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Presbyterians aim to revive mainline denomination

Participants pose in the beginning stages of the PCUSA Walk for a Fossil Free World that went from Louisville, Ky., to St. Louis. Photo courtesy of Fossil Free PCUSA

(RNS) — As the Presbyterian Church (USA) prepares for its biennial General Assembly in St. Louis beginning Saturday (June 16), many PCUSA leaders are hoping to address several contentious issues during the weeklong meeting — and to bring reform to the dwindling mainline Protestant denomination.

Items before the assembly include divestment from fossil fuels, a number of resolutions regarding the Middle East, longer parental leave for PCUSA employees and new ways to ordain leaders of immigrant congregations.

Immigration also is “sure to be addressed at the Assembly,” according to a post on the PCUSA website. Recent meetings of both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Southern Baptist Convention have addressed the Trump administration’s immigration policies, and Cindy Kohlmann of the Presbytery of Boston, who is in the running for co-moderator of the assembly, tweeted there was talk of proposing a resolution calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to stop separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.


RELATED: Presbyterians vote to continue pressure on Israel


All this comes as the denomination — one of the 10 largest Protestant denominations in the U.S., according to Pew’s most recent Religious Landscape Study — continues to lose members.

“What I believe we are encountering now is another reformation — a reformation within the 21st-century church to be just that: a 21st-century church,” General Assembly Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson II said.

The PCUSA lost nearly 68,000 members between 2016 and 2017, according to its website, putting its total membership at 1.4 million. That decline is a slowdown from the denomination’s “unprecedented” losses between 2012 and 2016, when churches and their members left the PCUSA after previous assemblies voted to ordain LGBT clergy and allow same-sex marriage.

J. Herbert Nelson II. Photo courtesy of PCUSA

Nelson said he’s seeing renewed excitement in the denomination as more people become interested in the issues of justice the denomination has always embraced, from young people to grandparents getting involved for the first time. 

“We as a denomination, along with other Protestant mainline denominations, have been losing numbers since probably the 1970s,” he said. “That trend is what we are looking at in attempting to be a turnaround denomination at this point. One of the great challenges, I think, is moving from an institutional culture to a movement culture.”

Nelson said he hopes to turn the General Assembly into a “learning lab,” exploring what a 21st-century church might look like and how to take that back to local congregations.

That work started more than a year ago, sending Presbyterians from across the country to volunteer with groups working in St. Louis, he said. Liz Theoharis, a PCUSA minister and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, will speak Saturday at a pre-assembly event. The meeting will adjourn Tuesday afternoon so delegates can march to the City Justice Center, donating the offering collected at opening worship to bail out people incarcerated for minor offenses.

Nelson said he knows there are some within the denomination “who struggle with this type of faith approach and view it as aggressive, so I don’t want to paint a rosy picture that there’s no opposition to it.”

“But somehow or another the Lord has given us an opportunity to press on anyway, and we only will see and know what the outcome will be when we continue to walk by faith and not by sight.”

Middle East issues

One of eight resolutions (called overtures) regarding Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories before the General Assembly’s Committee on Middle East Issues opposes anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) legislation by Congress and state governments, pointing to the freedom of speech. Others include examining a call for “ecumenical solidarity” by the National Coalition of Christian Organizations in Palestine, having dialogue with Jewish colleagues “engaging the issue of the Israeli occupation of Palestine” and developing policy recommendations on the status of Jerusalem.

Logo for the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), to be held in St. Louis in June 2018. Image courtesy of PCUSA

That comes after delegates to the 2014 General Assembly narrowly voted to divest church funds from three American companies it said were profiting from the oppression of Palestinians within Israel’s occupied territories.

“Our stance is a stance for human rights across the board, across the world,” said the Rev. Jeffrey DeYoe, moderator of the denomination’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network.

But not everybody sees it the same way. Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, told RNS the committee has had a presence at the General Assembly since 2012. It won’t this year.

In a written statement, Marans said, “The sheer volume of anti-Israel resolutions discussed and debated reveals a deep animus that needs to be called out.”

Fossil fuels

Divestment from companies heavily involved in the fossil fuel industry is back on the agenda for the third straight General Assembly, the subject of several resolutions and the PCUSA Walk for a Fossil Free World organized by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Fossil Free PCUSA.

“We needed to come into this General Assembly in a much different way, in a much different space, and, frankly, I needed more spiritual grounding,” said the Rev. Abby Mohaupt, moderator of Fossil Free PCUSA.

“I thought a pilgrimage might be the way to do it.”

That’s why Mohaupt and about 35 others between the ages of 16 and 67 decided to walk to the General Assembly in St. Louis — many of them beginning June 1 at the mainline Protestant denomination’s headquarters, some 260 miles away in Louisville, Ky.

