What’s Next PCUSA? Living in the Wilderness

1 Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. (Luke 4.1)

We are in the season of Lent – a time when we reflect on Jesus entering into the wilderness where he was tempted for 40 days and 40 nights. This event of temptations happens after Jesus is baptized and God publicly claims him as God’s own. We, as Presbyterians, are in our own kind of season of Lent. There is a lot of talk about division, loss, dying, perishing, wondering, and revisioning. In some ways, we may feel that we are wandering in the wilderness and wondering what it is going to be like when we get out.

I often believed that Jesus being led by the Spirit to enter into the wilderness was in some way a test: a test of faith, a test of commitment, a test of worthiness. However, I wonder if it is less of a test and more of a reality check. Here, Jesus has just been baptized and claimed as God’s own and now his eyes are open to what it means to be called, to be chosen, to be claimed, and to do ministry. As the saying goes, “It’s a jungle out there.” Well, in our case, “It’s a wilderness out there.”

I just got back from attending the Next Church Conference in Dallas, Texas – a wonderful conference bringing mostly Presbyterian church leaders together to collectively wonder what is next for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. At this conference, I had the opportunity to share about the collaborative ministry that is happening in the Presbytery of San Francisco.  I am extremely grateful for the hard work that First Presbyterian Church in Dallas and the Rev. Joe Clifford did to make this such a wonderful event. Having been on many conference planning teams before, I know the amazingly and consuming time and energy it took to pull off such an event.

Now having a whole plane ride home to reflect on the event, I want to offer some observations of my time at Next, but also what the next steps may look like for not only Next, but for the denomination.

We Are Not Perishing

Stacy Johnson, a Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, gave an in depth presentation on what is needed in order for the Church to move forward in our current culture. He began by giving some sobering statistics on not only PCUSA but on today’s culture. When you look at the statistics and certainly when you hear people talk around the denomination, there is a huge sense that the Church is perishing, the Church is dying. For me, this is a reality check. Depending on one’s perspective, you can view the Church as perishing or you can view the Church as this is just what ministry is all about. Let me explain.

My husband and I have been working in small congregations our whole ministry career. Every day, every week, and every year, we are faced with the challenge of how to make church relevant in the community; how to make church healthier; and how to move the church to change with the changing demographics. This is reality. This is the wilderness. This is ministry. For smaller congregations, there isn’t a sense of perishing because the hey day left over 50 years ago. You have to HAVE something to feel like you are LOSING something.

The difference is that it’s not only the smaller churches that are wandering the wilderness. Now, it’s the larger churches wondering what’s next. It’s the presbyteries, synods, and the whole denomination wondering what’s next. And all I can say is “Come on in, the water is just fine.” This is a wonderful opportunity to collectively reimagine, recreate, and refocus what ministry can be TOGETHER.

We aren’t perishing. We just need some readjustments.

There Are No Experts

In both my workshop and my presentation, I had the opportunity to share a way that Presbyterian churches are using process modalities to build community and discern a collective sense of call together. Some of the comments that I heard were “How will this model work for churches in suburbia or presbyteries that are spread out geographically?” “Theresa, can you come and do this in our presbytery?”

The answer is “I don’t know” and “No.” I do not share this particular experience as A MODEL for people to use in their ministry. The reason is because this particular experience is very contextual, organic, and perfectly tailored to those churches in San Francisco. The reason I shared this model was to highlight a few things:

