The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) met last week in St. Louis.  We Presbyterians didn’t talk a lot about sexuality issues this year.  We crossed the Rubicon on GLBTQ ordination and marriage equality a couple of Assemblies ago.  The congregations who felt they had to leave because of the decisions we made have mostly already left.  Those of us who remain are either comfortable with or quite supportive of the policies we now have.

In fact, there were an amazing lack of “hot button” issues at this year’s Assembly.  The only overture (bill) that stirred much passion at all was one that asked the PC(USA) to divest from fossil fuel industries.

So what did we focus on this year? Restructuring (again!) and trying to generate more income to support national church services.  The battle that drew the most blood was over whether there should be one “The A Corporation” or two in our national structure.  That’s where the battle lines were drawn.

You may ask, “What in the world is ‘The A Corporation’?” That’s the same question hundreds of commissioners from around the country asked for several months as they tried to prepare for the upcoming assembly. “The A Corporation” is a complex corporate/bureaucratic entity about which two national task forces established by our last Assembly and our national mission agency board had diametrically opposed recommendations for the commissioners’ consideration.

I have to admit that as a long-time Presbyterian pastor, I was not at all excited about this issue.  In fact, it tempted me a bit toward despair.  Every time I read an article or saw a post about it – and about what one or another group insisted must be done – I strained my ears to determine if I could hear the orchestra on the Titanic playing in the background.

I’m not writing this post because I wanted you to care about this issue or to feel sorry for us Presbyterians.  I’m writing because it’s an example of what is happening with so many of our denomination’s national structures.  (How are things going at your denomination’s national offices these days?).

The reality is that congregations – for a whole host of reasons – find themselves less and less able/willing to send mission dollars up to the national level to support their denominational offices and staff.  In traditions that give congregations an option about whether to send that money up the line or not, many are choosing not to do so or to send much less than they once did.  In traditions that assign an amount each congregation is required to pay, their congregations end up having to cut their own local ministry/mission budget in order to keep the national structures going.

This across the board decline in financial support for denominational structures has given rise to a major disappearing act: services that national staff used to be able to provide to local churches are just no longer available. As the key line in the move “The Usual Suspects” might put it, “And, poof, they were gone!s”

To make things even more difficult, this decline in staff services also applies to regional church bodies like presbyteries, state conventions, and dioceses.  Local churches are left to their own devices as they try to figure out how to face their challenges, and this at a time when the challenges they are facing are more complex than ever.

What are churches and their leaders to do?

First of all, they need to begin to resource one another at the local level.  If you’re a church facing the need to go from full-time to part-time pastoral leadership, guess what?  Other nearby churches are in the same boat. You can probably quickly put together a list of 4-5 neighboring congregations who either already have made that shift or are starting to lean into it.

Gather their pastors together and invite each one to talk about what s/he is learning about making the change with faith and hope. Have representatives from your church board sit with members of their church boards to hear how they’re making the adaptive shift work.   Each of you will find you have insights to offer that others haven’t yet imagined. You will hear them talking about innovations you hadn’t imagined, as well. Each of you will go away from the conversation a bit wiser about how to make the change succeed in your own church’s unique context.

Second, you need to think about the possibility of working with the consultants and/or coaches at CHC.  We provide services that you once could expect from denominational staff.  We offer our services with hope and confidence, because – while national and regional structures may be suffering – we believe the Holy Spirit is not nearly done yet with the local church.  It’s at the local level where faithful experimentation and holy risk taking is taking place, helping all our traditions develop the kinds of congregations that will thrive in the continually changing cultural context in which we all serve the cause of Christ.  Contact any of us to set that exploratory conversation up.  We would love to talk with you.

Jim Kitchens
A native of Mississippi, Jim has served Presbyterian churches in California and Tennessee for almost 35 years. He loves helping congregations prayerfully discern how the Spirit calls them to adapt to changing cultural contexts. Jim is the author of The Postmodern Parish published by the Alban Institute. He is a consultant for CHC and the coordinator for CHC-West.