Along the way, they’ve walked along back roads and highways; slept in PCUSA churches and one Southern Baptist church; found shelter from a storm at a house with an array of solar panels; suffered through poison ivy, sunburn and blisters; prayed the Liturgy of the Hours; sung songs written for the occasion; and heard from people who have been directly impacted by climate change — including Native Alaskans, Nigerians and Puerto Ricans. Light days are 10 miles of walking. The longest has been 19, Mohaupt said.

On Monday, walkers shrieked as they passed the 150-mile mark.

“You walk 150 miles and you lose your mind,” Mohaupt said, laughing, in a call from the road with Religion News Service, screams and traffic sounding in the background.

Participants in the PCUSA Walk for a Fossil Free World make their way along country highways in the Midwest. Photo courtesy of Fossil Free PCUSA

The walkers are hoping to change the conversation as the assembly considers ending its business with fossil fuels — a hot topic at the past two meetings, with the 2016 assembly voting to continue to engage energy companies for at least two more years.

That’s still the most effective way to pressure companies to move away from fossil fuels, according to several groups, including the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy for the General Assembly. And there has been some movement from companies, said Steven Webb, co-chair of the committee.

“We fully agree with the Fossil Free PCUSA group and others saying climate change is a very important issue, and we totally agree with that and appreciate their efforts to highlight that issue. The question is what’s the best strategy to make some changes happen,” Webb said.

An overture by the Presbytery of Hudson River this year is asking the denomination and its board of pensions to divest from the fossil fuel industry and invest in companies focused on renewable energy or energy efficiency instead. Another, from the Presbytery of East Tennessee, listed criteria that would cause the denomination to “selectively divest” from companies.

To Mohaupt, who has been walking the past two weeks to draw attention to the cause, that would send a message to the people whose stories walkers have been hearing all week, whose communities have been destroyed by land grabs, melting ice and hurricanes exacerbated by climate change and dependence on fossil fuels, she said.

“I really think this is the year we’re going to do it because of the groundswell of Presbyterian support and this walk and the conversations we’ve had with people,” she said.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

41 Comments

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  • Hard to believe this is the denomination from which Donald J. Trump launched his ongoing assault on human rights.

  • Walking is good exercise. Lowers the blood sugar, and boosts the heart. So give Rev. Mohaupt credit for that.

    But can we be honest here? Fossil fuels seriously ain’t the reason for PCUSA’s “unprecedented” drop in numbers. Nor is it the reason why tens of thousands of Presby’s are bailing out even through 2017 — and still counting.

    (Side note for PCUSA folks: There’s a lotta low-income and fixed-income people out here who really, really, need to have fossil fuels. Helps with AC costs, light bills, riding the bus, doctor visits, getting to work on time, and even their food costs, which are tied to trucking fuel costs. (Unfortunately, they can’t be walking 150 miles. Doesn’t pan out.)

  • Yo, I knew two Old “Piscopals who used to drive 150 miles from Barstow to do a house church with a remnant in Ridgecrest, in the heart of the Mojave.
    Sure, Mainliners are dying out and trapped in nowhere towns but they’re not losing members due to not being right-wingly politically correct. Eventually the ECUSA, UMC, ELCA, PCUSA, AME, etc. will merge. They are fie old oaks while the televangelist’s pagan temples are only morning glories, beautiful in the dawlight but dried up in the noonday sun. 100 years from now no one will know who Franklin Graham and other charlatans of the Religious Reich were. But no one will forget the circuit riders and the freedom riders.

  • Instead of looking at national meeting as “learning lab,” it might be more appropriate to look at it as autopsy. PCUSA, along with Episcopal and other mainline social justice organizations, will die. Believers who want to grow in their faith and devotion to the Lord will go elsewhere and the remnants of a once Christian denomination can tend their dwindling numbers and pursue their liberal agendas. Without the annoyance of people who want to proclaim the greatness and glory of God, the SJW warriors can celebrate their own righteousness and impact on the world.

  • Sounds like a political action committee of the DNC. Maybe they should focus on the faith of their members and leave the politics aside.

  • All the churches could do with reflecting on Abraham Lincoln’s words in his address Proclamation of a National Day of Prayer and Fasting back in 1863:

    “Whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.

    And, insomuch as we know that, by His divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People?

    We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!”

  • Sell fire and brimstone, hell and damnation, rather than make nice with everyone. Fear makes more money, at least for now.

  • To the extent the PCUSA is part of the Reformed tradition, then yes, as Trump’s childhood church was the Marble Collegiate Church of Norman Vincent Peale fame, part of the Reformed Church in America, not the PCUSA. The PCUSA and RCA are in full communion with each other, however.

