. In certain ways they are like the Jerusalem church of the early Christian churches who, then and now, seem to be in special need for support from the individual churches. But the most challenging issues have to do with the disparity of “have” and “have not” churches. There has been open conversation about not forgetting the “fly over” states, and acknowledging that we are a denomination of relatively few large churches, and most churches have under 100 members and many are struggling. Due to the lack of funding at the national level, there is significant work being done to merge the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly. And you may have heard that the Stated Clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, has resigned, and will leave the position at the end of June.
While the national church is facing some new challenges, my hope is that we figure out a way to address the growing disparities between the have and have-not churches. We need not reflect the community by perpetuating these disparities within our churches, and perhaps the true test of a connectional church is our ability to support churches that are low in resources but with a significant ministry who would miss them if they went away. There are no easy answers, but perhaps we can pray for some insight—and the will to look out for each other, because the disparities are within each presbytery, including ours.
As our siblings in the United Church of Christ say, “We pray for the day when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.” May we see the day when all will be shared, all will be cared for, all will be fed.