Trusting God as Some Leave the Presbyterian Church (USA)

[Photo by Maja Larsson ]

I remember during the early days of planting the church that I pastored for 12 years. While I loved the work, there were stressors everywhere. Anxiety inducing questions arose all the time: “Would anyone show up?” “Would they stay if they did come?” and “Who’s going to make the coffee?” By far, though, the hardest question to deal with was, “What happens when someone leaves?”

Like most new church planting pastors, when someone chose to leave, no matter the reason, my heart and soul ached: I questioned my pastoral abilities, I grieved the loss of relationships and I always had an urge to do something to get them back. One of the things that I learned over those dozen years of saying hello and goodbye to folks is that, while there was always room for self-reflection, more times than not there was no one to blame. I also learned that when the leaving was caused by a difference in theological perspectives, there was no amount of arguing that ever got someone to stay once they had decided to leave. The best course of action was to model graciousness and understanding, even if/when it was not reciprocated.

These situations did not happen often, but over time I noticed a cycle and rhythm to the life of the church when, not not only were people going to leave, in order for everyone to thrive and grow, sometimes people needed to leave. After all, if I truly cared about their spiritual well-being and growth, I wanted them to do the hard work of discernment and then follow where God was leading them. As their pastor, my job was not about theological victory or numerical success, it was about leading in a way that everyone grew in their experience and expression of faith. Period.

In a recent piece by that was printed both [here] and [here] Fred Heuser, Executive Director of the Presbyterian Historical Society, makes a case for taking a longer view of the life of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Presbyterians are a discerning people who seek the will of God through reading the Bible, prayer and being in communion with each other and other Christians. But the discernment process has meant that Presbyterians have a long history of disagreement, conflict, schism, and reunions.

The conflict and divisiveness within the PC (USA) today is part of a broader pattern that is deeply rooted in our past. The “flash points” that have produced these conflicts may be different, but the underlying tensions that birthed them are remarkably similar.

What is new is that these conflicts and tensions feel new to us. I suspect that these tensions feel new because we are trying to understand them outside of any historical framework.

Please read the article in full [here].

One of the reasons that recent developments in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have not caused me great anxiety is that I think we may be experiencing such a cycle and rhythm of our life. Our struggle now is to move away from the many adversarial postures that exist and acknowledge that God may indeed be working through and in all of us during these days of denominations shifts.

Now of course, this does not mean that I do not care or do not grieve the loss of the denominational relationships with those who are leaving, but I also do not begrudge anyone or have an overwhelming urge to fight to make people stay when they are feeling like this is no longer a good place for them. What I am trying to do is to be gracious in the face of frequent castigation and loving as I see colleagues move into a new denominational relationship; all the while, remaining committed and faithful to my part in discerning what it means to be the Presbyterian Church (USA) today and into the future.

Yes, there are questions about property, pensions and legalities, but I firmly believe that if more people than not adopt a spirit of graciousness and understanding, ways forward will emerge that all can agree too. All of that aside, my deepest hope and prayer is that new surroundings and new relationships will allow everyone, those who remain and those who leave, to live into God’s intentions for our lives be it in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians or wherever folks may find their denominational home.

Lord hear our prayer . . .

  • Gary

    While I like it that your willing to let churchs go with grace, it remains true that the PCUSA is dying and this is much worse than any previous historical cycle you think you have seen. I am leaving for good, myself.
    Locally our Presbytery is fighting exiting congregations for all it’s worth but fortunately, is losing in the courts. Hundreds of thousands are being spent.
    They should take a page from your book.

  • http://profiles.google.com/chris.highland Chris Highland

    Well, pastor, this is good, as far as it goes.  But not all of us who were in the church, in the pulpit and in the faith, chose to leave simply because “God was leading” elsewhere.  Some of us leave because we just don’t see the relevance any longer; we don’t sense the viable community any longer; and, at least in my case, we no longer believe in anything or anyone greater or more wonderful than Nature, and our natural part in the human community.  This transcends religion and faith, bibles and creeds, and frankly, god.  Some of us who leave, are simply, reasonably, choosing for a fulfilling life after faith.  I wish you, and those in my former faith community, well.  And I hope for the day when theologies of the super-natural will no longer divide the inhabitants of this ever-smaller world.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/breyeschow/ Bruce Reyes-Chow

    Yes, we must be gracious, but that does not have to mean that we must compromise on those that that we hold as true/faithful.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/breyeschow/ Bruce Reyes-Chow

    Thanks!

  • momoffuturefemaleseminarian

    Amen and amen. Could not have said it better myself and I am usually pretty good with words!

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    One issue that I think needs further discussion, and which I have seen not only in our Presbyterian circles, but also in the Episcopal/Anglican circles, is whereby, if some body wishes to leave because of one theological issue (specifically for the moment, ordination of practicing homosexuals), they are often unwilling to remain strong on other issues that the denomination has long since had a clear position on (I’m specifically thinking of women’s ordination).

    The ECO is trying to take steps to make that less of a problem, and I applaud them for that, but the EPC only begrudgingly allows for women’s ordination, and it is certainly the case that women seeking ordination in the EPC are forced through hoops that men do not have to jump.

    As often as not, it’s not that the people leaving over gay ordination are already more conservative on women’s ordination, per se (although there are, of course, churches in our denominations that were never comfortable with women’s ordination, either). Rather, they simply don’t care enough about retaining women’s ordination that they will fight to retain it when they seek another body. Thus, more conservative women (on the issue of gay ordination) are increasingly left without a safe denomination in which to find a place, themselves.

    I do not want this justice issue to get lost in the shuffle as we try to move forward on other issues that we also feel are important.

  • Larryagrimm

    I’m affirming those who join the eoc. I hope many Biblical literalists will change from pc(usa) to eoc and leave us to strggle with and enjoy the great ambiguities of faith.

  • Zellerev

    Thank you Bruce.  Trying to stand in the way of those who feel called to leave or, worse, making accommodations in an attempt to make up for their unhappiness will sap the PC(USA) of its vitality.  Prolonging the funeral will not bring anything back to life. 


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