  • Context is crucial. What made this gathering successful was that it was local pastors designing something within their own context. What made this gathering challenging was figuring out how to get all the San Francisco Presbyterian churches into one room. But who better to design and figure that out than leaders who work, serve, and live in that context. This exact model will not translate in a suburban area because the context is urban. This exact model will not work in a wide geographic location because the context was a 7 by 7 mile urban city. The task is to gather those leaders in your own area who are passionate to do something and willing to wrestle with how to get people in the same “room” to talk, meet, pray, and vision together.
  • It’s not rocket science. I don’t find what I did utterly cutting edge or terribly innovative, which is a wonderful thing because it means that anybody can do this. It is amazing what happens when you put a people in a room together to wrestle with a particular dilemma or challenge. I wish I could take credit for what came out of these gatherings, but I can’t. It came from the conversations bubbling up at the tables and I just knew how to listen and collate all the thoughts.
  • Just try something. Stop reading books or trying to find the conference that is going to give you the skills because honestly there are no experts in how to do ministry in the 21st century. We are just beginning this century so how can there already be experts. Okay, don’t completely stop reading books or attending conferences, but don’t waste another minute waiting to find the right technique or solution. Talk with people and network to get ideas and then just try something and see where it goes. Working at a small church with limited financial resources, most of my ideas have come from colleagues sharing on Facebook or Twitter.


Be warned. I am about to say something very unpopular right now. My colleague, Jud Hendrix, shared some of the exciting things they are doing with the Ecclesia Project. In his presentation, he talked about the need for more bivocational pastors, meaning “Pastors, don’t quit your day job.” More and more churches are not able to afford pastoral staff or can only afford Presbytery minimum. If you are living in an expensive city like San Francisco, Presbytery minimum doesn’t go very far. There were a lot of comments regarding Jud’s endorsement of bivocational ministry. Some of it was around seminarians who will graduate with huge seminary debt.

I find it interesting that as we move and live into the 21st century, we know that it is calling us to think outside the box, think differently, and embrace a new reality. More and more pastors having to enter into bivocational ministry may be a new thing, but bivocational ministry in itself is not a new thing. We all have to be careful when we confuse or closely intertwine vocation and sense of call. The danger with combining the two is that it begs the question, “Am I not called if I am not paid?”

  • I graduated seminary ten years ago. When I graduated, I did not have a call. I had no expectation, given my race and gender, that there was a call out there for me. All I knew is that I felt called to go to seminary and now that I graduated I had to figure out what that call looked like. Now after 8 years of ordained ministry, I work at a church of 150 members and get paid Presbytery minimum. The wilderness is my reality.
  • My husband is in his mid-40’s and graduated from seminary over ten years ago. It took him five years later to finally find a call and be ordained. After he was ordained, he was a part-time organizing pastor of a new church development and a part-time church secretary at another church. Now, he works part-time at two churches. Both are unofficial calls (meaning he has no official PCUSA-approved title). But he is doing ministry. He is called. We are still paying off or deferring his seminary debt. The wilderness is his reality.
  • My Head of Staff has been ordained over 25 years and has been at St. John’s going on 21 years. He has moved this congregation from 30 members to now 150 plus 85 kids. One of the ironic things about having seminary interns is that sometimes after they receive their first call, their salary in their first year of ordained ministry is more than my Head of Staff’s after 20 + years. But that is urban ministry. That is working in a small church. The wilderness is his reality.
  • Many of my Korean-American clergywomen colleagues still can not find calls, but that hasn’t stopped them from doing ministry. One of my colleagues, Jean Kim, has been doing amazing work with homeless ministries. My colleague, Ann Rhee Menzie, has done incredible work regarding domestic violence issues and will receive the Women of Faith Award this year. The wilderness is their reality.

We need to be careful about combining vocation with sense of call because we are vulnerable to acquiring an attitude of entitlement. Does eight years for ministry mean I am worth X amount? The fact that I am not getting paid what I think I am worth, does that devalue my sense of call and ministry? Don’t get me wrong. Please hear me out. I am NOT saying that as a denomination we shouldn’t do everything to support seminarians regarding their debt; or ensure that pastors are being paid fairly; or keep congregations accountable and assist them in financially providing for pastoral leadership. I am not saying that. What I am saying is that we are not entitled to it AND for many it is the reality of ministry.

So What Is Next for Next?

To be honest, Jud and I were a little nervous about providing Open Space time after our presentations: 1) the space was limiting; 2) the time was limiting; and 3) we were not sure if people would be willing to spontaneously hop up and suggest to host a small group around a particular topic. The conferees amazed me. The topics were diverse, engaging, interesting, and thoughtful. The energy in the room showed that people were not only willing but thirsty to have such conversations.

