10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” 11 The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?” (Jeremiah 1.11)
This is a great call story. It is typical in the fact that like other prophets, Jeremiah does not feel qualified to be God’s messenger and God quickly reminds him that God not only finds him suitable, but will provide what he needs to get the job done. Also like other prophets, Jeremiah refers to a weakness as his greatest defense of not accepting the job . . . in this case his age and ability. What is wonderful about Jeremiah’s call story is that God reminds him that God not only created him and therefore knows him, but also believes that Jeremiah is a sufficient vessel for this work. Unlike the Presbyterian ordination process, there is no training program and no hoops to jump through. A simple ‘yes’ will suffice.
The job that God has tasked Jeremiah with is not a small one. What I find interesting about this interaction between God and Jeremiah is the question that God asks him, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” I believe in many ways God continues to ask us this very same question: what do we see? In many ways as Presbyterians, I think we are asking ourselves this very same question. In recent months, there has been much attention and discussion over the future of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. denomination. Whether it is the group of pastors who signed the “deathly ill” letter or the group that planned the Next Church Conference, the questions at hand are “what is the future of our church?” and “what do we do about it?”
It seems to me that no matter whether you are hopeful or discouraged about the fate of the Presbyterian church, one topic of conversation that keeps cropping up whenever the future of the church is discussed is — what to do with all the “dying” congregations out there. Some believe that we should just suck it up and close them down, therefore using the assets to fund new church developments and other ministries. Some believe that it is a reality of our new future: smaller ministries and congregations — which is not necessarily a problem, but a need to recalibrate our focus.
For as long as I’ve been a member of the Presbytery of San Francisco (8 years) and actively involved in a committee that supported local congregations, we keep running into this question – how do you kill a dying church? Some of the many challenges we face are:
- How do you know if a church is dying? What are the determining factors: lack of membership, money, mission, and ministry? What if a church has 200+ members, but because of the population they serve, they don’t have the financial resources to survive? Are they dying? What about a 20 member church that has $600,000 in their endowment, but no pastor and no mission? Are they dying?
- How do you go about closing a church, especially when the presbytery is not in the habit of forcing action upon a congregation? Do you form a committee (like Presbyterians love to do)? Does the presbytery just make a blanket decision to close all congregations with membership less than 50?
- What is the transition process for members and the property?
- What should the assets and money be used for?
Especially after the recent downturn in the economy, many congregations both large and small were faced with assessing the health of their congregation. And not only congregations, but our presbytery as well. No longer did the Presbytery budget financially support racial ethnic congregations, start up new church developments, invest in redevelopment congregations or support mission activities. Instead, the Presbytery tasked the congregations to partner up. Easier said than done! Especially when more and more smaller congregations are needing financial assistance and more and more larger congregations are cutting their mission budget.
To put all of this into context, the Presbytery of San Francisco is divided into three areas: San Francisco, East Bay, and the Peninsula. I live and serve at a church in San Francisco. In this 7 mile by 7 mile city, we have 22 Presbyterian churches. 22! And by any measuring scale, only a handful are considered healthy and vibrant. The state of the congregations in San Francisco was low on the totem pole of issues to address for the Presbytery, especially when the Presbytery was already overwhelmed with balancing a deficit, redesigning the staff, congregations “graciously” departing for other denominations, and finding a new Executive Presbyter. So, I took to heart what the Presbytery always reminds us: WE are the Presbytery. Since I am a part of that WE, I decided to be a squeaky part. I approached our San Francisco pastors gathering about my concerns. I talked incessantly about it to the chairperson of Committee on Ministry (who happens to conveniently be my husband) as well as the Transitional Executive Presbyter. From these conversations, the San Francisco Urban Strategy Team was formed that consisted of San Francisco pastors. Our task was to figure out how to address the state of all the 22 congregations in our city. Like Jeremiah, this was no easy task. Because what we saw when we looked out over our city and through the eyes of our congregations was a lot of mistrust, misguided energy, feelings of isolation, and lack of empathy for one another. Especially for some of the smaller congregations, they did not trust any outside help for fear that they would be shut down. So getting connected to these congregations was not going to be easy.
When we looked at our task, what we realized is that the question we are asking is all wrong. The question shouldn’t be “how to kill a dying church?” or even “what constitutes a dying church?” The question for all the churches — big and small, healthy or not — should be “what legacy do we want to leave here in San Francisco?” — a question not to answer only as one congregation, but as a collective 22 — a question that helps us all reflect on how our congregations engage in ministry and mission in our community. On June 18, this is the question that all the San Francisco Presbyterian churches will be invited to answer. Using a similar process that I used at a recent leadership consultation, each congregation is required (with the support of Committee on Ministry and the Transitional Executive Presbyter) to have two people attend the gathering – whether it be one elder/one pastor or two elders (what we don’t want is two pastors). From 9am to 5pm, we will spend a lot of time getting to know one another and each other’s context and congregations as well as worshipping together. Mainly because, although we live in a geographically small city, we don’t know each other at all and building relationships is the key foundation to a healthy, vibrant ministry. The goal of the process is to level out the playing field so that small churches has as much impact and power as larger congregations, so that racial ethnic congregations have voice, and so that our diversity is not an issue but an asset. We will then spend the rest of time being in conversation and answering the question “what legacy do we want to leave here in San Francisco?” We will have a facilitator to guide the process as well as an artist whose task is to observe the spirit of the conversations and the content. The hope is that what will come out of this gathering is a document and a visual piece that states what the legacy of the collective San Francisco Presbyterian churches will be.
It is this document/visual piece that will be used for another team (people more experienced in assessment of churches) to assess and evaluate all the churches in San Francisco. Hopefully, since all the churches had an opportunity for input on the value all churches will be evaluated on, it will decrease the issues of distrust and refusal to cooperate.
I share the journey of this process only because I have found it difficult to find any resources that address this matter — a matter that many congregations and presbyteries are facing. I have interviewed many executive presbyters and pastors about how they handle this issue and have found no luck in finding concrete processes. I am also tired of talking about the matter which in turn makes me feel frustrated and paralyzed to do anything about it. This is my attempt to try something and see if it works. I don’t know what the end result will be of this process, but I am hopeful that it at least invites everyone to the table of discernment and is a process that is not meant to be judgmental, but instead transformative.
I’d be interested to hear what processes you have been a part of that addressed this issue or any suggestions you have as we continue to discern the legacy we feel called to leave behind as well as live into.
Details of the process that was followed at the June 18 gathering can be found here.