It is January Second, the first “official” workday of the New Year. I got up and as usual went into my bathroom to shower. The scale I bought last year with the real goal of losing some weight lay in the same state as it did when I bought it, virtually unused. I said to myself, “this is going to be the year I get back on the diet and lose the weight!” Well, by the time I got in the office I realized that I had not weighed myself. That started well!!!
Every year with the turn of the calendar, people make their resolutions to change. One of the most popular ones is to take better care of themselves through diet, exercise, and so on. As those who do statistics note, those resolutions are far more likely to fail than to be kept. There are many reasons for this, but a trainer I once had seemed to put it the best when telling me to never join a gym in January or September. “The only way to change your state is if you want to, no outside forces will do it. But if you internally want to change you will. So when you make choices to change, make sure that you really want it.”
I think about that line a lot as a pastor because change is a difficult thing for churches. About the time I started to be in talks for coming to Westminster, I called up the Executive Presbyter, Joey Lee. At the time there were a few churches looking for pastors in the presbytery. I talked to him about what was going on in each, and one of the things he said was that the other church was in denial of the change that was needed, but Westminster, in his mind, was all too ready. I thought of that as a good sign.
Since my ordination we have seen a pattern in the Presbyterian Church where times are catching up to us and we are being forced to change, not just our church, but the whole denomination. As a denomination we were a silent power within both the political world and the society. In fact, all the way to the founding of the United States you can see a Presbyterian hand in in its formation; literally, the only pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence was John Witherspoon.
In the Eighties we were known to be one of the wealthiest protestant denominations, just behind the Episcopalians. We were also the most educated denomination with the average member having attended college and the highest percentage of college and advanced degrees. From many angles, by the end of the Eighties, just shy of ten years into the new denomination of the PCUSA, we were riding high. But soon we found our denomination having serious breaks, and by the mid-nineties the driving force of the denomination seemed to cease to be about a faithful witness, but to be about being right. This made us close our eyes and ears to the world around us.
Subsequently, it made our denomination begin to worry more about itself and its survival than about its purpose. The desire to stay alive began to spawn a series of bad decisions, and no cross-theological debate. This had the consequence of creating a generation in the church that no longer knew how to have conflicting discourse without one side taking it personally.
The result is that since the eighties our denomination is a fraction of the size it was, with very little political presence, still highly educated, but very little money, in fact only three of the Presbyterian Seminaries are financially secure. This has affected the congregations of the denomination, with the majority of the congregations now under 100 members.
It may seem bleak for the PCUSA, especially as more churches and members are leaving by the day; however, there are things that have changed that are signs of a glorious tomorrow. The most important thing is that on the denominational level we recognize that we have to change in order to be relevant in the future. We also have admitted that in the future we may not look the same as we do today, even to the point of eliminating one of the levels of our governance, among other substantive changes.
Interestingly, as I have listened to the conversation, it is no longer one of survival as it was when I first entered into the ministry; now, it really seems to be one about where and what God is calling us to do and be.
In a real way, I think about it like my desire to lose weight. When I try to lose weight because I feel obligated to, because the doctor tells me, or people mention that I look to have gained a little to much, I usually do not find the success in weight loss, but when I come too the place when I say I need to do this for me because it needs to be done, it somehow always seems to work out! As church and as a denomination, our future and health rely on our desire and willingness to make the changes needed to be a healthier body, putting the mission and goals of Christ before our wants and needs, and let God be our Guide, even if that means we will be markedly different than we once were.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen