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Welcome to the Future

by Catherine Neelly Burton

I began this blog series with a working hypothesis: I live in the future of the PCUSA. What’s happening in southern Kansas is where the national church is headed. My conversations over the last five months haven’t entirely proven this as true, but there’s more data to support my hypothesis.

Between 2014 and 2019, the Presbytery of Southern Kansas declined in total membership by 25%. In that same period these presbyteries based in large metropolitan areas declined as well:

  • Mid-Kentucky (Louisville) – 20% decline
  • Heartland (Kansas City) – 17% decline
  • Charlotte – 11% decline
  • Greater Atlanta – 10% decline

I did not contact every presbytery in the PCUSA, but of the ones I contacted, none are growing. Yet, there is still this myth that success equals growth. This myth is particularly detrimental to our rural communities. We know that every year fewer and fewer Americans go to church. If churches in growing cities are in decline, our small shrinking communities have almost no chance by the metric of growth.

In 2009 the PCUSA launched the “For Such a Time as This Initiative.” This program took applicants through at least 2013. According to PCUSA literature the program was “designed to renew and grow small churches and help them to become healthy, missional congregations. The program pairs small, underserved congregations in rural, small town and urban settings with recent seminary graduates for a two-year pastoral-residency relationship, during which they are supported and guided by a cluster of pastor-mentors.”

On one hand I applaud this initiative because the PCUSA tried something new and creative. On the other hand, anyone who looked at the data for rural churches from the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s could have told you that numerical growth in churches in rural and small towns was nearly impossible. This initiative frustrated me because it set churches and pastors up for failure. I’m sure good things came from this initiative, but in the end, the church in my presbytery that had this program was back where it started and maybe even more defeated.

I appreciate the shift in conversation that our national church has made from growth to vitality with the Vital Congregations Initiative, but we’re way behind. The initiative will benefit the churches that participate, those with presbyteries who could staff the initiative. In general though, I think we’re headed for four distinct church models. My hypothesis continues.

The first model is that of the called and installed pastor. It will continue for churches that can afford it. As more and more urban congregations shrink, they’ll move to part time or bi-vocational models for pastoral leadership but (likely) still expect the same work out of their pastors. Because a lot of pastors choose to live in urban areas (for good reasons such as jobs for spouses and community) they’ll (likely) keep doing the work. The Board of Pensions recognizes this and is doing more for part-time pastors. This part-time or bi-vocational structure is model two and is what we’ll continue to see in big cities where there are more pastors than available calls.

In smaller cities, like Wichita, those churches that might get a part time pastor in a larger city like Atlanta, will close. We closed five churches in the city of Wichita between 2014 and 2019. This is model three, let the churches die. It happens in cities, towns, and rural communities.

My hope is that other cities and towns like Wichita, without seminaries or big draws for pastors, will fall into model four. Model four is let the people lead the churches. Several of the churches I got to know in this blog series are doing model four.

There aren’t a lot of pastors interested in moving to small Midwestern towns to be, perhaps, a congregation’s last full-time installed pastor. I don’t blame them. I don’t want that. I serve a church with an amazing staff in a lovely small city. My husband’s vocation means we’ll never live in a rural community. I’m not pointing fingers.

If these small and/or rural churches won’t have full-time installed pastors, what’s left? What’s left are the people, the people of God. What’s left are the people in Chase, KS, who supplement monthly food for 20% of their town. What’s left are commissioned ruling elders who figure out how to get trained despite no guidance and manage to capably lead congregations. What’s left are churches who band together to share resources and serve their communities. What’s left are the people who pray for one another and learn to preach and lead worship.

We don’t lack motivated, called people who love Jesus. We lack care about God’s people who live in small towns and rural communities. Fortunately, many of them haven’t waited for permission from the PCUSA, or presbyteries, or big churches. They’ve gone forward to be the church. With a little help, more could do the same and could teach the rest of us. Otherwise, we are the ones who get left behind.


Catherine Neelly Burton serves as the pastor of what is most easily categorized as a ‘traditional’ PCUSA congregation, even though that era is gone. She serves at Grace Presbyterian in Wichita, KS. Grace has about 350 members and is an amazing congregation with wonderful people. She is married to John, and they have a four year old daughter and a nine year old dog.

Catherine is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on rural ministry in Kansas. 

Our Challenge is Not Decline. It’s Racism.

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kerri N. Allen

It is often the case that General Assembly resolutions do not feel connected to our local congregations. As much as anything, that is because resolutions are statements about our life as a corporate body. This resolution is about how our larger denomination relates to Black Presbyterian congregational ministry and, as such, I believe that it can only go so far to address the challenge of being Black and Presbyterian. Black congregational instability is only one issue that is facing Black Presbyterians, and in 2018, I dare say that it is not the most significant. The challenge of being Black in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not about decline. It is about racism.