My only suggestion for the next Next conference is that if we are gathering to look at ministry in the 21st century then the conference itself has to model a 21st century model. If we are to look at ministry in the 21st century then worship should showcase the different styles of worship out there. I’m all for traditional. The church I serve is traditional, but what Next can offer to leaders of today is a taste of what it can be for tomorrow. Maybe that means designing a whole conference around Open Space. Maybe it means less scheduled activities and more time to organically network. Whatever it is, how we meet and have conversations must model the future wilderness we want to live into.

Until next time, Next . . .

27 thoughts on “What’s Next PCUSA? Living in the Wilderness

  1. Thank you, Theresa. As is your custom you “hit the nail on the head” or should I say “nails.” One of these days I would love to venture over to The City, take you to lunch, and discuss some of the topics you are exploring. Even this retired, old pastor/educator is open to thinking and imagining some new approaches to ministry.

      1. How about lunch on any day of the week of April 23. Pat and I leave next Wednesday for a month and then there is Easter followed by two weeks of engagements so late April is the best for me.

  2. An excellent summary of the time spent in Dallas. As a fellow attendee I was particularly pleasantly surprised by the open-sourcing time. I also agree with your comments regarding worship. It was well led but at the same time, some friends and I were left wondering, ‘Why is the projector only being used in presentations?’
    ‘Blessings on you’ during your presentation for reminding all of us that the church is not an inanimate building to some, but rather a living family.

  3. I don’t think the issue is mixing vocation and call (because “vocation” means “call” in latin), but vocation/call and job. lots of people have vocations/calls for which they do not get paid, and jobs that are not their vocation/call. The question is whether ministry is a job, or the vocation of every Christian.

    The difficulty comes when we tell young people “find what you love and do it” and “a job doing what you love is what you want” and other such things…because if what we love is doing ministry in a church context, essentially the bi-vocational model tells us that we can’t do what we tell young people to do. Of course, whether we’re telling our children and youth the right thing is another question!

    Lots of people (including pastors in most developing nations) have been bivocational forever–it’s hard to imagine being a full time pastor in lots of situations. Supporting those of us who will have to transition from full time to part time with other jobs is going to be the hard part, I think.

    I’m so glad that much of NEXT was streaming–thanks for letting us participate from afar!

    1. True, true Teri. We do tend to tell people to find what you love to do and do it. The creative part is figuring out how to live as well. So if I love to do ministry, how can I do it and still pay my bills? I’m just raising the question that it may mean mixing two different vocations or jobs as you call it. I was teacher for autistic children and in ministry. I have to say that I use a lot of my skills as a special education teacher in urban ministry. So it may not be a bad thing. It actually may be an asset depending on how we look at it.

  4. Thanks for your comments, and for your ongoing ministry in and out of a local congregation. I’ve been wondering what it might look like for my congregation to begin an arm of ministry in our community that would also function as a 501(c)3. A “bi-vocational” pastor would serve as both pastor of the congregation and head of the non-profit. Ideally, the two organizations would function together in a way that grows the ministry of each, while providing a potential additional source of income for ministry. Were any similar models discussed at the NEXT conference? Any chance of connecting those who are interested in this kind of model?

    1. Hi Laura, I wish I could answer your good questions. I would connect with Jud Hendrix who I mentioned in my blog with the Ecclesia Project. It was a part of his presentation and I think he has the resources you are looking for.

  5. Theresa, Stacy and I were so sorry to have to leave before your presentation. Thanks for the blog above, for your word of hope that the wilderness is a place where the playing field is level, and that that very fact can be a hope-filled thing to celebrate and build upon. Bi-vocational thinking is something that we all need to be contributing to. Thanks for your able and thoughtful leadership.

