by Bob Phillips

Recently the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) announced it would hold its General Assembly in a virtual venue. Baltimore, planned host for the gathering, is disappointed but the COVID19 pandemic required a shift in plans. Those who have worked hard for General Conference 2020 in May in Minneapolis know something of the feeling.

Stepping back from this specific incident of timing, the PCUSA offers numerous insights on how the kerfuffle in the United Methodist Church may play out. Their example offers warning and hope to all contestants of left, center and right. Between 8 years of academic connection with Princeton and St. Andrews, I have learned to speak Presbyterian. I have relished friendships with numerous Reformed clergy and laity through the years in Navy chaplaincy and civilian settings, relationships that remain.  I am aware of numerous points of connection between what the PCUSA has endured and what the UMC is facing.  Consider the following similarities:

  1. Decline. The UMC has dropped over 45% of its US membership since its 1968 creation, while its percentage of the population has declined over 50%. The PCUSA reached its membership peak in 1965 at 4.1M members. In 2000 it had 2.5M and projects no more than 1.1M by the end of 2020, a 60% decline since the beginning of the century and a 76% decline since 1965.
  2. Demographics.  Membership in the PCUSA is elderly, with roughly 1/3 of its members aged 71 or older. The denomination remains approximately 93% white. Each year fewer churches can afford full time clergy, leading Princeton Seminary to cut its admission rate several years ago rather than educate Presbyterian students who would be unable to find a church to serve. With an endowment north of 1 billion dollars, Princeton could afford the policy. Median age of UM membership is the high 50’s, with the largest slab of clergy being 55+. Both denominations know what it is to have their grown children largely cease connection with any church or find another Christian expression (often more conservative in beliefs and more innovative in most everything else).
  3. Denial. The annual denominational reports on the state of the respective churches mix helpful truth and fact with a blissful perspective of hopeful spin, i.e., ‘annual losses aren’t as bad this year as they were last year. God is planning something new for the church. The point is to be faithful, not successful.’ When any organization shifts into such language, buyer beware, for the author is named Ms. Dee Nial.
  4. Wicked Problem. The heart of the similarities between the UMC and the PCUSA is that both denominations have a wicked problem. Their challenges are multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, encompassing contradictory theologies, ineffective training of leadership reflected in continuous decline, trust deficits at multiple levels, items (1,2,3) above, for starters. Sexuality issues have been ignition issues for both denominations, but the real problem is the complicated collection of issues that continue no matter what decision is made over sexual combinations for marriage or ordination. This is the essence of a ‘wicked problem.’[1]

Differences between the PCUSA and the UMC

  1. The PCUSA is a US church; the UMC is a global church. PCUSA presence in Africa and elsewhere is miniscule. The PCUSA belongs to global Reformed alliances and associations, consistent with an ecumenical vision, but the US church functions for and by Americans. The UMC in 2020 will find itself a global church, with the majority of members living outside the USA.  Shortly the majority of its membership will not be white, well-educated (by Western standards), theologically progressive or affluent.
  2. The PCUSA has become a more center/left church in doctrine and practice; the global UMC remains more center/traditional. The gradual draining of Presbyterian conservatives to other churches shifted the make-up of delegates to its General Assembly and other leadership towards more with clearly defined liberal convictions. Church teaching on marriage, ordination, abortion, treatment of Israel, language in addressing God and various other issues have taken a leftward tilt. Theological traditionalists certainly remain but their impact recedes. In contrast, the UM GC2016 tightened the moral language over the acceptability of abortion, while refusing a blanket condemnation. Petitions to boycott Israel failed in committee. The global church holds traditional views on theology, marriage and the nature of biblical authority. Outside of most seminaries and many Boards of Ordained Ministry, clergy can reference God with a masculine pronoun and not face censure. The outcomes of GC2016 and GC2019 make clear a strong moderate/traditional presence.
  3. The PCUSA had no equivalent to the UM Protocol plan to address its divisions. It has bled many traditional churches and clergy to other reformed groups, especially to the new-formed Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). This church affirms the ordination of women and a vigorous social conscience while aligned with traditional views on the person and work of Christ, the inspiration and authority of scripture, marriage and related matters. While the denomination did seek to avoid the Episcopal train-wreck in fighting over church property (costing Episcopalians an estimated 50M in litigation), no coherent response to dissatisfied churches and clergy developed, leading to an accelerated loss in membership and worship attendance. The UMC has several plans for a constructive future divide with two or more Methodist expressions, of which the Protocol is best known. Many denominational leaders have come to see that a planned division offers the best change for a vigorous future for all parties. While some efforts at pressuring delegates to vote in certain ways is inevitable, crucial steps have been taken to maximize collaboration.