  • as a veteran of almost 50 years in this denomination before i jumped ship, i read about this attempt at “self revival” with uhmmm, half believing eyes. this is maybe the 7th or 8th time the PCUSA has announced this and they are just getting at grip on why their might ship is no longer catching the winds. but i admire this new Clerk Nelson, he seems to have a fair idea:
    “We as a denomination, along with other Protestant mainline denominations, have been losing numbers since probably the 1970s,” he said. “That trend is what we are looking at in attempting to be a turnaround denomination at this point. One of the great challenges, I think, is moving from an institutional culture to a movement culture.”
    To shed the institutional culture skin will take a MASSIVE retooling of the ministerial practice, mostly among the congregations who will probably ask Why? why werent we a “movement culture”? and retreat into huff&puff mode, the preliminary to their exiting the building. The answer is this: a movement culture requires a lot of time, a lot of vulnerability and a level of allegiance that goes far beyond anything Presby churches have asked in the past generations.
    Yep, the denominations are dinosaurs doing an elegant, slow motion death dance but there is plenty of power left in them bones. who will raise them up?

  • Since day one, Jesus said of His disciples “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

    It is not their country, not your country. It is ‘Jesus comes as the Christ.’ You cannot have blessing of health and wealth at His feet with curses and sickness when eyeballing the world’s torments.

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends walking against traffic where there are no sidewalks.

  • My denomination, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is shrinking too, largely due to the same reasons as PCUSA.

    In both cases, denominational leadership has prioritized social issues in direct parallel to progressive politics. Neither PCUSA nor ELCA offer a social/cultural view that is in any way divergent with that of the Democrat party. And no, neither God nor Christ are Democrats…or Republicans.

    That members of both denominations who do NOT share the social perspectives of progressive politics leave is no mystery. There is no longer anything left for them at ELCA and PCUSA. Social Conservatives were not given any voice, or place, in the evolving denominations. From what I can tell, the Bishops at ELCA are perfectly fine with social Conservatives leaving.

    Case in point: herchurch.org My parents were married at this church, and I was baptized there 1967. I recently returned to San Francisco to visit family and decided to worship at the place of my baptism. While this congregation officially remains ELCA affiliated, it’s pastor engages in wholly pagan rituals. It’s congregation cares not one whit about theology, only about Feminism and progressive politics. My complaints to the regional Bishop were ignored.

    So what do the progressive denominations have left? They have alienated members with non-progressive (yet Biblically founded) views, they will never attract atheist Progressives who’s social views they share, and they have prioritized their own social agendas over the Great Commission.

    They deserve to implode.

  • Of all the spirtual crises facing humanity, PCUSA chooses to protest fossil fuels. In what what does this glorfiy God?

  • Please understand I do NOT blame any Presbyterians for this. The developments with him are simply surreal in all respects.

  • The collegiate churches of NYC have dual denominational affiliations. They are also part of the United Church of Christ.

  • There are billions of virgins who procreate every day on this planet. It isn’t as if nature hasn’t figured out how to do it.

  • If only there was an energy source, free for the taking and available 12 to 16 hours every day, that didn’t foul our nest and cause it to no longer support many species on this planet, soon maybe even our own.

  • I find your last sentence difficult to figure out. Is English not your mother tongue?

  • Yet you do not deny the fire and brimestone, hell and damnation are available for purchase. Put money on the table and play at will, smells like politics to me.

  • I deny that fire and brimstone, hell and damnation are available for purchase.

    Anything else I can do for you?

  • You could try being honest, Bob. That would be a huge change for you, and obviously challenging for you.

  • I noted in one of the discussions I was reading a bunch of “This user is blocked” notices. Hmmm. So I logged out of Disqus and found they were yours.

    I then logged back in, unblocked your for this response, just to let you know that the silly unsubstantive messages from you contributing nothing to a conversation +clogging my inbox confirmed why I blocked some time in the past.

    So, you’re back to blocked.

  • That’s perfect, Bob. Keep on blocking me. It saves me from having to bother much with your typical senseless replies.

    And Bob, you’re just a c​owar​d.

  • It’s kinda “rich” (as in hypocritical) reading the comments from Evangelicals condemning the Presbyterians for being involved in left-wing politics, when Evangelicals are heavily involved in right-wing politics and have all but officially declared their churches as aligned with the Republican Party. Their ministers endorsed Trump and other Republicans, ran Trump campaign ads in their sanctuaries, registered people to vote for Republicans and Trump in their churches, and have regularly Republicans address their churches and their denominations. Evangelicals are so blinded by their political partisanship that they can’t see their moral hypocrisy.

  • The collegiate churches of NYC have dual denominational affiliations.

    In other words, they are bi-sect-ual.

  • “fossil fuels…the substances that have enabled great prosperity and peace”
    _____________________________________

    Seriously, that’s hilarious. And tragic.

  • I fail to see why an unbeliever, as you seem to be, bothers with an article like this. But then again, trolls aren’t known for their brains but they are known for being bullies.

  • Thanks, Mr. Reason. Even atheists rationally understand that there are no natural equivalents, no natural explanations, for the Virgin Birth account in the Bible.

    I know you consider it a “whacky Christian fairy tale”, but at least you insist on staying honest about what it really says.

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