  6. Thanks Theresa! Your comments are helpful and I will share them with my session as I share my thoughts too.
    Even though it didn’t all come together at this meeting, I still think it was brave for a group of professional denominational folks to get together and honestly discuss the future, recognizing that we do not have a map. That’s the wilderness I feel. Not Jesus’ so much but the Israelites. Feel like we’re wandering pyramid builders who don’t really have the right job expertise for this new task.
    But it was clear that change is here. We can embrace it. Or we can try to go back to the good old days (“why did you take us out of slavery to die here in the desert?”). Glad to be wandering in the wilderness with NEXT!

    1. Thanks Marci! I agree. I give kudos to the planners of Next. I think we are all just trying to figure this out. My comments aren’t meant to negate all the intention and work that Next is doing, but just getting the conversation on how we can continue to do better and live into whatever is next.

      1. I didn’t see your comments as negative, but the twitter feed during the conference depressed me a bit. There seemed to be more interest there in critiquing whether or not we could have this conversation while standing in front of a pipe organ or whatever. It seems to me that if there isn’t room for all of us in what is next, then we are no different than the systems of exclusion that came before.

      2. Gotcha Marci. I wasn’t able to follow the twitter feed closely. I agree. For example, my church is historic and traditional, yet we do some innovative intergenerational worship with choir and organ and kids and families. For me, it’s about being creative and authentic.

  7. Here’s the thing: I totally agree that it is up to us to figure out how to follow God and do ministry in our own ways and in our own context, and that bivocational ministry seems to be the future of ministry in general. All well and good.

    The problem is that, given that reality, there is also the fact that seminarians graduate with an average of $30k loan debt (and almost everyone I know who graduated recently graduated with either zero, because they are well off, or much more than $30k).

    This is a justice issue. Our preparation for ministry is in fact preparing seminarians and new pastors for a life of being crushed by debt. To be 10 years into your profession and still *deferring* seminary debt, not even paying down the principal at all, is wrong. It is unjust, and we should simply be accepting this unjust status-quo.

    Right now there are about 500 positions accepting first-call pastors in the CLC system, and there are about 2500 pastors looking for a call. That means that every seminary graduate has about a 20% chance of finding a job. That is wrong, and that is unjust, and we should not accept that situation.

    I agree about bi-vocationality – and I’m also so profoundly tired of being told about bivocationality when my minmum total payment on my loans each month is over a thousand dollars, and it will only go up, since my large loans are on a graduated repayment schedule. One of my vocations is going to be living my our friends’ basement because we will be homeless later this year, since my job is ending and I don’t have a new one and we have no savings. My other vocation is going to be working at Starbucks or Panera or as a cashier somewhere, because my MDiv only qualifies me to do jobs that aren’t hiring, and I’ll be falling back on what I was doing ten years ago when I was a fresh college graduate.

    I think, at the bare minimum, every entering seminarian should be made aware of this situation, and encouraged to find ways to do ministry without going to seminary and being ordained in the PCUSA at all. There are no jobs, the jobs that exist are disappearing, and you will pay for four years of graduate school in order to find that out the hard way. Until we fix this system (and we can fix it, I’m confident, if we choose to), then we are just be supporting a pipeline that just dumps the very people we say are called to serve God into poverty and despair.

    The seminary and ordination system we have now does not in any way reflect the reality that seminarians and newly ordained pastors face. If we get together to fix that unjust situation, I will be much more open to hearing more about bivocationality. As it stands now, we lie to seminarians, saying “we support your call” and “we are preparing you for ministry”…until you graduate, and then you’re on your own and unemployed, or if employed, then 50% will burn out in the first 5 years of ministry.

    I would call that system a catastrophic failure.

    1. Doug, thank you for your very thoughtful response. There isn’t anything that I do not agree with you in your response. I agree that it is a justice issue. I agree that PCUSA and seminaries really need to address the issue of seminary debt and how we prepare or are not equipping seminarians. When I speak of bivocation, I am not discrediting the things you have so eloquently highlighted or am trying to put seminaries and PCUSA off the hook. I am also not highlighting bivocation as the new and cool 21st century model of being a pastor. What I am saying is that for many it is a reality and has been a reality. And if this is an increasing reality for more and more pastors, then it is a time for us to take matters into our own hands and see how bivocation can be an asset rather than a detriment. Again, I totally agree and trust me, I am frustrated with my own seminary debt that I have been trying to pay off for the past 10 years. Hopefully, all of us will be working on this from both ends – re-evaluating sense of call AND re-evaluating antiquated processes of ordination, seminary, etc.