Points to Ponder for the Future

  1. The PCUSA has no current viable plan to reverse decline. No central focus on evangelism has emerged and no compelling strategy for planting new churches or growing existing churches has become a defining priority.  The PCUSA website over the previous six months reflects housekeeping, social witness, and individual stories of inspiration but no ‘main thing’ vision to reverse decline and mobilized energy toward a single focus of renewal. The UMC can see the Protocol approach as a way to jumpstart meaningful growth for all parties. The projected new traditional church is anticipating major focus and resources for church planting and growth, especially overseas and in areas now closed to evangelical witness within the current US church. Progressives who retain control of the bulk of the legacy structures and finances likewise can feel freedom to expand their version of a Wesleyan witness into regions not generally open to such views. This also frees progressives to highlight churches they believe can attract US millennials, with socially conservative views losing clout in the legacy UMC.
  2. The evangelical ECO movement has perhaps 15% of the former PCUSA. Several mainstay evangelical Presbyterian congregations have remained in the liberalizing denomination, such as National in DC and University in Seattle. This has avoided blood-letting for churches in socially liberal regions and has challenged the denominational leadership to keep its promise that the consciences of traditional individual clergy and congregations will not be attacked by the organization. While relatively few traditionalists have migrated to the PCA denomination, given its stance against the ordination of women, significant numbers of conservative Presbyterians have migrated to non-Presbyterian and non-Reformed churches. This offers caution to the WCA and other voices that include some (not all) who assume that a large/majority percentage of traditional UM churches will depart for a new denomination. Factors, ranging from nostalgia to weariness with change, to concern over the unknown, to fears over joining a ‘too conservative’ church, to the fact grandma is buried in the church cemetery, will keep hundreds of thousands of tradition UM clergy and churches inside the legacy group.
  3. Traditional-moderate UM clergy and laity will need to “get used to disappointment.”  This line from The Princess Bride will come to pass as the theological center of gravity for the Post-Separation UMC shifts noticeably to the left. Since opposition to blessing gay weddings and ordaining gay clergy have been morally equated to the attitudes of slave-holders and segregationists of prior times, the reassurance that no one will “force” a church in such matters may have a short shelf life. The moral incongruity of forbidding gay marriages or clergy will be difficult to maintain. Other issues, such as a “Pro-Choice” policy on abortion,  divestment/boycott of Israel (and Caterpillar, Motorola, etc.),  gender-neutral references to God in worship and hymns, or exclusion from worship of popular contemporary songs, such as “In Christ Alone,” will find a warmer welcome in the PS-UMC. Taking the miracles and resurrection of Jesus seriously, without being required to take them literally, will find firm standing (though since the Bishop Sprague complaints of 2003, that has been the de facto position of the North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops). Support for legacy infrastructure will require serious financial resources. Closing and selling off assets of smaller churches and conference properties will be a tempting strategy to offset upkeep of status quo infrastructure.   
  4. The new evangelical Wesleyan expression will have its own issues. The ECO Presbyterian movement has 121,000 members, slightly over 10% the size of the PCUSA. The average ECO congregation size is 318, significantly larger than in the PCUSA, due to the number of larger churches that united with the movement since 2012. Some PCUSA presbyteries have worked collegially with churches seeking to depart for ECO, while others have been actively hostile to such actions. ECO pastors affirm the lifting of much denominational bureaucracy and demands on local parishes as a plus, but connections for mutual support and missions remain areas of struggle into new alignments. The fact of a major overseas membership was not an issue the ECO had to address, but a new evangelical Wesleyan expression will need to do so clearly and coherently. A new-birthed Wesleyan church would do well to attract 10% of existing US Methodism, if ECO offers an example. Will students for the new expression ordained ministry be affirmed in attending the official seminaries of the former UMC, given the small presence of sympathetic conservative professors at nearly all of those schools? Similarly, will traditional students who desire to remain in the PS/UMC be affirmed if they choose to attend Asbury or other evangelical seminaries? What will the new movement do with former UM members who join but clearly are less Wesleyan evangelical and more fundamentalist in theology and politics? The bottom line is simple. Blood, tears, toil and sweat will be part of any new creation, legacy and new expression alike.

The time-out imposed by the pandemic offers a chance for all parties to step back and prayerfully reflect on constructive next steps. “All deliberate speed” can replace rush to judgment in unfolding the future of the church. Our PCUSA and ECO brothers and sisters offer numerous lessons, cautions and hopes, as we move into the future. The waters are new to us but not entirely uncharted…as our Presbyterian friends can attest. And with “the Spirit of Truth” as guide, a way forward that is fixed on the center of God’s Kingdom and will is possible!

[1] The travails within The Episcopal Church (TEC), the birth of the Anglican Church in North American (ACNA), and the shredded relationship with the World Anglican Communion are items for another piece.

Bob Phillips

Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference

Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews

Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution

Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)