Recently, I heard a preacher say that racism was not a stain on the American flag, it was the thread that sewed the flag together. The challenge of being Black in the PCUSA mirrors the overall challenges of being Black in the United States. That thread of racism that exists from the earliest days of European colonizers is embedded throughout every corner of this nation and, as such, is part of the very ethos of the PCUSA.

I know this from my own painful personal story on the “challenge of being Black in the PCUSA” that I shared publicly a few years ago. This experience resonated with many and I heard from close to 40 other ministers of color (including many Black Presbyterians) who thanked me for sharing a narrative that is all too familiar. Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, Dr. Camille Dungy wrote about the challenge of being Black in the PCUSA from her view from the pew.

As Christians, we should understand that racism is a sin. Sin demands a theological response of confession and repentance. While a generalized, sanitized lip service of “racism is bad” is commonplace in the PCUSA, explicit naming of the structural sin that permeates the life and history of the denomination has failed to occur.

When we are able to be honest about the Southern Presbyterian slaveholder money that built institutions, congregations, and denominational relics – many which are used for good – we will begin some real work of confession. When Northern Presbyterians recognize that many of their good intentions in “reunification” that led to the creation of the PCUSA also decimated the infrastructure of Black Presbyterian institutions, we can claim that we have made some honest progress toward confession.

From confession, the real work of repentance can take place. Real, biblical repentance is the only faithful path. Genuine biblical repentance is what Jesus shows us in his encounter with Zacchaeus. It goes beyond apology and requires actively turning away from previous actions, acknowledging the good pain and even anger that exists by those who have been wronged, and actively committing to do better. Biblical repentance is costly and uncomfortable, and it is the only path to reconciliation.

When those of us who claim to follow Jesus begin to take seriously theological imperatives that bring about justice and reconciliation, the frustrations that are expressed by Black Presbyterians will be addressed because there will no longer be excuses in addressing them. It is from that place that we can see real progress and wholeness in our relationships with one another.


Kerri N. Allen is a Reformed and womanist theologian, PhD student, and hospital chaplain. Originally from St. Paul, MN, when Kerri is not buried in a book or writing a paper, she enjoys hiking, travel, watching sports, cooking or spending time with one of her many nieces or nephews.

Holding Tight to the Rhythm of Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Elise Neal

It was a blessing to grow up as a native West Virginian with small town roots and a sense of community. In my hometown of Philippi I was baptized and confirmed and ordained — all in the Philippi Presbyterian Church. This church took its baptism vows seriously and helped to nurture my faith that has led me to be an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the past 9 years. But ministry looks a lot different now in West Virginia.

Photo from First Presbyterian Facebook page

Currently I serve as the pastor the First Presbyterian Church in Fairmont, West Virginia. It too is a small town by today’s standards — but it’s much larger than Philippi where I grew up. In 2015 this congregation celebrated 200 years of ministry and in 2016 they celebrated 100 years in their current building, but these celebrations come with much sadness. As with many of our congregations, membership has shrunk, but in West Virginia the numbers are staggering. My current church was built 100 years ago, during the industrial age, and this congregation had more than 1200 members. There were three worship services and educational opportunities for everyone. Many of my members remember these glory days of times past, when the church was the center of both the community and of social life. They were children during this time and they long for those days to return. But the reality is that this will never be. As the need for coal decreased and the railroads moved west, so too did companies and industries. The jobs and people followed.

The current economic state in West Virginia has only continued to diminish as companies continue to leave the area — and nothing takes its place. So the congregation that was 1200 members is now 150. My home congregation, Philippi Presbyterian Church, has 12 members where there used to be more than 100. Those that stayed owned local businesses or worked as teachers, doctors, professors at local colleges, coal miners, and in local government. These people are the members of our churches. They grew up with the traditions of the church and hold tight to the rhythm of ministry that they remember from years past.

The challenge for these churches moving forward will be to embrace a new understanding of ministry in rural Appalachia. Will they be able to move towards new ministries the reach people in their local communities, communities that are vastly different today? Most of these churches won’t be able to make the shift and will not survive. It is a story that is far too common in West Virginia and it’s sad to say, the little church that I love, the little church that nurtured and raised me will likely be one of those that doesn’t make it.

But there is hope! With every death there is a new life that arises. There is always the opportunity to grow and nurture relationships in community around West Virginia. In the future it may mean that these groups form around music gatherings or at a little diner for a weekly meal. Regardless of where we meet, ministry will continue to take place as God strengthens our faith and relationships with others. The big question is — who will we invite to join us?


Elise Renee Neal is a native of Philippi, West Virginia, and has served the First Presbyterian Church in Fairmont for the past seven years. She recently accepted a new call to serve as the pastor of the Northminster Presbyterian Church in San Antonio Texas.