  8. Great conversation. Asking good questions is really the helpful and hopeful place to be. At the same time, I wonder about making the bi-vocational model of ministry the template of the future. It still feels like a technical solution to an adaptive change. The larger questions are , “Why does God need the church?” and “What is God’s mission in the world?” We also live in a day when people at all levels of society are struggling with vocation and an employment that will provide for themselves and their families. That is the larger justice issue for us all, in a world where the growing disparity between wealthy and poor is increasing exponentially. We’ve also pretty much been a middle class church in a society where the middle class was exalted. That is a disappearing way of life for many. So, the questions of God’s mission, God’s way of doing justice in the world, and what God may be challenging us to do in facing these larger societal and global issues is at end. Maybe we are called to Occupy our church and communities with a call for an equitable society for all God’s children. What justice issues are we as church with our supporting institutions such as seminaries called to face?

  9. Hi Theresa – I sure learned about the difficulties of graduating seminarians at NEXT, along with being inspired by the forward-looking attitude and presentations. I’ve been praying mainly along the lines of how the community of believers will “transist” into the changing culture; now I’ll add prayers for the challenges facing those called as pastors/teachers.
    Just some thoughts….. I remembered seeing something about L’ville Seminary and total tuition scholarships – I looked it up on their site. While the site indicates they currently do their best with new grants & financial aid, they’ve made the cost of seminary ed. the cornerstone of their new Strategic Plan – it calls for a Covenant Scholarship fund to grant all students free tuition by fall 2015, and by fall 2021 to also offer all students a stipend for other expenses. In return, students pledge to be involved in service throughout their time there. I don’t know what the other seminaries are doing – this looks like the right direction, though. Our Board of Pensions also has a Sem. Debt Assistance program for new grads in their 1st 7 years and in a church of under 150 members – it can only help a minimum # each year so far, and the local presbytery has to be participating in the plan…..again, just a step, but in the right direction.
    My experience – my former spouse & I both did field ed (and he did work study as well) all through seminary, and still took 10 years to pay off our debt afterwards. We were fortunate to have a call by the Aug after graduation, as clergy couples were a rather new thing at that time – although we had to work the Vocation Agency booth at GA that year, and be open to the idea of a 5-church parish and a 1 & 1/2 time co-pastor call in a rural area away from our families – not what we thought we wanted, yet which turned out to be a wonderful and positive beginning.

  10. I value your post and appreciate the ensuing conversation it started.

    I was blessed to have no college debt and a manageable seminary debt when I went to my first call, which was in town of 1,200 in rural Illinois (not much above Presbytery minimum, but with a gorgeous two story manse!).The church averaged 70ish in worship. I served there 10 1/2 yrs. I am struck by the topic of bi-vocationality simply because, now as an Assoc. Exec. Presbyter, I am preparing myself for that very possibility. I feel called to this ministry and if doing it part time while doing other ministry or non-church-related work is the option I need to consider, then I need to be open to it.

    Mind you, I wouldn’t TELL people to prepare themselves for this option without me first being willing to take it. When I hear people talking about making “adaptive changes” in the church I am pretty sure that will mean us clergy will need to be doing some of the adapting (and certainly significant modeling of such change so the church will do its share of adapting). But the intention of the actions would be crucial: if I go part time here and part time somewhere else to nurse the church in the winter of its life, then I might as well just go become something else full time. For me, a move to bi-vocational ministry would only make sense as the sacrifice God is calling me to make at this point in time as the church finds its way out of the wilderness into a new calling, a new identity, a new way of being. This new reality might still demand a bi-vocational commitment, and call for residing mighty close to the wilderness, but at least I would feel affirmed that we’re part of an Easter narrative.

    Glad to serve alongside you in this journey.

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